A World Away

Gordon Ramrod reflects on a weekend immersed in the delights of the UK's historical northern city.

By Gordon Ramrod

There are few locations in Britain that can boast such a treasure-trove of beautiful and well-preserved historical monuments as York, as well as en enviable repertoire of shops, all within ancient city walls that remain largely intact. And as many of the major attractions are indoors, and within a short dash of each other, you won’t have to brave the cold for long to see it all.

First things first, grab yourself a York Pass (starting at £17 per day), which will give you free access to over 30 of the city’s finest attractions and save you a bit of spending money for the shops. If you can resist heading straight off to scratch that retail itch, hop on one of the York Tour buses, free with your York Pass. While the foolhardy brave the open-topped floor, you can remain below deck in the warm and orientate yourself with a whistlestop tour of the city. The red buses have pre-recorded commentary, but look out for Dave or Wendy on the green buses for that personal Yorkshire touch, and some amusing anecdotes.

The Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans all took their turns to rule the roost in York, but it’s always the Norse conquerors who seem to fire up the imagination most. The Vikings’ legacy is at the very heart of York (which comes from the Norse word Jorvik) and the foundations of the original Viking settlement can be found all over, or under, the city. The uncovering of these foundations inspired the creation of the world-renowned Jorvik Centre, a family attraction that recreates the sights, sounds and even rather dubious smells of a Viking village. A short step under Coppergate and you’ll be transported into a time capsule ride into the past, after which you can inspect the bones of some of the actual inhabitants from the 10th century, and even try and fathom how the skeletons met their maker. Visitors in early February should watch out however, as the Vikings spill out into the streets for the 20th anniversary Jorvik Viking Festival ‘Jolablot’.

Don’t, whatever you do, dismiss York Minster as just another boring church, or you’ll be missing the true jewel in York’s tourism crown. Once you get over the sheer enormity of Northern Europe’s largest gothic cathedral, there’s exquisite Medieval stained glass windows to admire. If you’re still not bothered by that then just take a peaceful wander round and enjoy the animal carvings in the Chapter House. The more energetic can climb up to the tower, but most make do with the excellent audio tour of the crypt, which will give you a real insight into the history of the site and the many different buildings which have stood in the same spot since Roman times.

Perhaps due to the ancient Italian influence, York has remained a true shopping mecca of the north. Navigate the winding cobbles in the city centre and you’ll find the upmarket Van Mildert on Blake Street, which will help keep you in Jimmy Choo and Gucci to fend off the cold. If it’s a bargain you’re after, hop on the Clifford Street Designer Line bus bound for the edge of the city, where 50% discounts on top brands are all under one roof at the McArthur Glen Designer Outlet.

At the end of all that bargain-hunting, if you find yourself at the train station with a few minutes to kill and some petulant children on your hands, pop into the charming York Model Railway. It’s a very short shunting distance from the station entrance, and the interactive miniature network will leave smiles on your kids’ faces that, with any luck, will last all the way home. You can then board the train, sit back in your chair and close your eyes. Next to you, your wife will be clutching your hand and yawning, her eyes damp but happy. The train will be warm, with people talking in hushed tones and shoving bags into the racks before settling down with their newspapers and books and cups of coffee or tea. Your children will be so tired from all the walking, they’ll drift off into happy slumber, mouths open, dreaming of swarthy, bearded Vikings driving intercity trains. Their soft little skulls will nod with the motion of the carriage. You’ll gently lift their heads and place a jumper underneath to cushion them. They’ll sigh quietly and continue sleeping, and you and your wife will look at each other and smile. Maybe she’ll even kiss you on the mouth, silently thanking you for being such a good father, and such a good provider for her and her children, and bringing them here for such a lovely, relaxing weekend away. You’ll feel good about yourself, and reflect that you too have enjoyed the weekend, despite the tantrums, and the sheer bloody cost. Then you’ll both remember weekends away in the past, before the kids were born, when you’d hardly spend a minute outside of the hotel room, except for breakfast and dinner. Fuck the cathedral, darling, let’s make sweet, sweet love all over this huge fucking bed. And you’ll remember those times, and how it felt, and the way she looked coming out of the bathroom, her hair swept back, with a white hotel dressing gown hanging open. And then you’ll look over at her again, at her tired eyes and greying hair, and you’ll feel regret. And you’ll yearn for those days. You’ll yearn for when you could just hotfoot it out of London for the weekend and have some fun. Before you were too tired to read in the evenings, let alone have sex. Before you started to go grey. Before she started HRT. That’s when you’ll start gazing wistfully out of the train window, as darkness falls, and catch a sight of your own, forlorn face staring back at you, the furrows under your eyes more pronounced than they’ve ever been. And it reminds you that you’re working too hard, and isn’t that just the problem? And oh god you’re going back to all sorts of trouble at work tomorrow, facing some flak from the marketing manager, people demanding a hundred things from you at once, your back hurting, your neck aching. No one to help you, no support. Problems you can’t even bare to chat to your wife about, you can’t even be bothered. Work stuff. The shit. The shit we have to deal with. And then you’ll start worrying about work, and you’ll rub your eyes, and wish you could just go away for a while. Take off. If only we had the money, you’ll say to yourself, we could get out of London, maybe for good. I really can’t take another Monday morning, you’ll say to yourself. I really can’t fucking take this. And your wife will look at you, and see the worry lines, criss-crossing your face, and she’ll sigh deeply, thinking it’s her fault. But it’s not her fault, it’s the job, the job. And the travel. And the weather. And the kids’ education. And the state of the country. And immigration. And terrorism. And you just want to lie down, lie down and be still. But you can’t do that. You can’t just give up. That’s not the way you were raised. That’s not the way you want to be. You want to show a bit of British spirit. A bit of balls. You’ll think of all the tragic stories you read in the paper that morning, and you’ll remember just how bad things could be. And you resolve to fight, to fight on, and be a good man, and a good father, and do the best for your family. And you’ll take a deep breath and squeeze your wife’s hand, and remember how it could be worse. It could be so much worse. So don’t give up now, buster, don’t give up now. Fight. Fight. Fight.

If you’re staying at the Minster Gate, you won’t even have to put your coat on to go for dinner, as one of York’s finest restaurants is just downstairs. Chef Andrew Lincoln is renowned across Yorkshire for his innovative cooking of the choicest local produce to accompany a front-row seat beside the illuminated York Minster. But once you’ve tasted the truly top-class food you’re likely to forget the view. There’s a hint of Far Eastern fusion in such exquisite offerings as the tenderest lamb in a claret sauce or the chef’s speciality of Roasted Monkfish with Mussels and Scallops, along with a vast and lovingly described wine list.

Nip down a snickleway (alley) off the busy Coney Street and you’ll find City Screen, a trendy independent cinema restyled from the old Yorkshire Herald press works. You don’t have to be a cinemagoer to enjoy a tea, coffee or something stronger in one of their bars, which feature commanding views over the River Ouse and regular arty happenings in the basement.

It feels like something of a privilege to be sleeping so close to the mellow bells of York Minster at the Dean Court Hotel, which stands literally in the shadow of one of the most magnificent cathedrals in Europe. Tourists studying the western façade of the Minster will be green with envy when they see you enjoying the same view from the comfort and warmth of your hotel room, and the cosy bar downstairs offers similar opportunities for a smug drink. Small double rooms start at £120.
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