Saturday, June 11, 2011

Medieval York

The express train from Kings Cross to York with John of Lourdes was a fine experience until I looked at the ticket price -- 44 quid one way!  This is meant to be public transport and should be less costly than other transport means.  But it was a comfortable ride and fortunately John had reserved seats for us and less than 2 hours later we arrived.  What a lovely city!

York is relatively small with 150,000 or so inhabitants and most importantly no suburban sprawl outside ... unlike Canterbury.  Outside is fields and lovely little villages and the moors.  And giving credit to a past Archbishop of York from the 1830's who fought against Victorian industrialists that wanted to level the Roman/Norman/Medieval/old walls to permit some new fangled invention to enter the city, the walls are the most complete set anywhere in England.  In fact there's only the bit over an ex-lake that is missing and I suppose given that it wasn't there in the first place, that is pretty good.  There is no comparison with Canterbury in this regard and moving on, the Cathedral, sorry Minster, is bigger -- biggest north of the Alps  (Milan is apparently bigger but -- sniff here from the tour guide -- "that place has colour and statues.  We're C of E").  Great street names too -- The Shambles stands out -- and if you think Stratford-upon-Avon is 'olde worlde', forget it.  York has that one too.

York was settled in AD 71 by the Romans who were busily righting a wrong.  A British queen had had some booty stolen from her by a rebel king and the Romans just had to support their allies even though the rebel king was the queen's husband (still with me?).  And in true Roman fashion, they liked it so much they stayed ostensibly to position a garrison in a strategic northern position where they could keep an eye (i.e occasionally stomp) on unruly tribes and those damned Picts and Scots.  They chose York -- or rather Eboracum -- because its in the V of two rivers, the Ouse and the smaller Fosse and they only had to build one barricade to the north.  It started out as earth but when Hadrian arrived in 120 or so, he got them to not only build that bloody wall further oop north but also to build massive stone fortifications around Eboracum, now to include the part of the city that had grown on the other side of the river banks.  Incredibly Eboracum became the largest city north of Rome with 100,000 inhabitants and became the centre for trade in Brittania.   300 years later came disaster as the Romans left (in 410 AD) and in came a whole host of smellies starting with the Anglians in the 600's and more damagingly the Vikings in the 800's.  Eboracum became Yorvik under the Vikings and the city again grew to importance as it became a capital of the Viking kings during the Danegeld period when Britain was carved in two.  Putting it in perspective, the population under the Vikings grew to 18,000 which was considered a very large city then.  First the Saxons under Harold gave the Vikings a hammering in 1066 and only 3 weeks later came the Normans who subsequently "harried" the north to such an extent that historians believe over 100,000 people died in the suppression and famine that followed.

The Normans couldn't pronounce Yorvik so the city became York and the walls rose a further 30 feet as it became the northern centre of Norman influence again.  No 'hearts and minds' in those days.  And those darned Normans built the first Minster (why Minster and not a Cathedral?  York is a place of "ministering" to the flock, hence Minster.  Canterbury is a place to "teach".  A place of teaching was called a "cathedra" hence Cathedral) which was another darn great church.  A couple of hundred years later Edward I moved the court to York to conduct his endless wars against the Scots and invited his nobles to join him.  When they did, Edward "asked" for a contribution to the building of a new Minster on top of the old one and I get the feeling that it wasn't sensible to decline so York got a really big new Minster.  Edward I didn't need that foppish Magna Carta to keep the barons under control.

York was mightily involved in the Wars of the Roses (Richard III was something of a hero to York even though the House of York was essentially a southern family, the House of Lancaster was the northern family) and again in the Civil War when it was besieged mightily prior to Naseby in 1644 and suffered damage from the Parliamentarian besiegers.  Cromwell turned the religious buildings into secular hostels but the city barely noticed and from the Restoration picked up and polished its brass again.  The result is a lovely city which has many, many wonderful historical sites that the city fathers have sensibly enhanced on the whole pretty well.

Being a snotty southerner I had always thought folk from "oop north" were poor relations and lived in back to back houses one sees on Coronation Street.  Not a bit of it.  Certainly the bits I saw showed a very conservative and wealthy population very certain where they've come from and who and where they are.  I really did walk all over the city but could not find much in the way of urban poverty or scrubby streets where I wouldn't have much liked to go.  I am sure they exist though as the Pound Stores and Money Shops were all about like in other cities but I saw little evidence of it.

