The Walls of York, England
This past week, I found myself in Northern England for a get together in honor of a friend who had passed away and had the opportunity to visit York. York has always been a special place for me. Its history blends Roman, Viking, Medieval, Georgian, Victorian and modern history together. It’s a city that I have never grown tired of exploring and if any of you have ever listened to me talk about visiting places that should be on anyone’s bucket list, York is somewhere at towards the top of that list.
One of the most enduring features of the city is that it is surrounded by its original Medieval walls and furthermore, anyone can walk them and enjoy the unique perspective that one can only get from stepping into the past.
I had several days in the north but chose to take my walk upon the walls of York at 8am, when they are opened. I wanted to enjoy the walls without the usual crowd of tourists who take to them in the afternoon and early evening.
If you visit York and wish to explore the walls, the city opens them from 8am until around 9pm. The walls are generally opened by town officials who walk around with a Dickensian ring of giant keys and on past trips to the city, I have joined them as they have made their circuit around the city to perform this vital task. However, today, sleep won out and I started shortly after they were opened.
The maps below illustrate the route that I was planning on taking around the city. Each number shows a major stop on my journey.
My journey started at Bootham Bar (#1). This is the traditional starting point for a walk on the walls as it is close to the York Minster (one of England’s greatest cathedrals) and the tourist information center which is where most people get their maps of the city.
Bootham Bar is a large medieval gatehouse that stands upon the site of the original roman fortress that once stood in York. The gate marks the north western approach to both the modern city and the roman fortress. A gate has stood in this spot for almost 2000 years.
Atop Bootham Bar are three statues. The represent The Lord Mayor of York, a Master Mason and a Knight. There are also several coats of arms from the Stuart Dynasty and the city of York.
To the right side of Bootham Bar are stone steps that lead to the top of the wall. I took to these steps being mindful of the fact that there is often a lot of moisture on the steps and they can be slippery.
As I made my way out of Bootham Bar and along the wall, I was reminded by the view that there are two aspects to the wall that will capture most any wanderer’s attention. First, the walls were an immense civic project and that they are built on a scale that we simply do not see today. The second is that from wherever you are on the wall, the York Minster reigns down. You can see it from most everywhere on this walk and it is a constant (and not so subtle) reminder of the power that the church had in this region of the world.
For as many times as I have explored the wall, I have been constantly surprised by the fact that there is always something new (or old as the case may be) to notice. This time was no exception. There are so many spectacular homes that have gardens that lead right up to the back of the wall. They all have this sort of “Secret Garden” feel to them.
It makes one wonder what it would be like to have such a medieval structure as a constant companion. It also leaves me thinking that every day, you would have thousands of people staring down at the back of your house. No sitting in the backyard in a bathrobe reading the paper here!
The next stop of my journey around the wall was Robin Hood’s Tower (#2). You can see the view from the tower (above). This is one of two places where I have often stopped, sat and read a book. I could argue with anyone in England that there is no finer place to read a Bernard Cornwell book then here. If you look in any direction, you will see the scale of the wall. It seemingly goes on for as far as the eye can see. You also get a clear view of the original medieval moat that once surrounded the majority of the city.
Beyond the tower, as I continued along the wall, you can see the Treasurer’s House, and again, the giant, ever present York Minster.
As you walk down the wall from the tower, if you look to the right, you will see the Greys Court Hotel and its beautiful gardens.
I have visited this wonderful hotel but have never stayed here. I am told its rear view room of the wall are the best in the hotel.
Continuing along the wall for several hundred meters, I arrived at the next of the city’s great gates, known as Monk Bar (#3). Monk Bar is generally recognized as the strongest and most impressive of the gates (Bars) of York. It was originally built in the 14thcentury and has been expanded over the centuries. If you walk beneath the bar, you can see its original gate. On the top two floors of the bar, is a museum dedicated to King Richard III. It is also the site of one of England’s smallest prisons. It has had a number of notable visitors. Perhaps the most famous of which was Alice Bowmen. She was imprisoned for not renouncing her Catholic faith. The prison was in one of the turrets which is so small that she could neither stand up fully or lie down.
The name Monk Bar was derived from the fact that Monks used to use the gate to move in and out of the city. In Medieval times, there was a priory just inside of the walls.
