The historic city of York is an ideal destination for a day trip, as Kaye discovers Confession time… I have lived and worked in the UAE, Cayman Islands and China and think nothing of visiting Vietnam, schlepping to Sri Lanka or booking a weekend break in Boston but back home in Britain, I have only left London on the rare occasion (read visiting relatives and attending weddings).
As regular CD-Traveller readers will know, I love London but nonetheless am aware that judging a country on its capital is the equivalent of saying you’re au fait with America because you’ve had a Big Mac or not interested in experiencing India, having slurped a Starbucks’ Chai Latte.
So inspired by the new £4 million government backed ‘holidays at home’ scheme, I decided it was time to venture north of the M25 and visit York – the historic city that not only topped a poll of the most beautiful cities in the UK, but was ranked as the place most Brits would like to live. Throw into the mix the fact that York is currently celebrating the 800th anniversary of receiving its charter from King John of England in 1212, and 2012 seemed like a memorable time to visit.
The magnificent Minister – the largest gothic Cathedral in Northern Europe – tops the usual sightseeing agenda and for good reason. York’s blockbuster sight is an instantly familiar, iconic landmark guaranteed to jump start a cold tourist engine. Consecrated in 1472, this beautiful building (www.yorkminister.org) took 250 years to build and contains England’s greatest concentration of medieval stained glass including the great east window which, at 186 square metres, is thought to be the largest area of stained glass in the world.
I continued my classical sightseeing with a walk around York’s famous 3.4km long medieval walls. They are the longest in England (allow two hours to do the full thing) but the arresting views from the top, ensure you won’t regret a step! Next I took the time machine back to AD975 and experienced the sights, sounds and smells of Viking York (the capital of Viking York in the late ninth century and early 10th centuries) at JORVIK (www.jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk) in Coppergate. Built on the very site where archaeologists discovered over 40,000 Viking age artifacts, this gem of an attraction affords visitors the opportunity to get up close to 1,000 year old relics as they are revealed beneath your feet!
Yet while castles, cathedrals and vikings are a big deal, they’re not the whole picture. Not by far. To truly appreciate York, you have to lose yourself in its labyrinth like cobbled streets and atmospheric alleyways: step forward the Shambles whose narrowness and exterior wooden shelves (a reminder of when cuts of meat were served from the open windows) actsas a remnant of an older, miraculously unspoilt world. The Shambles and its sister streets – Swinegate, Stonegate and, my favourite, Whip Ma Whop Ma Gate – wind haphazardly through the city centre and are home to quirky boutiques, as well as a plethora of top notch restaurants, chic bars and laid back cafes.
For food is undoubtedly a big part of York’s short break pleasures (not for nothing did TripAdvisor name York as the UK’s top food and wine destination in October 2011). The antique city is choc a bloc with tea rooms selling local treats like warm, buttered fat rascals (a tasty teacake bursting with currants and candied fruit) but the best, by far, is Bettys (www.bettys.co.uk). Busy at all hours, the famous wrought-iron-embellished tea rooms serve light bites, lunch and dinner (welsh rarebit, sausages and mash and more) in an elegant old – wood panelled room, but the afternoon tea is where it’s really at. Expect a generous sized spread of scones, thick clotted cream, the freshest of jams and a pot of Yorkshire tea, which the owners will watch you savour with fierce pride.
The sweet toothed can satiate their cravings further in York’s newest visitor attraction – ‘Chocolate: York’s Sweet Story’ (www.sweehistoryofyork.com). York is home to some big names in the chocolate aisle: Rowntree’s created Kit Kat, Smarties and Aero while Terry’s created the Chocolate Orange during the 20th century in their sizable York based factories and this immersive experience– which only opened on April 1 – will educate you about the city’s confectionery trading and manufacturing past. And yes, tasting opportunities are happily guaranteed!
Regardless of whether you choose to check out the much hyped Chocolate attraction or hidden gems like the Historic toilet tour (www.yorkwalk.co.uk) or YorkBoat Cruises (www.yorkboat.co.uk), exploring is easy. Unlike other university towns (here’s looking at your Cambridge) everything is accessible by foot and if you purchase the York Pass (www.yorkpass.com), you’ll score free entry into over 25 attractions.
Had I been there for an evening, I would have liked to have gone on a guided ghost walk (many York pubs like the Black Swan, www.blackswanyork.com, are said to be haunted) or have seen a show at the Grand Opera House (www.grandoperahouseyprk.co.uk).
Still, now I know that a short train ride north brings me to scenes the equal of any abroad (I was constantly reaching for my camera), it won’t be long before I am back. “Why don’t more Londoners come?” asked an attendant at York Train Station as I prepared for my all too soon return south. Why indeed.