by TianjinPaul on October 10, 2012
There are many things to see in York. The Minster - the medieval cathedral - is world famous for its architecture and for some of its stained glass windows. There is the National Railway Museum, which houses some of the most famous trains from British transport history. And, there is the fantastically interactive Yorkshire Museum. These places are all worth the visit. However, as unusual as this may sound, it is possible to visit York and skip all of them. This is because York, in itself, is a tourist attraction. The very streets and buildings that make-up the city are reason enough to pay a visit.There are different cities in England that epitomise different eras of architecture. Obviously, London gives you pretty much everything, but places like Bath would give you fantastic examples of Georgian design and many cities in the north offer beautiful (although that may not be the right choice of word) of the Industrial Revolutions. However, if you want to get a taste of medieval England, York is the place to be. The history of York is deep and varied. It started as one of the earliest and most enduring Roman settlements in the north of England. It remained a major settlement in the Anglo-Saxon era before being a major centre for the rampaging Vikings. In more recent history, as it is not a major industrial centre, it escaped serious damage during World War II. This means that the majority of its ancient buildings still stand unscathedThe first part of York's physical being that strikes the visitor is the walls. When you step out of the train station or you get off the buses from one of the many park and ride schemes (It is almost impossible to park within York) they are the first things that grab you. They are giant grey slabs of granite that instantly tell the visitor you are entering a place of history. Unlike some ancient cities - Xi'an in China being an excellent example - the walls do not go completely around the city. However, they are substantial enough to be seen in several places and to give the city the feel of a medieval strong-hold. On the outside of the walls, there is significantly more modernity. Many of the buildings have at least a nineteenth or twentieth century feel. However, once you pass inside, you can easily drift back hundreds of years. There are hundreds of buildings that date back to the Middle Ages. The best area here is known as the Shambles - a generic term used in Old English to describe a collection of streets that interlock and would - in their Medieval heyday be rather chaotic and messy. The name is not unique to York, there are several Shambles in older areas of cities across England. The York version is truly wonderful. The buildings are mainly two storeys and are crowded together in a wonderful cluster. Many of them also over-hang (thanks to their age) and in some places almost block out the light.The city of York has done a wonderful job in preserving these areas. The buildings are all protected, so they cannot be knocked-down or extensively renovated. Accordingly, they may be filled by modern shops and cafes, but they retain their windows, roofs, doors and overall identity. It is done in a way that keeps an insight into the past. Many of the shops themselves also seem to revel in the ancient feel with old-fashioned decor and style. The only downside within the shambles is that in the summer months it can get incredibly crowded with tour parties walking through.
I am from the Yorkshire, the largest county in England. Not only is Yorkshire the biggest county in England, it is also renowned for its own unique identity. Here are just a few things for which it is famous. It is famed as once being England's industrial heartland with huge steel and coal industries (sadly since the 1980s this has been in decline). It is known as a hot-bed of cricket boasting more amateur teams than any other region of the world and providing more players for England than any other country. It is also famed for the Yorkshire Pudding, a delicious mixture of eggs, flour and milk that is roasted until wonderfully crisp and eaten with Sunday lunch (It is popular throughout England). In addition to these facts, the people of Yorkshire are well-know for their ability to give forthright opinions and their frugality - your average Yorkshireman, myself included, thinks everything is expensive.When I visited the Yorkshire Museum in York, I was expecting plenty of exhibits that touched on these themes. However, to my initial disappointment, there was nothing on industry, nothing on cricket and precious little about the Yorkshire identity. I say 'initial' disappointment because whilst the Yorkshire Museum was totally not what I expected, it was a fascinating experience. Rather than focusing on the recent history of the county and the areas that would be considered to be quintessentially Yorkshire, it looked at the deeper history. Instead of stretching back a couple of centuries into the Industrial Revolution, it went further: into Roman times.The Yorkshire Museum charted the growth of York and the surrounding area after the Roman invasion through the following 1,500 years until the county as we know it today had developed. It proved to be a fascinating and interactive experience. It started with a hall that was designed to represent Roman architecture and was decorated with a map of Europe in Roman times with the names of ancient kingdoms and Roman territories. At the center of this room was a large video screen with a touch-screen