The Ancient Streets of York

June 1, 2022
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(This post continues on from Walking the Walls of York.)

After Exhibition Square, where the statue of William Etty stands, we went on to King’s Square where people play music. Even though it is called a square, King’s Square is actually triangular, an almost accidental irregularity in the meeting of the streets, a classic feature of mediaeval street layouts.

King’s Square

King’s Square

The ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, in the Museum Gardens

The local headquarters of the National Trust, in a half-timbered, mediaeval-style building

A mediaeval-style overhang, but in brick

The Treasurer’s House

Church of St Martin le Grand. This has a notable stained-glass window. The clock was added in Victorian times.

Somewhere that seems a bit more suburban

The South African (1899–1902) War Memorial of the Yorkshire Regiment

A tame owl in one of the local parks

More of the old town

Another interesting people scene

I came across a brick house which, I was told, was the first brick house to be built when they stopped using wood in English cities, after the Great Fire of London I suppose. The self-catering premises are advertised on the official tourist board for England, which used to be called but is now It doesn’t really matter, the old one ports you across.

Old Brick House

Sign on the old brick house

The Grays Court Hotel, five stars, possesses an old ladder up to the wall which they’re not allowed to use.

The guide, Ian, was pretty knowledgeable about what to do and see.

Along with the walls, the highlight of the city is York Minster, which I entered at a quarter past five in the afternoon. It was free to go inside. York Minster is the second-largest cathedral in northern Europe after Cologne Cathedral, which was finished in 1880, and is the largest to have been completed in the actual Middle Ages. The Great East Window of York Minster (1408) is the largest expanse of mediaeval stained glass in the world.

A glimpse of York Minster, over the walls

A bit more of York Minister, over some terraced housing and a park

The front of York Minster

A selfie by York Minster

The ground plan of the Minster

York Millennium Project sculpture, near York Minster

York Minister has had a twenty-million pound facelift, triggered by a calamitous fire in 1984, rather similar to the one that’s lately engulfed Notre Dame in Paris. The Minter now better than ever and should be really be enjoyed, after years and years in which the cathedral was wreathed in scaffolding and not fully accessible to the public.

Here’s a video I made which shows King’s Square, before going on to show the front of York Minster and the Great East Window, plus a huge eagle owl that I saw in a local park next to the city walls.

As to the origin of the word ‘minster’, it is an honorific title for any especially large, old or important church. York Minster qualifies on all three grounds.

The first church on the spot was a wooden one built in the early 600s CE by Edwin, the Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria, who had it built so that he could be baptised as a Christian after rejecting the old gods and other religious beliefs of the Anglo Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxons came from northern Germany and southern Denmark, while the ancestors of the Danes, Norse and Vikings, terms that were used almost interchangeably for a time, came from the areas immediately to the north: northern Denmark and southern Norway and Sweden, to use today’s boundaries.

Their languages were all quite similar back then, and so were their beliefs. The Norse/Danes/Vikings called their top god Odin; the Anglo-Saxons called him Woden. To this day, the English name for the middle day of the week, Wednesday, still honours Woden.

In fact, every day of the English week bears a pre-Christian name. The day after Wednesday, Thursday, gives homage to Thor: the guy with the hammer. And so on.

So, even as England became Christian, the old gods were only rejected so far. One of Edwin’s advisors offered one of the most famous arguments to come down to us from those times, one that sounds rather practical:

The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter amid your officers and ministers, with a good fire in the midst whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door and immediately out another, whilst he is within is safe from the wintry blast but after a short space of fair weather he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he has emerged. So, this life of man appears for a short space but of what went before or what is to follow we are ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.

An even more practical reason for Edwin’s conversion was the fact that he wished to marry Æthelburh, the sister of the Christian king Eadbald of Kent. Eadbald had ruled out the marriage for as long as Edwin remained a heathen.

Later on, in the Middle Ages, the church became progressively more grand, until the folk of York ended up with the Minster as it is today. Work on the present Minster began in 1200 CE and went on until 1473.

In between the time of Edwin and the Middle Ages there was the aforementioned Danelaw, which existed from 866 CE through the time of the North Sea Empire to the Norman conquest in 1066 exactly 200 years after the founding of the Danelaw.

In fact, Scandinavian claims to England were to spell the doom of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom, which in 1066 was attacked almost simultaneously in the north by the Norwegians, who claimed that their king was the rightful king of England as well. And then days later, in the south, by the Normans, a name that is short for North-men.

