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York: treasures around every curve

York Minster

When we visited the kids this summer, we knew we'd be covering large distances. The UK seems small by Canadian standards, but there is still a lot of 'there' there, and with Ben in Glasgow and Robyn in Kent, we needed a place in the middle to visit, to break up the journey from south to north. A quick look at the centre of the map showed the city of York; historically England's second city (at least according to my favourite computer game, Civilization IV) and on a major train line between Edinburgh and London. That would do nicely.

The train to York was lovely; an commuter train from Glasgow to Edinburgh and then southbound on the Avanti Express. We booked our seats on the left side of the carriage, hoping for views of the Channel coast, and we weren't disappointed. At times there were only sand dunes, links golf courses and the odd hut between us and the water. The views helped me take my mind off leaving Ben and Laura behind in Glasgow and worrying about when we'd see them in person again. And the views also helped me avoid looking at the couple in front of us aggressively snogging for the first hour of the trip. They were nice enough to stick right in the middle of their row, so I could examine both participant's dental work through the seat gap. But mainly I looked at the coastline.

Robyn had started her summer break, so she caught a train north from Broadstairs to meet us in York, and we arrived within three minutes of each other on a sunny Friday evening. We combined to form a perfect clockwise spiral, us heading right and down the map and Robyn travelling left and up, meeting at the centre point. It was the first of many spirals we would take over the weekend, as York has a shortage of straight roads. Everything curves. You curve up to the train station, then away. Curve up to the (curved) city walls, pass through the gate, then curve away. Even the bus to our apartment curved left and up a hill from the station, then swung a hard right, another curve right down the hill before curving hard left once more, dropping us off and curving away down the road.

I got lost a lot with all the curves. Well, not exactly lost. More surprised that familiar places kept popping up where I did not expect them. At one point I truly believed there were too many Betty's Tea Rooms in the old city, until I realized there was only one room and I just was walking in circles. Even though the centre of York is relatively tiny, I found myself consulting Mrs. Google quite often.

The main tourist area of York is the old city, founded in Roman times, occupied by the Vikings and one of the last stands of the Royalists during the Civil War. Large sections of the old city walls are still intact, and we walked along the walls wherever possible. Modern York is built right up to the walls on both sides, so rather than peering out through the archer's gaps to look for invaders, we peeked into back gardens and restaurant courtyards. Still, it was good fun.

View from the city walls

Lovely back garden, as seen from the old city walls

The streets inside the walls are shorter, narrower and curvier still, and chock full of shops and curiosities. We headed first for the Shambles, a series of exceptionally narrow lanes where the each building's second story leans out over the street. The Shambles is one of at least 75 locations purporting to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books and modern shopkeepers play that up as much as possible. There's even an HP store where long queues of people waited for a chance to by an official wand or set of robes. But historically, the shambly nature of the buildings served an important purpose. This was the street of the butchers and fishmongers, and the upper floors were designed to cast extra shade on all the meat, to keep things cool in the time before refrigeration. There's even a narrow channel in the middle of the cobblestone street which today carries rain water toward the drains but I imagine many more liquids were carried along that channel over the centuries.

Next to the Shambles is an open air market and a collection of excellent food stalls, so we had a good lunch and an even better visit at the crowded, communal picnic tables. A seat at the tables is highly prized, so there were several groups hovering about us as we finished our delicious noodles. We gave our seats to two local ladies who picked up that we were tourists in under five seconds, and told us all about their recommended local haunts.

The Shambles

The Shambles

They gave an extra hard sell for the Jorvik Viking Centre, which in all the tourist literature and many posters too. It looked rather corny on the posters, but the ladies assured us it was really good, so long as we could get over the smell. That seemed to be an odd detail, but we thanked them, left and decided to look for tickets.

The Jorvik centre was only a few streets over and had a massive queue outside. They pre-sell tickets for specific entrance times and were sold out for the day, but Cindy noticed an 'unticketed' line off to the side. People from the unticketed line were let in sporadically, to fill in gaps I suppose, and since the line was moving, Cindy and Robyn decided to give it a try. I decided on a coffee and a sit instead, and went searching for a cafe.

Coffee was the correct choice. I hadn't even finished my latte when Cindy and Robyn came by, laughing and shaking their heads, less than 45 minutes after we parted. It turns out they spent much more time in line that within the viking experience.

From what we can gather, the whole thing started when the building owner began digging out a new basement for the place and discovered some viking ruins under the floor. They kept digging, carefully, and discovered all manner of things, so he decided to keep the underground area in viking form and open it up as a tourist attraction. He must have been to Disneyland at some point, because what he built was like the "Small World" or "Pirates of the Caribbean" rides in California. Patrons are seated in little cars which travel down into the excavation, where a series of animatronic dioramas show viking life, or a reasonable facsimile at least. A scene plays out with figures spinning and pivoting in time to the recorded narration, and then the car turns to face another diorama. After a few of these, the "experience" is over and visitors are ushered to the gift shop faster than you can say 'tourist trap.'

And the smell? A combination of many tourists in a tight, damp space, underground, with limestone. The smell is mentioned on all the marketing materials too; talk about turning a bug into a feature! We don't recommend the Jorvik Viking Centre, except ironically.

