History on the defensive

By BRUCE HOLMES

Clifford's Tower where Sir Roger Clifford's body was hung in chains after his execution for treason against Edward I.

As A medieval bowman you stand within the defences of Walmgate Bar while York is besieged. Defenders breach the outer edge of the barbican and you know now that they are in range of your arrows.

No. In fact your imagination has run away with you, transporting you back hundreds of years. Walking the walls can do that to you.

Renowned as the historic city, York's medieval walls have become a major tourist drawcard.

But it wasn't always this way. As they were no longer needed, and some parts in disrepair, the city council considered pulling them down in the 1800s. Sir Walter Scott and artist William Etty can be thanked for their campaign to save the walls. Renovations followed.

Nowadays visitors can walk around the walls for much of their original length. We started at Bootham Bar (gates are called bars and streets are called gates), a gateway for an old Roman road. Over the road is the King's Manor where Henry VIII stayed.

The medieval wall sits atop an earth rampart which covers the earlier Roman wall, so this is also the perspective of long-ago legionnaires on sentry duty.

Passing the interval towers which functioned as observation posts, there is a view across the city to the central tower of The Minster.

This massive Gothic cathedral took 250 years to build, from 1220 till its consecration in 1472. People are astounded at its sheer size. From inside this still functioning church you can see the Great East Window's scenes depicting the beginning and end of the world from Genesis and Revelations. This has the largest area of medieval stained glass in a single window.

The Great East Window's tracery, or ornamental stonework, is heart-shaped and legend has it that if you kiss underneath this window you will stay together forever.

The next section was a cause of some disgruntlement among the clergy when opened to the common people for walking in the 1850s. Their houses surrounding the Minster had lovely private gardens. "There they are," observes our guide. Not so private any more.

Monk Bar is next, the most elaborate and ornate of the surviving gates, it was a self-contained fortress with each floor capable of being defended. It still has its portcullis and winding mechanism.

What's more, there is a small private museum here focusing on Richard III and whether he was the bad guy history made him out to be.

A little further on, the wall ends where once there was a lake. We took this chance to detour through the lanes and alleys (or ginnels and snickleways) of the old town.

One very notable ginnel is Mad Alice Lane, named after Alice Smith who lived in the lane until 1825 when she was hanged for the crime of insanity.

The Shambles, once a street of butchers' shops, has overhanging roofs which kept the meat in the shade and a sort of cobbled gutter down the middle into which the blood was poured till the rain carried it down to the river. It is from this slaughtering reference that we get the expression "a bloody shambles".

In the evening these old lanes and streets are the focus of ghost walks which are proving a popular attraction for tourists. York is reputed to have more ghosts than any other European city.

Returning to the wall, the next section goes from The Red Tower to Walmgate Bar.

This is the only gateway to retain its full barbican, others being demolished in the 1820s. Here stone walls come out from the main gateway to create an additional buffer against invaders and yes, this was deliberately placed where the archers would be in range.

Further on the wall stops again just before York Castle. Behind this is a man-made hill or motte upon which stands Clifford's Tower built in 1245. Here Sir Roger Clifford's body was hung in chains after his execution for treason against Edward I.

The next part of the wall leads to Micklegate Bar which is on the main entrance road from London. Thus it has been the place for ceremonial receptions for royalty, from Richard III and Charles I through to the present queen in 1971.

Because it was the most frequented gateway it was also where the heads of traitors were stuck on poles above the bar for all to see. The small museum here features these "heads," as well as showing how families lived in the bar.

Beyond Micklegate Bar the wall is preserved only for a short stretch. Outside the walls is the 19th century burial ground for the victims of the cholera epidemic.

The ruins of St Mary's Abbey are a little further on, where the walls of the abbey joined the city's defences at Bootham Bar. There is also the Roman Multangular Tower, the west angle tower of a fortress built in about 300AD, in what is now the Museum Gardens. Excavations have revealed the Roman stonework and even some sarcophagi or stone coffins.

At the end of the walk I may have been leg weary, but this was by far the best way to see and feel the history of York. A history built on foundations of solid stone.

Case notes:


Getting there:


Expect to pay around $2000 for an economy class return flight. York is midway between London and Edinburgh, 20 minutes from the M1/M62 motorway network.

Car hire:


The usual choices, but I saved money by using Hertz' voucher system where you book and pay before leaving New Zealand

Various rail options available. Check about package deals.

Where to stay:


Check out accommodation to suit your criteria on the York Tourism website.

I can recommend Bishops Hotel. Winner of York's Guesthouse of the Year award, it's a Victorian villa refurbished as a guest house. Well situated for drivers, being just off the ring road.

Information:


York Tourism: Ph 44 1904 554455

* Email tic@york-tourism.co.uk


www.york-tourism.co.uk

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