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.