Lying in Anglo-Saxon graves? Discovering there’s half a million bodies underneath you or simply being charged to repent for your soul?
Yes, that’s what I got up to in York on an Easter Saturday on one sunny yet chilly day. And I can tell you what I did.
After tearing myself out of bed at the ungodly hour of 5am, I jumped aboard the train to make the hour-long journey from Hull, excited that I would be paying homage to York, the centre of all things bright and beautiful called Yorkshire. Well, duh, it’s in the name.
My main reason was to visit a family friend who I’ve known pretty much most of my life but never met in person. We both knew my Uncle Malcolm, her being the daughter of one of his best friends who he used to look after from time to time. But I’ve also heard of her and seen a photo of her on his mantlepiece. He used to talk about her in between his travelling stories that saw him delve into Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain and become passionate about Spain. He was a true traveller inspiration for me.
Sadly, my uncle passed away earlier on this year and I met her mother for the first time at his wake. She immediately thought that Izzie and I should meet also for the first time and put us both in contact. We agreed to meet in York over the Easter period and before we knew it, it was time to go to York.
I’m sure my Uncle would have loved to see us meet for the first time. Here I was, glimpsing into another part of his life that was filled with travel, friends and bachelor life. It was a happy day. He was still here with us, warm in the memories that both Izzie and I shared of one of the most decent men I had the pleasure of knowing.
So I could imagine his bemused expression and eyes sparkling up at the antics both Izzie and I got up to in the city of York.
Izzie waited for me in the train station as I pulled in, flowers in her hair, while she read a big book. As I crossed the bridge over the old rail lines in York Station, we simply knew each other on sight. After all, who would be brandishing a massive chocolate Easter egg simply for me! Oh dear, I didn’t have anything for her…
Jumping into animated conversation, we ambled to the heart of the Old Town of York and sampled the Tiffin cake and a huge pot of Yorkshire Tea at Chloe’s of York cafe in King’s Square. There we exchanged many stories, got to know each other, disagreed on views and came to the conclusion that my aunties and her mum was trying to set both of us up.
Suitably famished, we watched street entertainers at a distance so they wouldn’t pick on us and headed onwards to York Museum Gardens.
York Museum Gardens
Escaping the hustle and bustle of a busy saturday lunchtime rush in York, both Izzie and I headed into York Museum Gardens. Observing the Owl display within, we took a meander past the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey and into the hidden gardens. It’s actually a nice stroll to wear off the heavy tiffin that laid on our stomachs on a pleasant day like today. But before we could grab an ice cream and sit on the banks of the River Ouse, there’s one place that I haven’t been to in York and its gardens – The Yorkshire Museum.
Striding into Yorkshire Museum, we paid £7.50 entry each and went in to find all about the history of York.
First off, we grabbed seats in their cinema hall to watch a 10 minute video of York’s history. It could have been fascinating but I was too frazzled by the sweeping special effects within the video that made you feel like you were part of a roller coaster ride. It was distracting and I left the cinema unsure what I actually learnt. Perhaps it was time to learn about the history the old-fashioned way. Like looking at artefacts.
My favourite exhibition within the Yorkshire Museum definitely has to be the ‘Capital of the North.’
This exhibition went on to say that during medieval times, the north of England was ruled from York whether they were Vikings, Normans, Anglicans, monks or more. But nothing became more central than the Yorkist Kings thanks to Edward IV and the very focus of media attention these days, Richard III. The exhibition featured the most prestigious and significant medieval objects and also the stories of powerful people who ruled the North from within York’s walls.
I was pretty impressed and more so when I pulled on a medieval outfit and pretend to be a peasant…
I was actually pretty impressed with the Yorkshire Museum. After this Georgian building was opened in 1830 by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, it was refurbished and reopened in 2010 following a nine-month £2m refurbishment.
And it shows.
With five beautiful galleries showcasing Britain’s popular treasures and discoveries, it was very easy to get lost in their beautiful displays.
The gift shop is pretty awesome too. Everyone LOVES the gift shop!
The Graveyard, Coffin and Plague Tour
‘You’re standing on the ground that holds half a million people beneath you.’ Warwick, the tour guide, suddenly announced when we stood in front of St Michael Le Belfrey, dwarfed by the York Minister. People uneasily glanced at their feet upon the cobblestones of a popular pedestrian junction. He began to explain further about consecrated ground.
I was pretty thrilled to hear. You may think I am morbid but I was happy to learn about the history of York. So was Izzie who was unsure about climbing into an Anglo-Saxon grave.
So where were we?
We were on the Graveyard, Coffin and Plague Tour that promised us to delve in the dark history that lay within the old cornerstones of this ancient city. And it didn’t disappoint.
Assembling in front of the York Museum gates, we were whisked through the history of 2000 years of corpse disposal first in the gardens where Anglo-Saxon graves lay in the flowerbeds and then onwards to King’s Manor where burial became more of a religious affair and stopped any material goods being buried with you as the Church believed you were born with nothing and you should die with nothing. Grim, isn’t it? At least it wasn’t like the Egyptian pharaohs who believed their slaves should be buried with them…alive.
