York was once the dominant city of the north of England. Founded by the Romans as Eboracum and becoming, about a thousand years ago, seat of the Danish kings. They lorded it over the natives, if we could apply that term to the Anglo-Saxons of the age. Its influence extended as far as Ireland. The Dublin Danes were inextricably linked with York, Jorvik as it was then known. The great Sitric Silkenbeard retired here to die in the middle of the eleventh century, leaving Dublin with the legacy of Christchurch cathedral. York’s own cathedral, York Minster, would have been in an earlier, smaller incarnation then. Both Dane and Norman would conspire to destroy, and rebuild it, before the present Gothic masterpiece arose in the thirteenth century. One of the largest cathedrals in northern Europe, its majesty underlines the importance York enjoyed into the late middle ages.
York’s influence on contemporary Britain may have waned somewhat, but the city has nurtured its original grandeur. Few places that I have seen have attained such a harmony between ancient and modern. The great cathedral still crowns the hill, a hymn to the power and endurance of medieval church architecture. Meanwhile the ancient walls are virtually unbreached, enclosing a sizeable city and straddling the mighty River Ouze. Having walked the walls of the early-modern city of Derry, and very impressive they are too, it’s another treat to walk these older, more extensive walls, two and a half miles in circumference. We reach York in bright sunshine, the bricks and trees of the suburbs alive in the charged northern air. We circle about the walls to find our hotel hard by the railway station. It’s a grand, nineteenth century pile, from the halcyon days of Victorian industry, when railway hotels were the acme of wealth and elegance; this was the place to be! There are extensive formal gardens to the front, with the picture-perfect city hung above us, tantalisingly close. To complete the harmonic transition of the ages, the hotel is thronged by a science fiction convention. There’s a great buzz with eager groups huddling in frantic, and often hilarious, discussion. There is a higher than usual percentage of hirsute geeks, aging goths and, unexpectedly, lesbians. After the mayhem of reception, it’s time for a grander entrance at the most impressive of hotel staircases.
The city walls are there to be walked, taking us an hour into the slow sunset. They encircle a large urban area of about two hundred and sixty acres. Although earlier defensive ramparts have been unearthed, it was the Normans who established the extensive fortifications. York Castle was the centre of the defenses, this complex surveying the only unwalled section, where the River Fosse forms a natural defensive moat. The walls also helped generated wealth through establishing a secure customs point on the major river, The Ouze. Everyone who was anyone passed through here. The Romans, the Danes and the Normans all left their mark. Richard III looms large; the last king of the House of York he is held in higher regard here than elsewhere. Richard, still stooped under Shakespeare’s caricature, is receiving some rehabilitation since the recent discovery of his remains in a Leicester carpark. York has a museum dedicated to him, housed in the largest of the four city gates, Monk Gate, with a functioning portcullis to boot.
We step off at the cathedral. The illusion of passing through a gate in time is strong here. York Minster dwarfs the surrounding medieval city. The old town tunnels further into history.The Shambles, its most famous and ancient street, becomes literally a tunnel of wood-framed leaning buildings, stooping across the narrow passageway to hinder the sky. The shambles were the shopfront counters of butchers, primarily, and other selling their wares. Back then, you stayed on the street to do your shopping, the vendor displaying their goods on the shambles, conducting transactions through the ground floor window of the shopfront. Medieval wood and stone still survives, worn smooth through centuries of use.
The tiny streets weave and flow, thronged with shoppers, tourists and the blooming party scene of early evening. There are plenty of old traditional bars. The Olde Starre Inn, is York’s oldest. Dating from 1664, its foundation coincided with the birth of Kronenberg, a happy coincidence indeed which must be honoured. The Judge’s Lodgings has a pleasant raised patio where we soak up the evening sun, sampling the ale while the ‘girls’ gather for the night. Wilde’s of Grape Lane is, for some reason, dedicated to our own great Oscar. An eclectic mix of Edwardian frippery, contemporary music and brown cafe ambience, it’s just right for drinking and dining pleasure. Burritos and Kronenberg, if you must ask, and very good too. On another day, more basic delights are catered for with a stop at a vernacular cafe near the markets for pie and chips washed down with a bottle of local ale. Ah yes, Black Sheep Ale, how wonderfully named. With the weekend on top of us, hens, clad in minis and sashes, teeter on stilettos over centuries old cobbles. Meanwhile, stags in their civvies are starting to rut, so we must weave our way home, as you can imagine. Betty’s Tea Shop is another Yorkshire institution. Founded in 1919 by a Swiss baker, Francis Belmont, it strives for a traditional ambience,elegant and deferential. On the last morning, as the Boss seeks out the White Stuff (it’s a shop, honestly!), I take coffee at Betty’s on Stonegate. Its upstairs tea room forms an oasis of sorts, bustling but somehow calm in its certainty of caffeine and spices. It’s a perfect pick-me-up for our morning departure. Back at the hotel the SF gig is winding down. People are getting ready to rejoin the real world. The throng meanders along the swirling corridor from some classic movie, then winds down the massive staircase to reception. A couple of starry trekkers prepares to check out, or as one says knowingly, to no-one in particular: “to boldly go.” I suppose we must. But look forward to going back, when time and space allows.