I had a day out in Whitby, a seaside town on the coast, where John said would be the finest fish and chips anywhere.  I doubted this as Sarfend seafront's Ye Olde Chippy was still a fond memory.  The drive was through part of the North Yorkshire moors and it was something out of the Hound of the Baskervilles (wrong moor, I know).  Rugged and spectacular indeed.  My ears popped so we must have been quite high.  In winter when a north wind blew, it would have been unlivable.

Whitby was straight out of a Hovis advertisement.  I expected to see an old man pushing a bike with his dog running alongside but only saw the new signs of Whitby -- endless shops and attractions expounding the "Whitby Experience".  Whitby was a fishing village and had an old abbey that Henry VIII looted and flattened in the Reformation and I think that was about it.  Bram Stoker lived nearby and supposedly had the idea of Dracula when living in Whitby.  However the fish and chips from The Magpie Cafe were very nice indeed (I had haddock as rock was not on the menu which would have enabled a direct comparison) even though on another table a patron was enjoying a bottle of Champagne with his haddock and chips.  I've never seen that before.  And you wouldn't do that in Ye Olde Chippy.

Other than farming I have seen no sign of industry at all in Yorkshire.  Have all those dark satanic mills gone?  I think so.  Whitby was all tourist related (i.e. services) as was York.  John and his wife, Mandy, have just visited China for the first time and said that while they saw plenty of US influence and stuff from Germany and occasionally designer stuff from elsewhere, there was precious little of Britain.  Interesting observation.  I put it down to the fact that these days Britain doesn't make much of anything any more.  I see BMW is moving Mini production to Britain which is nice but offhand I cannot think of much else that we do any more.  So just what do people do?  Surely not everyone can be in services.  Another thing from this is that if (in this case) the Chinese see nothing from Britain, there's precious little interest in getting to know anything about Britain.  Surely our most important export to China isn't just Hong Kong?

York is on the tourist through route for buses en route for Edinburgh so the highlights get a lot of foreign visitors.  On my first visit to the Minster, I saw a sign for free guided tours and asked the information desk who suggested I rush off and join the nearest one that had just started.  I joined 3 or 4 before realising that all were for bus tour people and the visitors knew everyone else and were eyeing up the interloper.  I did finally join a start up tour with 2 South Africans, a Californian and an Italian and had a delightful lady talk about different but not conflicting things to those 3 or 4 other tours.  Interesting what different people find the most interesting bits when its all about the same thing.

On another occasion at the end of a heavy walking day I popped back into the Minster for a sit down and bit of peace and quiet only to walk into the most beautiful choral service given by children of the Minster school (located in the cloisters rather like Kings in Canterbury, but its just a junior school).  There were a couple of other visitors like me feeling rather privileged to be there (I imagine) but as they all left I decided to take a look at the high altar area where the action had just taken place and ran into a volunteer guide there who for some reason took to me.  Charming chap chatted away and even the sudden explosion of John Bonham's drums announcing the opening chords to Rock and Roll (my mobile phone ring tone) caused him murmur other than to say "mobile phones should be turned off as the firemen say they could cause a short circuit with the fire alarms and spark a fire".  He made me chuckle a bit as he said he enjoyed being involved from a historical and religious interest perspective, but he wasn't that interested in the spiritual stuff.  He also told a couple of tales of greed, power grabbing and general incompetence of previous Deans and Archbishops -- even the C of E has their Borgias!  By the time we ended, he had to let me out of the church meaning I got to see the tradesmen's entrance -- it was the car park at the back.  Thanks Paul.

I enjoyed the York Museum thoroughly although was a bit disappointed with the general lack of loads of Roman stuff until I read that it had mostly been reused and mixed up with subsequent building so unless it was simply lying around somewhere it had been recycled.  The lovely gardens had lots of vague old looking bits that were supposedly Roman but then again I suppose the Forum in Rome needs an awful lot of imagination too.

I could have managed another day to see the other small bits I'd missed but have a mission to help Alistair pack up and leave Uni.  So that pleasure will have to wait another day or so.  Thanks Mandy and John for a memorable visit.  I do leave York though feeling that Richard III had a really bad rap from history and in particular that hack, Shakespeare.  He was the good guy in all that Princes in the Tower stuff.

I almost forgot the Morris Dancers!!

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