With our religion and burial rites questioned and discussed, we were thrusted to Deansgate where we would stand in front of St Michael Le Belfrey Church. There we learnt about bodies being buried literally almost to the surface. As people believed they wanted to go to heaven, they had to be buried in consecrated ground.
But where were the churchyards?
Within the city of course! So bodies would be piled on top of each other to the point it was hard to build anything on land. A fine example has to be when the church was being extended 10 years ago. Guess what happened? A skeletal hand fell out of the floor!
I was a little shocked to hear that every time builders dig the foundations of a building within the city and discover skeletons, they can continue building as long they were pushed to one side within the same ground. If you remove them out of the ground, you have to apply for a special license from the government to rebury the remains. It’s literally common practice! Perhaps one of the most funniest and maybe grisly adaptations had to be when gas engineers discovered a skeleton of a Roman Centurion within the basement of a new development where they would place the gas meters. After umming and ahhing that they didn’t want to move the skeleton, they decided to place the meters upon the chest of the skeleton, leaving him in place. You can imagine the frights various gas meter readers had when they opened the door to show a grinning corpse back at them!
After that, we were at Monk Bar to find out about the plague history of York. The last great plague happened in 1604, where it was completely blamed on the Scots when they came down with King James I of England after Queen Elizabeth’s death. Escaping the London Plague in 1665, York suddenly had no more plagues. One theory is that the plague died out when the black rats that carried it were ousted by brown rats that did not. However, the residents didn’t know that and thought the cats and dogs brought the plague. So they killed them all without realised this would multiply the rat population!
After stopping off at various points, it was time to lie in an Anglo-Saxon grave in the Holy Trinity Church. Could I fit in? After all, the graves were modified to fit both women and men alike. What do you think?
Izzie was mortified.
‘Someone was buried in that thing!’
Meanwhile, I would heartily recommend the Graveyard, Coffin and Plague tour. Grisly, gruesome yet entertaining and wickedly funny.
Ye Olde Shambles Tavern
I think I’ve just stumbled onto York’s best kept secret!
Feeling starving marvin, both Izzie and I were in need of good, wholesome British food. So, I consulted Trip Advisor to find the best place going.
And ‘Ye Olde Shambles Tavern‘ sprang up.
I couldn’t believe it. Here it was slam dunk in the middle of York’s Shambles and I haven’t even seen it!
Did we have to do something out of Harry Potter as he rang into platform 9 and 3/4s?
No. The front was an Ale Shop. All you have to do is sneakily glide in the side and you’ll find yourself in the tavern area like in the photo above.
Ordering a Shambles Stumbler (a little tongue-twister) ale and a Shambles Burger, I was pleased to say that the meal wasn’t a ‘Shambles’.. (whey! See what I did there?). Fulfilling, tasty and lip smacking were the words bandied about between Izzie and I.
But the best thing about this tavern was the ambience. It felt positively medieval inside in which you can look out through stained bottle glass windows into the market outside, knowing that the people browsing through the market had no idea I was watching them.
Okay, that sounded a little creepy. Maybe it’s time to move on.
A River’s Landscape
While crossing the River Ouse, I saw that the bridge was decorated with the York white rose. These little details are what makes a city.
‘Dare you to run up this hill?’
I encouraged Izzie to a competition to run up to the top of this high mound where Clifford’s Tower stood. It’s the remains of the York Castle built by William the Conqueror that also served as a royal mint and a prison.
But its history and culture isn’t its best feature.
It’s actually the panoramic views over Old York at the top. Once, Izzie got her breath back after I easily beat her climbing to the top, she became my willing assistant to show you how epic the view is from Clifford’s Tower.
Now, we had a difficulty going down the steps back to the city after circling around the tower. There were pretty aggressive geese waiting for us at the end. So you’ll probably think I could impress Izzie by scaring them off and transporting her to safety.
Claiming that I didn’t want to disturb them, I told her to go back the way we came and forced her to climb over some railings.
A Random Fair
While we were upon Clifford’s Tower, we spied flashing lights that signalled the presence of a fair. Looking at each other with eager and expectant faces, we knew we had to visit. The sky was rapidly darkening and we had just enough time to jump on a ride before catching the train back to our respective homes.
We opted the dodgems. Of course we had to. We were already competing and Izzie was still bruising from losing the race up the hill. It was war.
I said I won. She said she won. Let’s call it a draw.
The End of the Day
Soon it was already 8.30pm and it was time to go home. I couldn’t believe I had been in York for the WHOLE day with time flying by.
But it was a great day. I finally met the delightful Izzie and it all happened in one of my favourite places in the world.
And you know what?
My Uncle would be pleased.
So here’s to you, Malcolm. You were part of these crazy kids’ lives. And we love you for it.