York Castle Museum Gives View of Olde England

Those who visit the York Castle Museum will get the same feeling that people get from reading Charles Dickens' novels--all yesteryear and this and that--along with the sights and sounds of ye olde England .

The Castle Museum is housed in what used to be an 18th-Century women's prison adjacent to the Debtors' Prison (in which the legendary Dick Turpin once occupied a cell).

Most fascinating exhibit is its ancient cobbled street with early Victorian shops, a fire station, a police station and a coach stable.

It's this street, known as Kirkgate, that is a spectacular re-creation of real buildings and store fronts that capture the flavor and atmosphere of England's past.

Because it does look like a stage setting, it often has been used by British TV and film companies.

Ceremonial Coach

For instance the coach, with coachman and horse, was once used by the sheriff of York on ceremonial trips through the city.

At its right is Hutchinson & Thompson's grocery store, and in the window are a sugar loaf and a bowl of brown peas traditionally eaten on holidays.

Under the sign of the three gold spheres Ebenezer Ellerker's pawn shop shows many unclaimed items in its window. Past William Whincup's wine and spirit place you reach the Black Swan, a famous York coaching inn once on Coney Street.

Around the corner is a double-fronted apothecary that has a wide selection of druggist jars, including one for leeches. Make a note of the pill-making gadget in the left-hand window and check the surgical instruments (saws for amputation) that were used before anesthesia and antiseptic were known.

The clockmaker, Foster's toy store and haberdashery, the tobacconist and the barber, the candle factory (around which you can still detect the forgotten odor of tallow), and the general store (with castor oil, syrup of rhubarb, collar studs, lace gloves and a slew of other vanished products) follow.

Costume Collection

Costumes cover 300 years, the Victorian and Edwardian bathroom displays the accessories once used, the Heslington Baby House of 1720 has a delightful array of dolls, children's furniture and toys, and the Half Moon Court has captured life on the street.

Here is where you will hear the gas lamps hiss, hear music from a polyphony in a pub ringing out softly and wait for the rider to come back for a Singer bicycle (with solid tires) that was carelessly leaned against a wall.

The King William Hotel (with its four ground-floor windows and narrow doorway) offers "Good Beds for Cyclists," and for visitors' convenience a lead-lined spittoon waits at the foot of the bar.

The Castle Museum was the brainchild of John Kirk, a country doctor who, while making his rounds to cottagers in North Yorkshire for more than 40 years, collected "bygones" that were given to him, often as payment for medical fees.

This accumulation brought on personal problems, for as his house became jammed with objects, his wife and family protested.

Museum Opens

The city of York eventually agreed to house the collection. In 1938 Kirk watched his museum open, but with his iron-bound requirements. The museum not only preserved the ways of the past but entertained as well in a step-by-step fashion.

One section of the museum that captures everyone's fancy is the so-called "Condemned Prison Cell," reached by passing a lineup of gruesome handcuffs, whips, thumbscrews and torture gadgets.

This was the cell used by Turpin before his execution in York in April, 1739. Nearby is one of the cells of the Debtors' Prison, a chamber still intact as a visiting room dating to 1780. It kept prisoner and visitor apart so that nothing could be smuggled in or out.

The York Castle Museum is open every day from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (except New Year's Day, Christmas Day and the first weekday after Christmas). Between October and March it closes at 5 p.m.

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