Before I get started, it has been brought to my attention that I have been remiss in failing to previously mention the invaluable work performed by Travel Buddy in navigating the highways, byways, and snickleways of Britain. Rest assured such oversights will not occur again; those responsible have been sacked. Now, on with the show.
So, Old York. The city so nice they had to make it twice. Don’t forget to tip your waitresses and I’ll be here all week, folks.
In all seriousness though, from time to time in your travels you come across a place where you think “I could live here. I really could.” York is such a place. Its a college town nowadays, with a tidy, compact city core, tons of pubs and eateries, and that wonderful, pop-in-for-a-pint-mate northern vibe. It’s fantastic — though it hasn’t always been.
Its roughly 200,000 residents live atop roughly a billion years of history, and not just boring old we-found-some-pottery-and-arrowheads history either — serious wars have been fought here, kings (some you’ve heard of!) have connived and schemed here, plagues ravaged, Vikings plundered, Scots rampaged, and… actually now that I think about it, this place is pretty dangerous, statistically speaking.
First settled by mesolithic people about 8000-7000 BCE, the stone-age inhabitants were kicked out by Celts, who in turn were booted by Romans, later to be supplanted by Angles, then Saxons, then Normans, then tourists. It’s been rough at times.
But here’s the thing. You can’t dig more than a few feet in York before finding something old, and presumably of interest to someone. York is such a rich archaeological site that the authorities — quite literally — don’t know what to do with it all, so some of it is just left hanging around outside. There’s warehouses of artifacts that haven’t been examined yet, but the stuff that seems sturdy is left outdoors, like these roman coffins.
That one wall in the above photo encapsulates a fair amount of what you’re dealing with in York. The small, precise stonework at the bottom of the wall is Roman. The larger stones on top were added in the middle ages by the Anglo-Saxons, in a vain attempt to keep out the Vikings.
The Roman name “Eboracum” was turned into “Eoforwic” by the Saxons, and perhaps this is what upset the Vikings, but no one knows. All we know for sure is that they were mighty cross when the stormed the place, and started calling it Jorvik, which is altogether more pleasing, but after William the Conqueror rolled in, he had to — in the fashion of conquerors — change the name yet again, this time to Yerk. Thankfully vowels have shifted since then.
Anyway, eventually a huge abbey was located here, along with a hospital and — not making this up — a rehab center for drunks. The abbey became tremendously rich, and thus a target for Henry VIII. But rather than send his army to destroy the abbey, he simply gave the townspeople carte blanche to tear it down, and use the stones to build new houses. This is all that’s left.
So, the townspeople of Ye Olde England tore down the abbey, and built a batshit-crazy pile of leaning shanties and goofy lanes. It was a fair trade, I guess. Anyway, some of these medieval lanes still exist, like the famous Shambles (named after the old Danish word for ‘butcher’s shop’, since this is where the butchers were).
You can spend hours wandering around — indeed you probably will, since the street layout is baffling and the pubs are numerous. But then you’ll turn a corner and find such a spectacularly goofy street name you’ll need photographic evidence:
There’s a lot going on here, so let’s take things one at a time. Yes, the name of the street is “Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate”. Yes, the address is 1 1/2 Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate. Because England, that’s why.
Some locals swear that the street name is derived from an old law allowing men to legally beat their wives on that street, but like all stories too good to be true, it is false. The town’s stocks and posts used to be nearby, though, so perhaps that’s a more accurate explanation. But there’s no written record, and in York, that’s mighty suspicious, because they have written records for damn near everything else.
Anyway, I could go on for days about this place. I haven’t even mentioned the unique-in-the-world preserved medieval city walls, or the astounding museums, or the markets, or the night walks, or the immense norman York Minster. I just don’t have time or space here. Suffice it to say that York deserves not just one visit, but several.