Ye Old York – How To Have A Very Merry Time Indeed
I first saw York from the car window. An instant in between passing trees, road signs and traffic lights.
I’d seen York before. In my dreams. Through books I’d read and stories I’d loved, through history passed down through the eyes of those who’d called York their home and then their own.
I saw the cobblestone streets, the spires of York Minster rising up above the city and the rich, spicy-sweet scent of Chocolate wafting through the ancient alleyways, permeating the factory walls of the Rowntrees.
Unlike Edinburgh, whose curving closes and imposing castles oozed an almost addictive enchantment, York was all charm and charisma, with its cobblestone streets and long leafy trees offering an elegance that could transport you back through hundreds of years of time.
We parked in the rising shadow of Clifford’s Tower, the now-ruinous keep of what was once York’s formidable medieval Norman castle. Rain drops began to fall as we ran across the parking lot and courtyard to the entrance of the York Castle Museum. Yet as the water ruptured against my skin, a peculiar sensation rushed over me. The rain seemed neither cold nor venomous in its tirade, not icy in the brittle wind, yet just as electrifying. I stopped in my tracks, waiting for my family to catch up to me so we could pass through the glass doors of the museum together. The lights inside flickered erratically from the storm for a moment before steeling themselves; as if something extraordinary was about to begin.
We found ourselves drawn towards the west wing of the museum and within a few moments found ourselves amidst hundreds of colourful toys dating back 150 years, from rocking horses to beautiful handmade dolls, to bikes and puppets and even a bucket of lego… the carefree laughter of the children that once played with these toys, sealed within. The exhibition even had Dad pointing out a few toys he had played with as a child and it was a moment of both the absurd and the amusing when he realised that those very same toys were now deemed old enough to belong to a museum.
Following the path set before us, we wound our way through corridors until we came upon a small atrium whereupon two screens, two stories were being revealed. One told of the lives a modern man and woman, going to work, living their lives in the 21st Century. The other showed the lives of a man and woman from the 1800s also at work, living their lives. The contrast was startling but what was interesting was not only how much life had changed but just how much it had remained the same.
A spark of light flickered from behind the next door. We all followed it forwards until the door swept back and for a split second, we were enveloped by darkness. Then I blinked and we were in modern-day no longer. Gas lamps lit the cobblestone street with a blaze and the shop windows burst with colour and around us. We were upon Kirkgate, embroiled in the essence of Victorian life in York, the soul of 19th century England captured on one street. I could hear the whinny of taxi cab horses as they would have raced down the street and when my eyes became adjusted to the light, I could see the stores that lined the walkways, the shopkeepers smiling and waving from within.
This whole place was brought to life by Dr John Kirk, a doctor from Pickering, North Yorkshire, and houses his extraordinary collection of social history, reflecting everyday life in the county. As a Doctor to many of the impoverished in York, many of his patients were unable to pay him sufficiently in coin. Instead, John Kirk would accept anything from old chairs to embroidery, to glass bottles and even family heirlooms. Soon he had an agglomerate that he could no longer store himself. He decided to give it all back to the public, converting the former debtors’ prison and an adjoining former women’s prison into a museum for the people. Today Kirkgate is one of the most renowned reconstructed streets in England and has been hugely influential in museum displays worldwide.
We followed a call off the main street into a small room where a man in costume greeted us with a smile. We soon discovered that the quaint little space we were sitting in was a Cacao house. The Cocoa Houses of York were founded by the Quakers as a way of alleviating the devastating effects of the poverty, alcoholism and circle of domestic violence associated with the malaise of the lower classes of Victorian England. They were community gathering places, dry houses, where families were invited to share a Hot Cocoa and where the Quakers would utilise the opportunity to share their values of non-violence, community and temperance.
“It was a haven.” The man spoke, leading the way out of the Cacao House and into a tiny alleyway by the name of Rowntree Snicket. “From this.” He gestured ahead to the tiny, cramped backstreet we were now on, portraying the filthy living conditions of the poor in Victorian York. Damp cells the size of a kitchen pantry served as homes for families of 7, perilous roofing and structures were overrun with rats and rampant with disease and a single tap, the only water source for cooking, cleaning, drinking and waste stood at the head of the street like a shrine.
The man smiled at everyone’s dumbfounded faces. His eyes gleamed as we left behind the slums and returned to Kirkgate. Everything seemed so unnaturally shiny and each shop seemed to glitter with the promise of something new to discover. “Now go. Go and see what life was like upon Kirkgate before you return to your own and forget what the past gave to the future.” My eyes swept over the exquisitely appointed stores: Bank’s Music, Cooke’s Scientific Instruments, Plummer Sisters’ Milliners, Cooper’s Saddlers, Kendrick’s Toy Dealers and so much more. The stories awaited within and anyone could go forth and uncover them.
Suddenly, a peculiar sound began to ring against my ears. Rich and powerful, deep and ardent. Ringing out to us at first with a beckoning smile and then when our senses were enraptured… commanding. Commanding us to follow it. It was the bells of York Minster… calling us.
We followed the call across the city until at last, we stood in the golden shadow of the largest Gothic cathedral in all of Northern Europe. It had only a few months ago completed an epic 20 million dollar restoration that had taken over 5 years, bringing together cutting-edge science and ancient craftsmanship to transform and protect parts of the medieval cathedral for future generations. Now, this was York Minster, revealed.