Heading down the steps from Monk Bar and crossing over Goodram Gate (Street) and back up the wall, I continue my journey. A few hundred feet after Monk Bar, there is a curious site to the right of the wall (on the ground). If you look, you will see some ruins form the original Roman Wall. It is a not so subtle reminder of the expansive history of York and the strategic position of the city. There have been fortifications here for over 2000 years.
Continuing along the wall, there is a sharp left to arrive at a tower known as Layerthorpe Tower (#5). The tower itself is unremarkable and only really serves to convey explorers down to the street level. The city walls end here for a bit.
The interesting thing to note about this is that the reason to walls end here is that there used to be a large body of water at this spot (shown in the plaque above). The tower ends at what was the bank of the water. Since the medieval ages, there was a concerted effort to change the flow of the rivers moving through the city and eventually, this body of water was redirected as a much narrower river to open up the city.
Crossing the river and staying to the right, you can walk down Foss Island Road to a beautiful red brick tower. This marks where the city walls picked up beyond the original body of water. The tower is suitably called The Red Tower because of the bricks used in its construction. It was built in 1490s.
Continuing up the stairs and along the wall there are the buildings of what was originally a large slum. This housing was built for Irish immigrants who came to avoid the Irish Potato Famine. Over the years, the housing has been much improved and today, they are regarded as extremely desirable residences with the added feature that the great walls of York are on their doorsteps.
From here the wall takes on an almost "park-like" setting with trees covering much of the parapet. It is common to see people sitting on this section of the wall and enjoying their lunch on a hot afternoon.
The wall continues as it makes its way around the city to Walmgate Bar (#6). This massive gate system has been the site of some of the fiercest attacks on the city in 1644 in the midst of the English Civil War. This gate stands out from the rest because it has a large walled passage way through which one must walk to gain access to the city.
This is an interesting defensive structure (and the last of its kind in England). It allows for the city to hold up travelers for inspection while allowing those newcomers to be surrounded at the same time. There is also a white 2-story gatehouse which use used as a residence until 1956 and today, is a café (great pastries!).
To continue, you have to go down to street level, pass underneath the gatehouse and back up the stairs on the other side to gain access to the wall. As you do, if you look to the right, you will see the remnants of St. Margret Church which is now the National Centre of Early Music (essentially a hangout for musicians who like old, old, old music). The original church was built in the 1100s.
Down the wall, a short way is Fishergate Bar (#7). This access point to the city was originally the site of a large fish market (hence the gates name). It was built in 1489 but later blocked off to better secure the city. Later, a cattle market was established just outside of the city at this point and the gate was reopened.
Soon after Fishergate Bar, the wall ends. Heading down the stairs and onto the street level, you will find yourself on a bridge. This “modern” bridge over looks the river and the York Castle museum.
If you look along the river, you get a sense of how important the river was to the city. When I have been here in the past, it was easy to imagine the thousands of barges that would make their way up and down the river, carrying goods to and from the ports 20 miles downriver.
From this point, you can also get a clear view of the York Castle Museum. This is a great museum that will give you a sense of city life in the 17th, 18thand 19thcentury. Originally, it was the site of a large castle complex and used as a debtor’s prison. Like many castles of its time, it was built to awe and inspire fear.
You can also see the old flood barrier. This deserves a special mention. In years with excessive rain, the city has been known to flood. Just a few years ago, one of the worst floods in the city’s 2000-year history happened. It flooded much of the city’s interior including, sadly, the Jorvick Viking Museum, one of the best museums (at least in my mind) in the world. Hopefully you will have a chance to visit it.
Following the road around the York Castle Museum, you will arrive at Clifford’s Tower (#9).
The Castle was originally built in 1068 by the Normans. In 1190, the Jewish community of the city fled to the tower to escape Christian Mobs. Ultimately, they burnt down the tower in a suicidal attempt to escape the mob outside. Those who survived were set upon by the angry city dwellers and killed. This was a very dark chapter in the city’s history. At the base of the castle, there is a plaque commemorating the Jews who died here.
Later, the Castle was rebuilt in stone. As you walk in, you might wonder what has happened to the roof of the castle. The answer was that it was blow off during a great gunpowder explosion. The Castle was used as a prison, a storehouse and tragically, a munitions storage facility (ouch!).
The castle itself is small but fantastic and well worth a visit. I have been there dozens of times and always enjoyed its vantage point above all but the tallest buildings in the city. The best time to visit the castle is in the morning when it opens, or in the late afternoon, just before it is closed. The crowds tend to be lighter at this time and on several occasions, I have had the castle to myself.
