The beautiful and historic city of York is one of the few reasons we have to give thanks to Richard the Lionheart’s villainous little brother King John of England.
He’s portrayed in most books and films as a shady, unscrupulous character. But in the year 1212, he did at least one very good thing... he granted York a Royal Charter, giving it the power to take charge of its own affairs, elect a council, create a mayor and collect taxes. And the city has never looked back.
This year, York will mark the 800th anniversary of its Royal Charter with an amazing programme of celebration and festivals – so I thought it was the perfect time to pay a visit.
Strategically situated on the River Ouse, York has attracted a succession of conquering visitors like the Romans and the Vikings. Most liked it so much they decided to stay, which is why the city boasts superb architecture from virtually every era.
The Romans considered York, which they called Eboracum, so important that it was the only place outside Rome to host the coronation of an emperor. And you can see a very fine statue to Constantine the Great near York Minster.
But York is not only rich in history and culture with amazing museums, galleries and attractions, the city also has fabulous shopping, celebrated restaurants and some wonderful pubs and hotels. The only trouble with all of this, is not a lack of things to do, but rather deciding what to leave out.
My journey to the city took under two hours from London with East Coast Rail, which runs a regular service to York, with fares starting from just £13 one way (www.eastcoast.co.uk).
A short taxi ride from York’s impressive Victorian station took me to my hotel for the weekend, the National Trust owned Middlethorpe Hotel and Spa (www.middlethorpe.com), near York racecourse. This attractive Queen Anne style house built around 1700 boasts beautifully appointed rooms and elegant public areas.
General manager Lionel Chatard and his staff give clients a warm welcome and deliver exceptional service and food.
My first night in York coincided with the end of the annual Jorvik Viking Festival, a week-long extravaganza of feasting, music, story telling, crafts and markets, which ends with a spectacular Viking battle and longboat burning at the Festival of Fire finale. For a week in February, the city teems with visitors dressed in full Viking costume!
I was a guest at a banquet hosted by York’s Nordic ruler ‘Eric Bloodaxe’ and his entourage. Popular TV historian Dr Alice Roberts, the guest speaker, evocatively described Eric’s suitably blood-soaked reign in York to the guests.
Our knowledge of Viking York – known as Jorvik by the Norsemen – advanced considerably when workmen uncovered a Viking village buried under the city’s Coppergate. Today visitors can still view the site at the amazing Jorvik visitor attraction (www.jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk). An exquisitely preserved Viking helmet found during the excavation can also be viewed at York Castle Museum.
The following day, Exploring York guide Matthew Greenwood (www.exploringyork.com) took a small group on an introductory tour of the city and it’s myriad medieval streets, known as ‘snickleways’ and ‘ginnels’. The most famous of these is ‘The Shambles’ which today is a fascinating collection of shops, cafés and historic pubs. The name ‘shambles’ is thought to come from the old Anglo-Saxon word schamel, meaning a shelf for displaying butcher’s meat. In medieval times, York’s Shambles would have been a smelly and chaotic street – hence the term ‘shambles’ meaning somewhere which looks a mess.
York has more medieval churches and stained glass than most other cities in Europe. The finest of these is York Minster which dominates the skyline and is Oscar-winning, York-born actress Judi Dench’s favourite city view.
Although a church has existed on the current site, since the 7th century, the current Gothic structure dates from the early 13th century and took around 250 years to compete.
As part of the York 800 celebrations, the Minster (www.yorkminster.org) will host a series of special events and tours, including The Eight Wonders of York Minister, featuring its famous 52ft high Five Sisters stained glass window.
After a light lunch in the elegant wood panelled lounge of the Grays Court Hotel (www.grayscourt york.com), a gem hidden away behind the Minster, we moved to one of the city’s most popular attractions, the York Dungeon (www.thedungeons. com).
Actors retell some of York’s scarier stories – and there are certainly more than a few to get pulses racing. On Sunday, I visited York’s famous National Railway Museum. This enormous – it’s the size of 11 football pitches – and fascinating museum will host Railfest 2012 from June 2 to 10 (www.nrm.org.uk) featuring the world famous and recently restored Flying Scotsman. There will be many more spectacular festivals and events held in York throughout 2012, featuring everything from York Races, the new York Science and Innovation Grand Tour, the Festival of Ideas, the Early Music Festival, the bigger and better York Mystery Plays, the new Medieval Festival and the York Food Festival, to name just a few. For more information visit www.visityork.org