A Short Break in the City of York

Written by Kay Ellis
(One of two winning entries in the City, Town or Village Writing Competition.)

York: The Minster is always within sight
The Minster is always within sight

We have been in York approximately one minute, as long as it takes to mind the gap and cross Platform One, but I can see George’s eyes sparkling with excitement already. I could leave him on Platform One for the rest of the day. He’s not train-spotting, he’s beer-spotting. The station bar has fifteen hand pumps sporting brewery labels from all over Yorkshire and beyond. The customers in this temple of polished brass and carved mahogany aren’t even travelling (no wheelie cases). Two pints of York Brewery Rhubarb Pale are perfectly complemented by an artisan crispy crust pork and stilton pie.

Our marriage chugs along on compromise: George has a list of real ale pubs compiled by our youngest son who studied at York University and inherited his father’s beer-buds. I have a list of between-pub activities. Taking advantage of the crisp September weather, we begin with the tree-lined riverside promenade known as ‘New Walk’ and watch rowing eights slice through the River Ouse.

Walking around York's Roman/Medieval Walls
Walking around York’s Roman/Medieval Walls

The Millennium Bridge takes us across to the other bank to see the park established by York’s famous confectioner, Joseph Rowntree. A faint whiff of KitKat sets our tummies rumbling. Just across the park, we spot the Reading Café, a renovated Edwardian tearoom (we learn), with an inviting covered terrace. Inside, and out, shelves of books line every wall. In the tradition of Quaker philanthropy, York City Council has created a very unusual library. We sink into armchairs to enjoy slabs of moist, crumbly fruitcake and hot drinks of apple and butterscotch. I can easily imagine opening a book and settling in for the afternoon.

“The big hand’s on beer o’clock,” says George, glancing at his watch. “Let’s start at the Kings Arms.”

This is the pub which provides, almost annually, that memorable TV flood footage, where we first see the River Ouse lapping at the windowsills, and then the gritty Yorkshiremen (and women) who are inside downing their pints of Samuel Smith undeterred. Previous flood levels have been marked on the wall, confirming that it is indeed a regular event. The uncarpeted flagstone floor and bare brick walls make sense. Today the water is safely still in the river, so we can sit in comfort by the wood-burner and gaze at it. A leaflet tells us that in February we could be witnessing the annual race downstream of Viking long-ships.

The Snickleway Inn
The ancient and reputedly haunted Snickleway Inn

Vikings, Romans and Normans have all left their stamp on York. There’s Coney Street (after the Danish word Kunung for king), Shambles (from flesh shambles which were benches used by butchers), Monkgate, Micklegate. And how about Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate!

The Minster is always within sight, like a watchful shepherd with an unruly flock of arches, lanes and passageways within the city walls. There’s time to take a look before George’s watch gets to beer o’clock again, so I spend several minutes gazing upwards, losing myself in that soaring space, feeling awed by the wealth that created it. Now you can go below ground as well, to the Undercroft which is a network of chambers recording 2000 years of the Minster’s history.

Hopefully we are carrying some of the spiritual power of the Minster away with us, in order to deter the ghostly presences inhabiting several of the pubs on George’s list, including the 15th Century Snickleway Inn. Names like ‘House of Trembling Madness’ certainly suggest other-worldly experiences. The spookiest, allegedly, is the Golden Fleece: suitably dark and low-ceilinged with wonky door frames and a narrow sloping corridor. It was featured on the ‘Most Haunted’ TV series. You can book a room there, if you’re brave enough.

Restaurant in St William's College by the Minster
Tearoom in St William’s College by the Minster

Our accommodation, just a short walk northwards along the riverside, is the newly refurbished Youth Hostel, where we have a private en-suite room for just £49. Retirees in the know are frequently to be found in these establishments. (You could almost rename them Silvertop Hostels). Like other city hostels, York has an excellent bar and restaurant in addition to the usual self-catering kitchen. Wi-Fi is free and the full English breakfast, including coffee, is still under a fiver.

We finish our day with a steaming bowl of peppery beef goulash, made freshly in the restaurant kitchen from locally sourced produce, accompanied by a smooth French wine bottled especially for YHA. Outside, squirrels are skipping across the lawns.

“What time’s the train tomorrow” George asks suddenly. I know what he’s thinking. Wouldn’t it be nice to miss it and wait an extra hour on Platform One.

Posted 23rd May 2015 by Steve Hanson on behalf of Kay Ellis. Some of the photographs were supplied by Kay Ellis after the Writing Competition had been judged.