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.