After you explore the castle you should head across the street to the park along the River Ouse (#9). On the right side, as you enter the park, you will see a plaque marking the high-water flood levels experienced in the city. It is a constant reminder of the city’s relationship with the river and the threat that the city still lives under.
The park itself was originally the site of the city’s port. Hundreds, if not thousands of ships would make their way to this point to drop off their goods.
Walking diagonally across the park, you should make your way to the bridge which was built in 1881. As you go across the bridge, admire the views of the city that it affords. Again, it is a constant reminder of the city’s relationship to the water. The bridge is named Skeldergate bridge. Skeldergate means shield maker. William Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe character came from this very street (fictionally of course).
Be sure to take a moment to enjoy the view of the river from the bridge.
The walk continues at a small tower. The tower itself is of no real significance but what is just beyond it certainly is. The wall from this point leads up a hill known as Baile Hill.
This was the site of a second castle (which has since been destroyed). The castle was established to provide control of the River Ouse but after its destruction, it was never rebuilt. Historians have a debate about if this was the first or second castle in York – one that has never been settled. Today, the mound is a small park and an excellent place to read a book.
As you make your way along the wall, there will be a corner tower (at the corner of Bishopgate Street ad Price’s Lane. This marks the corner of the city. There are busy streets below this point. If you sit at the corner of the tower, you will have amazing views of the city and the countryside beyond.
When I was younger, I would come to this spot to read. I think it is one of the best spots in the city. You can imagine during Medieval times, watching the people make their way to and from the city. You can also imagine that there would have been no more strategic locations in the city to be during an attack. From here, you can see up and down the walls.
A few hundred feet down from the corner tower is Victoria Bar (#11). This part of the wall was rebuilt for the coming of the railways. At this point there is a large arch in the wall allowing trains to enter the city. Several years after it was built, the city found that its growth was constrained by the limited access through this point in the wall and a much larger train station was built outside of the city walls.
Outside of the city walls are hundreds of homes that were originally built to house the thousands of railway workers in the region. The age of Victorian expansion was a boomtime for York. During this time, the population grew from 17,000 to almost 78,000 in the decades 1820 to 1900.
From here is can see in the distance, Micklegate Bar (#12), considered the most impressive of the gate houses. This has been the main ceremonial entrance to the city. Kings and queens for centuries have made their way through this very gate. There has been a gateway here since Roman times and this gate has throughout history, been used to display the severed heads of traitors.
Beyond the dark side of its history, Micklegate Bar has a long history as a center for the York’s theater. Many plays have been given at this spot. Today, the museum houses the Richard the III museum.
Continuing along the wall, it will move sharply to the right. This will take you to a spot above the York Railway Station (#13). This is an important place to stop as it affords the best view of the station. The railway station was built in 1877 and had an impressive 13 platforms. At the time it was built, it was the largest train station in the world. A year later, the Royal Station Hotel was built to house travelers.
The station suffered from the bombing during World War II but has since been repaired. Just beyond the station is the National Railway Museum which is the largest of its kind in the world.
Both the station and the museum are worth exploring and if you have an even remote interest in trains, can keep you entertained and happy for many hours. I would suggest giving both 3-4 hours to enjoy.
The view of the wall wrapping back into the city is well worth a pause.
Continuing down the wall, you will soon reach its end with a series of Memorial Gardens and the old towers that was used to chain off the river to restrict shipping and defend the city(#14) on the left-hand side. The wall ends here very close to the edge of the banks of the River Ouse.
Taking the bridge across the bridge in front of you, you will pass by the Museum Gardens. This park is well worth exploring. It houses the ruins of an Abbey, the Yorkshire Museum and the ruins of the old Roman fortress. The Abbey suffered from Henry VIII’s dissolution of Catholicism in England and was essentially plundered for its stone. You can see the stonework from the abbey in buildings all over York.
The Yorkshire Museum is part of the York Archeological Trust and houses many of the great finds unearthed thought-out the city. Continuing through the park, you will eventually find yourself at Expedition Square, the starting point of the walk around the city walls.
In all, this is a walk that I have enjoyed many times over the years and I hope you will get to experience it for yourself. The walls are a melting pot for history covering Roman, Viking, Medieval, Georgian, Victorian and the modern era.