Knaresborough Viaduct

Knaresborough Viaduct as seen from the old castle grounds

Heading Out of Town #

After another day traipsing around the old city, and an evening watching England's Lionesses win the Women's Football European Championships on BBC, we took a day trip to the village of Knaresborough. It's a short train ride from York and is a wonderful mix of the old and the very old - castle ruins from the 12th century, a viaduct from the age of steam rail, and a host of Victorian era fun. One can walk along a lovely river bank, rent a rowboat and dodge the other boaters, play bowls on the village green, or in our case, have Cream Tea at a lovely little cafe across from the castle grounds.

As best I can tell, Cream Tea differs from High Tea in that it's simpler. A scone with strawberry jam and clotted cream, and tea. No tiered tray and cucumber sandwiches. A scone and tea. And it's delightful.

I believe the 'cream' part refers to the cream that you spread on the scone, rather than the cream in the tea. There were signs about describing the correct way to have your cream tea. Homey, country kitchen style signs, not health service directives. The signs told us that the jam goes on the scone first. Jam, then cream. Soft, runny jam and then stiff, thick cream. I believe the sign was made in China because it doesn't work that way. You can't spread stiff on top of slippery without the stiff pushing the slippery off the scone and onto your hand.

Once I wiped the jam back onto the scone, it was delicious. I really like the cream bit too - it's lighter than butter and not quite as sweet as whipped cream back home. Goes great with jam, so long as it's stuck to the scone. Whether jam first or cream first, I highly recommend Cream Tea and I recommend a day trip to Knaresborough too, if you find yourself in the area. But trust me, go cream first.

Knaresborough Viaduct

Whether aquaduct or viaduct, we can’t get enough!

And then, a bakery #

Before we left York for our remaining journey south, we had one more trip in store. We packed up and took everything on the bus to Haxby, a suburb of York just north of the city walls. Phil and Tina started Haxby Bakehouse 15 years ago and I've been a big fan of their work for many years now. Our friend Sheena, who used to work at Night Oven in Saskatoon, worked at Haxby for several years and I got the inside scoop from her. And Phil is Instagram famous for his progressive, provocative bread stencil work, especially during Brexit, Covid and the assorted scandals whirling around Boris Johnson. Phil is a man of the people and I very much wanted to meet him.

Let me tell you, I know how to make an entrance. The bus dropped us off in front of the bakery and I stepped inside through a set of linked metal doorway curtains. You know those screens which you often see in beaded form on the cabanas on tropical islands? Like that, but with a lightweight chain instead of beads. I proceeded to get all the chains tangled up in my backpack as I passed through and it took Cindy and Robyn to unhook me as Tina, Phil and several customers looked on, horrified. Once free, I spun around with a flourish - tada! - to great laughter. If the customers gave me an extra wide berth after that I'm sure it was only because they were kind souls who loved Canadian travellers.

We had an excellent visit. Phil showed us around the shop and we had a great chat about the trials and tribulations of opening and running a bakery, recovering from Covid, changing tastes and changing staff, and all the other shop talk that I love so much. And then he took us to his new production facility, a five minute drive away, in a light-industrial neighbourhood. That's where the big oven, big mixer, long bench and loud reggae music lives. Phil opened the new facility while in and out of Covid lockdown. Whenever the trades were allowed to work, they would come and do their thing with the plumbing, electrical and other build-out. The bakery is still growing; Phil is planning on expanding into the adjoining space in the next few months as well. I'm so happy for them and I really hope I can catch Phil when he isn't running full out so I can share his story on the podcast.

After thanking Phil profusely and bumping fists with the bake crew, we piled back into Phil's delivery van and he drove us to the train station, just in time for our train to Broadstairs. Our time in York was well worth it. Lots to see and do, good food and friendly bakers too.

Next time though, we will be sure to map out our daily routes through the old city. I think we got needlessly twisted up with the narrow, curving streets and retraced our steps far too often. There are likely two or three districts that we missed completely. But it's always good to leave something for the next trip. And besides, Robyn was itching to show us her new home in Broadstairs and all the reasons she loves living there. We couldn't wait any longer.

Bluebird Bakery

Our go-to spot for breakfast!

More things to see in York #

  • York Minster cathedral, of course! One of the largest in Europe, seat of the Archbishop of York, visible from all over town and on every postcard. (Bonus: it’s “Minster” not “Minister.” I did not know that.)

  • Dame Judy Dench Walk, a paved path along the river just outside the city walls. You can rent small motor boats or buy an ice cream and have a nice long sit after a day of walking about. When we went, there was a local artists fair along the riverbank and I picked up an extremely weird coaster which I love.

  • The National Railway Museum is right next to the train station and is totally worth a visit, even if you are not a trainspotter. All the luxurious Royal Carriages are on display, going back all the way to Queen Victoria, as well cabins for the common folks, a mail car and even a Japanese bullet train. And it's free! If nothing else, you'll love the incredible range of rail posters, advertising the romance of classic train travel. I loved it.

  • If you want High Tea or Cream Tea, Bettys is the place to go, although it's a little pricey. We only looked longingly through the window.

  • Not to be outdone with all the Harry Potter merch, the York Ghost Merchants are a local sensation. Folks stood in queues so long that they needed traffic controls in order to go inside and purchase a small, ceramic ghost. Oh, those wacky kids.

  • If you don't make it out to Haxby Bakehouse, then check out Bluebird Bakery. We ate our morning breakfast there every morning and we were never, ever disappointed. Great coffee, breakfast sandwiches and awesome sourdough toast. And it's just far enough out of the centre that there's lots of charming locals about.