control panel. It was possible to tap the images of certain characters on the control panel who would then appear on the video screen. The characters were all typical people whose details had been found in archaeological research. There was a farmer who had been born locally, a mosaic-maker who had migrated from northern Africa and a fisherman who had arrived from the region that is now modern-day Germany. Each of them described their life in Roman York in great detail. I found this tremendously interesting. It really felt like living history.Personally, I found the first room to be the highlight of the museum. From there, the museum became a little more traditional. There was a display on the first floor of bones and artefacts taken from digs around the city. The most interesting exhibit was a display of skulls taken from excavations in York and images of the recreations of what those faces may have looked like. This was followed by a display of mosaics found in ancient parts of the city. These were beautiful, but not massively interesting. There was also a display of Roman clothing that featured lots of tunics and sandals. Again, these were not so fantastic, but they were extremely tactile.In the basement there was a display that featured a history of York framed in the context of the Archbishops of York. If I am brutally honest, I found this immensely dry and dull. It was mainly old paintings and long pieces of text that left me cold. From there, we moved upstairs to a slightly bizarre exhibit that centered on bio-diversity. It was quite interesting - it had lots of interesting pieces of information - but I struggled to find any sort of relevance to it. It was true that most of the featured animals lived in Yorkshire, but there was also a section featuring penguins and tigers. It all seemed rather incongruous.Despite some of the dull exhibits and the poorly conceived bio-diversity display, I left the Yorkshire Museum enthused. It had touched history in my region that was new to me and had done so in interesting ways. It cost 7GBP for admission, which was worth it.
It is a tragic shame that for many Yorkshire-folk of a certain age - those born in the late 1970s and the early 1980s - York Minster is not renowned for its beauty and awe-inspiring scale, but for the fire that engulfed it and left it as smouldering ruins. For many who grew up in that period, the Minster was not a place to visit, but a building site. It was repaired and re-built piece-by-piece and ultimately finished in the 1990s. Even now, after having visited twice, I still cannot shake the images of smoke and flames billowing through the intricately carved windows that had housed beautiful stained glass or the pictures of the scorched shell that remained once the flames were extinguished.There are many cathedrals in England that you can see coming from a distance. Their spires loom into view a long time before you are even close to seeing the majority of the building close-up. Others suddenly appear from nowhere as through trapped amidst taller surrounding buildings - Sheffield Cathedral is fine example of this. York Minster works on both levels. On the drive into the city, you can see it from miles away towering over York's medieval town center - it is an impressive sight. However, when you get into the centre of town, it virtually disappears. York is one of Britain's oldest cities and the streets that surround the Minster date back to Viking times. Therefore, there are lots of narrow streets with over-hanging roofs that block out much of the city's scenery. Because of this, until you are right in front of the Minster, it is only possible to catch small glimpses of it.As obscured as the Minster is by the surrounding streets, as soon as you step out to be confronted by its splendour, you are awe-struck. The first aspect of this is, of course, the scale. It simply dwarfs everything around it. To comment merely on the scale, though, would be missing the inherent beauty. I would argue that York Minster offers a wonderfully English feel. It eschews fluid lines and extravagance in favour of stoic solid lines that give it a magnificent Anglo-Saxon feel. These are augmented by some of the most wonderfully delicate masonry that you could ever find. Much of this is so delicate that it seems like it could almost be made from porcelain.The exterior of the Minster is an immensely gripping sight. However, the interior is not to be missed either. Much of it matches the outside. The stonework is light, rigid and quintessentially English. The high ceilings and wide chambers also emphasize the scale once more. There are, though, two or three touches that really capture the imagination. The first is the hand-carved pulpits and pews in certain parts. The second is the tombs and statues of past arch-bishops who had served in the cathedral - the arch-bishop of York is second only to the archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England. These two parts of the Minster are impressive enough, but it is the giant Rose Window that dominates the interior. As the name suggests, this is a rose-shaped window. Again, it is on a huge scale. It is filled with some of the world's most intricate stained glass. The light that diffuses through it is of the most wonderfully delicate quality.The Minster is a wonderful sight both from inside and out. However, the heavy cost of the restoration means that it has followed in the footsteps of St Paul's and Westminster Abbey and now charges admission. The fee is 6GBP.