For the Normans, too, were of Scandinavian descent and sailed in ships that were essentially the same as the longships of the Vikings. Though they mostly spoke French by that stage,  the Normans retained dynastic connections with the old Danish rulers and that is how they justified their invasion, claiming that their ruler, William the Conqueror, was also the rightful king of England!

Everybody’s into the Vikings I suppose. And so, York, a genuine Viking capital, has a Viking Centre, a major tourist attraction, where you experience the history of that day. It even gives you the opportunity to smell the smells of Viking York, presumably those of the sea, tar, and smoked fish and not the more disgusting ones. There is also the Jorvik Dig, an ongoing archaeological excavation that’s open to the public. The Jorvik Dig is styled after the Vikings, but in reality, it turns up all manner of old stuff.

Modern York is also known as the ‘chocolate city’. It was the home of Terrys, Rountree, Quaker Chocolate, and the place where Smarties were invented (not quite as important as Sheffield steel, I will admit). The chocolate industry employed ten thousand people locally as recently as thirty years ago, but has since largely sold out.

I came across a plaque on a 12th-century church, open only on Wednesdays, that honoured a famous lesbian of bygone days, Anne Lister.

One of the best-known streets of the old part of town, within the walls, is called the Shambles. The words Shambles comes from shammel, an old word for bench, shelf or chopping board. It refers to the fact that the area was an open-air meat market in the old days, apparently not very well organised or hygienic, whence the English idiom ‘a bloody shambles’!

In the Shambles, with a sign pointing to the Shambles Market, a more open area with a covered outdoor market

The Shambles Market was an excellent place to buy food

And there was also a sausage and pie company back in the street called the Shambles

In the Shambles, I came across a shrine to the Catholic Saint Margaret Clitherow, or Margaret of York, who was laid out over a sharp rock in 1586 and then pressed down hard against it by a great mass of other weights until her spine snapped, her ribs broke, and she died, for failing to enter a plea to a charge of harbouring Catholic priests.

Sign at the entrance to the shrine of St Margaret Clitherow

Old traditional woodcut of St Margaret Clithrow's martyrdom, in the toll booth of the Ouse Bridge

The shrine

Some of the priests were apparently hidden in an inn the Clitherow family was in charge of, called the Black Swan, which still exists.

The Black Swan, Peasholme Green, York. Photo by Tim Green from Bradford, 12 July 2015, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

As a result of several plots against Elizabeth I, Catholic clergy had been forbidden to set foot on English soil on pain of death, and hiding a Catholic priest on English soil was treated as High Treason. Even so, the means of Margaret’s execution shocked Europe. Was this sort of thing the backstory to the raising of the Spanish Armada in 1588, I wonder?

Guy Fawkes’s gunpowder plot of 1605, against Elizabeth’s successor James I and his state opening of Parliament, would be the last of these intrigues and the various imaginative executions that followed. I daresay we have come a long way since those times, more or less. One hopes so, at any rate.

In the old economy there were also lots of guilds, associations of merchants which were accused of rigging the economy but which also mantained high standards of craft work and controlled the apprenticeship system, whereby one firm would take on an apprentice even if the apprentice then went off and worked for somebody else, something that is still an issue today. The York Guildhall is one of the most important historic buildings in the city, and it is also the venue where the trial of Margaret Clitherow took place.

'The Guildhall in York facing onto the River Ouse. The Guildhall is Grade I listed and the current architecture dates from the 15th century.' Photo by Kaly99, 29 July 2008, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

On a more cheerful and contemporary note, you can visit Betty’s Café Tea Rooms where you can get a Fat Rascal Yorkshire scone, really a kind of fruit-filled muffin. This is another place that is about as popular as Fergburger in Queenstown. You can check out the menu on their website,

there are a lot of other sites that I never saw but which I would like to go back and see, such as Clifford’s Tower, a surviving remnant of the old York Castle.

Clifford's Tower. Photo by Tim Green from Bradford, 11 December 2010, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

And the Railway Museum, also well worth it.

The Railway Museum, behind a pedestrian overpass

The railway station and the Trans-Pennine Trail, which is not the same as the Pennine Way from north to south, but rather runs from east to west, linking the North Sea and the Irish Sea


A good app for roaming around town is York Quest, which apparently now features augmented reality, showing the place where you are as it once was.

My next post will be about a trip to Scarborough and the North York Dales National Park, including the National Centre for Birds of Prey at Helmsley.


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