This walled city, almost 2,000 years old, has had more than its share of conquerors. The Romans established a stronghold here in AD 71. The Saxons, Danish Vikings and Normans claimed it as their own too, drawn by its strategic location on the River Ouse halfway between London and Edinburgh, Scotland. Now it was our turn to invade. Our harmless band of tourists — my mother, Rachel Mathew; my sister Reny Mathew; her husband, Nick Almond; and I — had come here to visit Nick's grandmother, Dorothy Foreman, and celebrate her 80th birthday.
We conquered the city early on a warm summer morning two years ago, entering through Bootham Bar, the main medieval entrance into York's historic core. By showing up at 8:30 a.m., we thought we would have fewer people competing for space at the sites. But we were mildly startled to see the city already bustling with other history buffs, armed with guidebooks.
About 4 million people visit the capital of the north annually, lured by the readily apparent vestiges of its fascinating, turbulent past: the city's ancient walls, some of the most intact in England; Roman ruins; churches; and castles.
But we had a weapon that the tourist hordes did not: Nick's Grandma Dorothy, a longtime area resident, who put her own quirky spin on the popular attractions.
"Let's start at the cathedral, then," Grandma Dorothy said, shooing us from our rented midnight blue Opel. In a bright red cardigan, with stylishly bobbed hair and brisk gait, she seemed a hip 70. We dutifully followed her to St. Peter's Cathedral, better known as York Minster because it was once part of a monastery. Longer than Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral by almost 100 feet, York Minster is the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, its size befitting York's status as the second-largest and most important city in medieval England. We gaped at the imposing structure from across the street, comparing it to a schematic.
Construction on the present-day cathedral, which was built on the site of a Roman fort, started in 1220 and took 250 years. Generations of workers went to their graves without having seen the completed structure. It survived invasions, wars and fires. During both world wars, the citizens of York removed some of its elaborate stained-glass windows and hid them in homes around the Yorkshire countryside for safekeeping.
"It was a difficult time," Grandma Dorothy said with typical British understatement. She lost three family members and countless friends to the wars. "People did what they could."
Inside, jewels of colored light sparkled in the cool, stony darkness. As my eyes adjusted, the sparkles morphed into the Rose window, which commemorates the 1486 marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York and the union of the houses of Lancaster and York, which ended the War of the Roses. But it was the Great East window that caught Reny's eye. It is about the size of a tennis court. We stared at it, our heads craned sideways, trying to identify the nine biblical scenes done by glazier John Thornton in 1405.
Next on Grandma Dorothy's tour was a stroll on the two miles of city walls open to the public. The wall, 6 feet wide and 13 feet high, was built by the Romans and rebuilt and expanded over the centuries. Nervous on my precarious perch, I looked down on the Deanery Gardens on the site of the 13th century Archbishop's Palace, then back at the minster, its spires reaching heavenward. I gazed farther afield, past soft green fields, pretending I was a medieval soldier. I shaded my eyes from the bright sun and spied the horizon for signs of invaders. I finally spotted a tour bus from Scotland.
We reluctantly relinquished our position on the wall to a new wave of tourists and walked unhurriedly down High Petergate Street to Low Petergate Street. York is blessed with one of the largest pedestrian-only zones in Europe. Nearly 30% of the city's residents walk or bike to work.
Ambling in the Shambles Ignoring the souvenir shops near the Roman Garrison, which housed soldiers in the first century, we walked past the 13th century Holy Trinity Church to King's Square, where a group of musicians dressed in costumes performed.
A few medieval period pieces with lilting vocals in Old English put me in the right frame of mind to walk to the nearby Shambles. The narrow cobblestoned street surrounded by a warren of alleys and passageways was filled with butcher shops and slaughterhouses in the Middle Ages.
"This neighborhood is almost 1,000 years old," Grandma Dorothy said. "Don't worry; the meat is much fresher," she joked as we walked past the one butcher shop left in the area. "We think the Shambles are among the best preserved [streets] in all of Europe."
In some places it was so narrow that my long-limbed brother-in-law could stretch his arms and almost graze the Elizabethan buildings on each side. Above us, the second stories were built so close to one another that the butchers and their families could have shaken hands with their neighbors from the comfort of their parlor windows.
Most of the butcher shops have been converted into quaint bookstores and antiques shops. Only the house of St. Margaret Clitherow, now a Catholic shrine, remains as it was in 1586, when the butcher's wife was crushed to death for her Catholic faith.
By now it was past noon, and we were famished. Grandma Dorothy weighed the city's options for a late lunch.
"Ah, Betty's," she said finally, as if she were remembering an old friend. Minutes later, we found ourselves in front of a stylish cafe on St. Helens Square.
The York landmark had a line of eager patrons in front. Decorated with wood paneling, mirrors and potted plants, Betty's Café Tea Rooms is an Art Deco masterpiece from the 1930s. The original owner, inspired by a cruise on the Queen Mary's maiden voyage in 1936, commissioned the ship's designers to make Betty's into the premier tearoom of the era.