No matter how great any trip to the National Railway Museum in York might be, it will never measure up to my first visit there when I was a five-year old boy. I was so excited when we arrived that I sped off and started to skip around in between the many huge trains - when I was four they seemed significantly larger than they would today. Unfortunately, I paid scant attention to my father who was trying desperately, and ultimately failing, to keep up with me. It was only after I had examined my third or fourth train that I realized my father was not sharing my joy and enthusiasm and was not, in fact, anywhere close by. I very quickly began to panic.It was only thanks to the help of a guide at the museum that I was reunited with my rather panicked father, who was apparently fretting about what on earth he was going to tell my mother should I not reappear immediately. Because of my little adventure, for many years, the only thing I could ever really recall about the museum was the drama it created - my father told the story for years to come. Therefore, when I visited York with my mother several years later, visiting the Railway Museum felt like a brand new experience. Sadly, whilst it was relatively interesting, it could provide the type of excitement it did when I was a child.The National Railway Museum certainly boasts some exhibits that are worth seeing. In the main hall, there is a large scale exhibit of different locomotives. Pride of place here is given to the Mallard, which was once the world's fastest steam locomotive. It looks wonderfully sleek and powerful and dominates the room like a wonder of the Industrial Age. There are other trains, but they cannot really compare to the Mallard, which is something that is both positive and negative. The Mallard is pretty impressive, but the rest are not too inspiring. When we visited, we were lucky enough to have a bit of a bonus as there was a temporary display that included a section of one of the original Japanese bullet trains. This added scale and substance to the Main Hall, which otherwise would have been a bit dull.The secondary exhibits in the NRM are also relatively interesting, although you would have to be a fully-blown train enthusiast to be really drawn in. There is one room that is rather well-designed to appear like a train station with lots of platforms with different trains waiting at each. This display allows visitors to wander in amongst the trains and examine the interior. The majority are models from the early twentieth century and late nineteenth century and come with a strong supply of mahogany panelled opulence. The prize exhibit amongst these is a version of the Royal train used by various kings in the eras when the Royal family travelled around the country by rail rather than helicopter. I also enjoyed visiting the workshops in which the museum restores carriages and locomotives. There is a gantry from which you can watch the work being done.The National Railway Museum was not the most exciting place I have ever visited. I found it interesting, but nothing more. I would imagine it would take a true rail enthusiast to be 100% enthused.
In the early 1990s when the Jorvik Center I which focuses on life in York during the time of the Vikings - first opened in York, there was quite the furore. At the time, it was seen as one of the most exciting and innovative museums in the UK. My uncle, who is a school-teacher, was so convinced at its merits that he took his class on a trip every year without fail. For some reason, when I was younger, I never got the chance to visit Jorvik. I cannot really recall why as my family and I visited York many times. It could have been because the cost was prohibitive or it may merely have been that my parents didn't really think that it looked too interesting. Either way, I was left wondering what it was like.Several years later, when I took a trip to York with my mother, my curiosity about Jorvik had not abated. In fact, Jorvik stood out as part of my education that had not yet been completed. If it was as good as my uncle claimed it to be, I was surely missing something. So, we decided to book tickets to see what all the fuss had been about. However, despite the hype, it proved to be a rather disappointing experience. Jorvik was neither exciting enough to be considered entertaining and didn't feature enough educational material to be considered informative.I would argue that the majority of Jorvik's short-comings come from its age. Having been constructed in the 1990s, it boasts some rather dated technology and design. For example, the major display is made up of automated figures dressed in the clothing of the time - the figures perform basic tasks such as digging a field. In the 1990s, this would have looked impressive. However, in 2012, not so much. The figures are all quiet and there is just a small audio passage accompanying each one. If you compare this to the interactive video screens that show monologues from specifically recreated figures in Roman York that are on show in the Yorkshire Museum, Jorvik looks a bit tame. The one thing it does have going is the smell. When it opened, this was a major selling-point: it smelled like York in Viking times.Not only did the 1990s style special-effects leave me a little bit cold, but the museum was also lacking in great substance. I find this to be a cardinal sin of many modern museums. In an effort to appear more exciting and less fusty, the detail disappears and is replaced with gimmicks and fads. Jorvik had the smell, but it didn't have too much strong information. There were two rooms that gave a historic overview and showed some archaeological debris, but this was nowhere near enough. I found myself longing for some hard data and some written accounts from the time. It seemed to me that a few mechanised models could have been done away with in order to give the exhibit a little more substance.Overall, I found Jorvik massively disappointing. I would imagine it would be ok if you visited with a child, but they would certainly not be blown away.
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