A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES
A York State of Mind
Since Roman times the British city of York has been strategic, the key to the north. In its day it rivaled London (the southern key) as the seat of power on the island. Modern travelers will find York a convenient hub for tours of the spongy and mossy Yorkshire dales and moors patterned with their drystone walls and apparently immobile flocks of sheep, and dotted with quaint, picturesque market towns. Leeds is 40 minutes away by rail. Even closer, about half an hour away, is the spectacular cathedral city of Durham, a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, York, just two hours from London by train, is a destination in itself.
The prime real estate where the Ouse and Foss rivers meet has been home to humans for thousands of years. The area was the territory of the Brigantes, a Celtic tribe, before the Roman occupation began around our calendar year 71. Surviving artifacts indicate that York served as the base for two Roman legions, the Ninth at first and then their replacements the Sixth. The Romans withdrew from Britain around 400 as the empire cleaved into east and west factions. Subsequently opportunists immigrated: the Jutes, the Angles and the Saxons. If these combative migratory waves weren’t disruptive enough, those epitomes of bloody tourists, the Vikings, were also frequent visitors. William’s conquering Normans marched into York in 1068.
Archeologists understand that history is preserved and recorded in layers. York’s famous medieval walls were erected as earthworks topped and wooden palisades dating from times prior to the Age of Antiquity. They are the final heightened and expanded product of many hands, many centuries of labour. Walkers can mount the wall at the foot of Lendal Bridge on the west bank of the River Ouse. There’s width enough to stroll two abreast, although reassuring railings are few and far between, and in this overly sensitive age nary a hint of suicide-prevention fencing; there are some lovely spots should the call of the void become a siren’s song.
This elevated route to York Castle resembles a backward letter c, angular, in a capitalized collegiate font. All that remains of the castle itself is the Norman keep known as Clifford’s Tower. It is a massive cylinder of stone perched on the peak of an artificial hill of earth known as a motte. The lower bailey and the surrounding moat (fed by the River Foss) are long gone; the stairs from those flats, a parking lot now, up to the parapet which commands a spectacular view of York and the countryside are a visitor’s only option and no joke.
It’s a short walk from the York Castle along Tower Street into what was once the ancient city’s core. The narrow cobblestone streets constitute a pedestrian mall, or perhaps a maze. Evidently the urban planner was a kitten with a ball of yarn. Tourists can orientate themselves by finding either one of the two main Roman roads which run straight and true and intersect. They are now called Petergate and Stonegate. It’s simpler to scan the sky for the twin spires of York Minster, the gothic cathedral which dominates the city utterly.
The church in all its vainglorious majesty was completed as it now presents in 1472. Its construction required 250 years though one suspects a project of this magnitude is never quite finished. God knows the combined costs of maintenance, upkeep and restoration. The grandeur and the genuine wonder is the scale of human endeavor. Ponder the assembly of this shimmering beige beauty when the average human life was considerably shorter than today. A common labourer or skilled artisan, a woodcarver or stonemason, would have spent his entire career on a single jobsite and would have likely apprenticed his son to the same endless task. And so it would go, so it went, tools passed down through generations.
The foundations of any institution can be tricky. The Minster was erected upon crumbled, buried Roman ruins. The Romans, ever practical in matters of civil engineering, aligned their fortress parallel to the banks of the Foss. Dogma being what it is the Christian cathedral had to orientate east to west thereby criss-crossing its cruciform weight on top of unstable Roman walls. Delicate, painstaking and expensive restorative work undertaken by the City of York in the 1960s prevented the whole damn thing from tipping over. The miracle was that the excavations revealed the layers of civilizations past, the first church on the site, wooden, is believed to date from 627.
York is a small city by any measure, its population barely tips past 200,000 souls. Its modest size will not overwhelm a visitor, but a walk around town will.