From the outside, the facade was breathtaking, an intricate puzzle of architecture but once we passed inside, the exterior almost faded in comparison. The walls seemed to arch on forever, changing shade and luminescence with every passing hour of the day. The stain glass windows cast a light that spun through the shadows, igniting the cathedral with the fire of a thousand colours. And in that moment I knew there was no better word suited to this place then spectacular. That word floated out of my thoughts up into the rafters, to dance with the light in a courtship that would last forever.
We made our way across the tiles to the east side of the cathedral where a narrow doorway morphed into a minuscule spiralling staircase. A faint shiver of cool wind curved down the steps. Then we began to climb.
275 steps later we stood at the top of York Minster’s Central Tower, gazing down at the panoramic views of York’s picturesque city centre, the hidden alleyways and medieval lanes snaking in-between the cobblestone streets, as if protecting an ancient secret and beyond that, the stunning Yorkshire countryside of rolling green hills and wide open skies. Just below us medieval pinnacles and gothic gargoyles decorated the Minster’s walls, the all seeing eyes of the statues glaring down at the unknowing populace.
We were at the highest point in all of York, its infamous walls guarding the gates to the entire city and there, for a split second against the wiry railing, I glimpsed again that tug, the tendrils of something that was buried much deeper within the dirt. The stories that seemed to follow the lines drawn in concrete across this city. The stories that inevitably brought us together with strangers and made us friends.
There was Tracy, Paul, Connor and Katie, who had so warmly invited us into their home for a night of Exploding Kittens and conversation that lasted long into the early hours of the morning. The laughter that had ensued among us earlier in the day, when walking around the base of York Minster stayed at the forefront of my mind as we came across a formidable statue of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. “I’m always a little apprehensive when rulers start calling themselves Great,” Paul had observed as we all burst into hysterics. That moment had become a memory for me.
Or the time Anna, her sister Nam Prakash and their children took us on a historic walking tour of the city, under crumbling stones arches, past hundred year old tombs, up onto the Bar Walls until at last we came to a charming hotel, whose own walls told many an intriguing historical tale of murders, ghosts and Kings and together enjoyed one of the best afternoon teas we had ever had. That moment became a memory as well.
And then there was the Home Ed Event along my Dawn of the Guardian UK Book Tour that turned into an afternoon Kundalini Yoga session. I can’t even begin to recount the ripples of friendship this spontaneity created. York had brought us all together and it only reaffirmed the ties we all felt to this extraordinary English city.
The bells began to chime once more as we began the steep climb down and I fell into an almost rhythmic trance until we stood once more within the ornate halls. We’d just descended from the heavens. Now we were about to enter the underworld. Or more accurately, the Undercroft where over 2000 years of history lay waiting to be discovered.
We began by following the footsteps of the Roman soldiers who marched into this city nearly two millenniums ago to claim it for their Emperor Constantine. He, in turn, renamed it Eboracum and travelled across the land to rule his mighty Empire from York. But the wheel of fortune continued to turn and in just 400 years the Romans found their Empire in turmoil, attacked from all sides, both internally and externally and as they were forced to flee, in rushed the Anglo-Saxon Era and with them the Vikings.
My eyes were immediately drawn to the elaborately carved 1000-year-old elephant tusk which Viking Lord Ulf used to gift the land on which the current cathedral stands to the Chapter of York and beyond it, deeper within where the Norman origins of the cathedral were visible; The York Gospels. I poured over the ancient scriptures, the flowery handwriting of the illuminated manuscript transporting me back through the ages. I could hardly read the handwriting but I knew that the stories within were nearly 1000 years old and that now a millennium later, my eyes were resting upon its pages.
York Minster was once a centre for military, politics and theology that influenced both the region’s and the nation’s history. Now it stands even more splendid than the day it was built, defying time. It proved to me that time truly did not matter.
That 30 years could pass and the toys we played with and the games we had are now deemed old enough to belong to a museum.
That 200 years could pass and our daily lives would still hold comparisons as clear as day.
That 400 years could elapse and a mighty Empire could crumble.
And that 2000 years could tick by and yet this city was still standing. Time fades away. But the moments, the memories and the stories remain.
As we made our way to the exit we heard a lady call out to us. It was the same lady who had so warmly welcomed us inside. “Hope you had a merry time!” her voice echoed across the ancient hall. We all turned around. “Oh yes, thank you!” Dad called back. “We had a very merry time indeed.”
Outside we walked down the city streets, the sun reflecting in the glass of the shops, restaurants and hotels that surrounded us. But I didn’t see any of that. I couldn’t see any of that. For a moment I could only feel the stories and the stone that encased them, yarning the tale long after the characters within had written “The End.”
I knew as the light faded from my eyes that we were now seated within our car, the engine roaring to life. Yet as the tires picked up speed I knew it wouldn’t be the last time we’d see York. There was something here, something I had felt before I had even set eyes on the city and something that became as clear as day when I did. Stories live on in York. In the walls, in the stone, in the air. And the stories grow every day. We passed through the city limits, York falling further and further behind us. And then suddenly, just like that, we became a part of its story.