An A-Z Journey Around Britain

51 York

York Minster at sunset, York. 

A flood in New Orleans checked the triumphalism of neo-conservatism in the United States, and if the Tories have any sense they should be worried about the pictures of glorious York reduced by floodwaters.

Out of season York has the capability to seduce visitors. In season it is best avoided, and not because tourists are offensive. When crowded, the narrow streets and monuments appear to exist as a retreat from reality. On a busy day the glories of York are sweet and inauthentic, not unlike the confectionery that used to be produced in the City. Providing space exists, though, it is possible to appreciate the traditional streets, city wall and fabulous monuments. History rather than the ambition of the tourist board triumphs. Or it does when the town is not covered in tourists or water.

York Minster is the largest gothic cathedral in Europe. Compared to the Minster the Houses of Parliament in London look like the architectural equivalent of a tribute band. The entrance fee is not cheap but it includes an underground exhibition that draws the visitor into the past life of the Cathedral. I walked around the Minster both before and after the exhibition. My knowledge of the exhibition transformed what I saw and understood.

The Romans established the City in 71 AD and made it the capital of Britannia Interior. William Shakespeare achieved much but he failed to explain how the North and South became one England. York could have been the capital of an independent North. If William had not been so keen to conquer, it might have been the capital of England.  And York would now have adequate flood defences.


8000 years before the Romans there were Mesolithic people hunting and foraging around the surrounding countryside. York is close to the Yorkshire Dales, the North Yorkshire Moors and the Yorkshire Wolds. The Romans who never really appreciated the British landscape built a City Wall that today facilitates a good walk around the City. The views are not equalled elsewhere in urban England.

Constantine the Great was crowned Emperor of Rome in York in 306 AD. Christianity became a world religion but it did not prevent the Vikings arriving in 866. Two hundred years later the Normans arrived and, inevitably, conquered. The locals rebelled two years later but William arrived in York and the Vikings were history.   The name York, though, is derived from the Viking kingdom, Jorvik.  Today York has a Viking Centre that reconstructs a Viking Community. Proud Northerners can visit, be impressed with the reconstruction and remember their Viking roots. Or they will be able to after volunteers have drained the water and repaired the damage from flooding.


The Shambles is assumed to be a quaint name that is given to the narrow streets and ‘snickleways’ maintained for the delight of American tourists. But the name is not unique to York and it was used to indicate the part of the City where butchers could be found. There are still a couple of butchers in the Shambles but coffee shops and pubs dominate. This is not as awful as it could be because the entertainment in York is of a high standard. The restaurants are good, and like everything else in York, most of the pubs pay homage to the past. They also sell decent beer.


York does not need the River Ouse to be special but the River dissects the town and when under control, which is what it should be, the River adds to the beauty of the City. The riverbank through the City is not as extensive as that of the Thames but it has an elegance, beauty and charm that are irresistible. Just avoid in the summer months and make sure you miss the flood. The locals are not so lucky.

Next week, the end of this journey around Britain and where I began, Whiston, Merseyside

Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.

If you want to read more about his travels click here.