In the refined refuge of Betty's, we sat down to crab and avocado sandwiches, a plate of hot, salty fries, a few slices of North Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese and of course, tea. I ordered the signature China Rose Petal tea, which came in a heavy silver pot. And I couldn't pass up the Yorkshire custard tart.
Sated, we were once again ready to attack York's historical sites. We walked down Parliament Street with its Marks & Spencer department store and onto Coppergate past the Body Shop, all reminders of 21st century commercialism. But as we trudged farther up Clifford Street, the Disney Store and the parking lot vanished, and the steep, grassy hill to Clifford's Tower transported us to Roman times, when the area was a cemetery. Vikings in the 9th century and Saxons in the 10th century lived on the same spot. But it was the Normans who left a lasting mark here. In the 11th century, William the Conqueror built the mound and the wood York Castle. Only the tower, or central keep, stands today.
We climbed the steep steps to the tower only to find we had missed visiting hours by a few minutes. We rested on the top step, sharing a Terry's of York chocolate orange, taking in the view. It made the exertion worthwhile. Before us was a rich panorama of York and its layers of history — bits of the wall from Roman times, 14th century towers and the ever-imposing minster.
The castle has been the scene of many historical dramas; one of its most tragic events occurred in the 12th century, when many of the city's Jews took refuge in the tower from zealous residents who gave them a choice of converting to Christianity or being killed. Instead they committed mass suicide. In the ensuing confusion, someone set the keep on fire, which destroyed the castle. The survivors who emerged were massacred, and Henry II levied a heavy fine on York citizens and fired the sheriff as punishment. A hundred years later, Henry III rebuilt the castle with stone.
It came to be known as Clifford's Tower because a rebel, Roger de Clifford, was accused of treason, and Edward II had him hanged in chains from the walls in 1322. I shivered as I conjured up the gruesome image.
Such a history-rich city reverberates with ghosts; about 140 of them are said to haunt old York. In one popular story, a young plumber saw a legion of Roman soldiers marching through a wall in the Treasurer's House behind York Minster in the 1950s. Records show the house was built over a Roman road.
Grandma Dorothy had a better explanation for why the citizens of York see so many ghosts.
"It's the pubs that are to blame," she said. York, which has about 181,000 residents, has at least one pub for every day of the year, some that have been around for centuries. Locals say Ye Old Starre Inn, one of the city's oldest, is haunted by two cats, which were bricked up between the door and the bar. Once in a while, the story goes, you can hear them scampering through its walls. And sometimes, if you've had a pint or two, you can hear men moaning in the cellar, which was used as an operating room in the 17th century.
We settled in at the Black Swan Inn, another of York's watering holes that competes for the distinction of being the city's oldest. Once the home of a wealthy merchant, it has stone floors and wood paneling that took us back to the 16th century, when it was first opened as an inn. It was ghost-free the evening of our visit.
I looked around for wenches and knaves but instead found a nice barman willing to put up with our fits of historical flashbacks. We ordered a round of Carling lager and continued long into the evening with our musings on the invaders. So many civilizations had left their mark on this city, through architecture, customs and language. But it was York that had left its mark on us.
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An insider's tour of ancient York
From LAX, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, American, United and Air New Zealand fly nonstop to London's Heathrow airport. Continental flies direct (one stop) to Gatwick airport. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $508.
Trains leave for York from King's Cross Station in London, about 200 miles south, every half-hour. A standard UK Railways (www.rail.co.uk) round-trip ticket with no restrictions costs about $215.
To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 44 (code for Britain), 1904 (the area code for York) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Hazelwood, 24-25 Portland St.; 626-548, http://www.thehazelwoodyork.com . Two elegant Victorian townhouses adjacent to the ancient city wall on a quiet side street in the center of town. Doubles from $120.
The Judges Lodgings Hotel, 9 Lendal; 638-733, http://www.judges-lodging.co.uk . Centrally located and one of York's finest examples of Georgian architecture. Doubles from $160, including breakfast.
Mount Royale Hotel, 117/119 The Mount; 628-856, http://www.mountroyale.co.uk . Two elegantly restored William IV houses run by the Oxtoby family. Some rooms overlook a manicured garden and have verandas. A 10-minute walk from the center of York. Rooms from $155, including breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT:
Betty's Cafe Tea Rooms, 6-8 St. Helens Square; 659-142. Art Deco retreat for tea or meals featuring Yorkshire and Swiss specialties. Entrees $11-$20.
The Black Swan Inn, Peasholme Green; 686-911. One of the oldest pubs in York. Serves hearty pub fare. Lunches $6-$10.
19 Grape Lane, 19 Grape Lane; 636-366, http://www.19grapelane.com . One of York's celebrated restaurants, serving modern British cuisine. Entrees $20-$30.
TO LEARN MORE:
— Litty Mathew