Eboracum Ahoy! A visit to York

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 26 September 2004

I managed to grab a brief holiday a couple of weeks back, and travelled with wife and mother-in-law in tow to York.

St Marys Abbey in York    The Hospitum in York

Part of the reason for choosing there had been that it fitted my wife's requirement that we should go somewhere with plenty of hauntings, so of course we went on the obligatory Ghost Walk of York. We chose one of the less sensational ones, The Haunted Walk of York, which was really good and I can recommend it (though of course if you follow the link and read the stories you'll have no need to go yourself). It wasn't spooky, but it was genuinely interesting, even when re-telling stories I knew, and it was packed full of gems of local history.

We also made the required visit to the Jorvik Viking Centre, which was I thought a little pricey at over £7 each per ticket. Half of the exhibition takes the form of a kind of smelly ghost train ride, the concept of which I didn't really come to grips with until halfway through. It was also stuffed full of automata (bizarrely including chickens) which always freaks me out. It must be the influence of Spearhead From Space. They did have some really innovative ways of presenting their archaeological finds in context though, which I enjoyed - they have the artefacts laid out in display cases, and then use a combination of back-lighting and mirrors to place the reflections of the items into a 'reconstructed' scene of everyday Viking life.

The really big hit for me was the National Railway Museum - whilst not a complete train nerd* I have to confess to a love of big chunky bits of rail-related machinery, so I pretty much thought I had died and gone to heaven. The fact that it was free to get in meant we popped into it as soon as we arrived at York station, and then used it as a time filler whilst waiting for our return train.

A locomotive at the National Railway Museum    An Agenoria engine built in 1829 on display at the National Railway Museum in York    The open store at the National Railway Museum

As far as value went the NRM was a stark contrast to the open-topped tour buses of York. Previously in Dublin we have used the hop-on/hop-off concept of the tour bus as a way of avoiding having to come to grips with the local public transport fare structure and routes. We thought we could do the same in York, but I was astonished that the tour lasted barely half-hour, at a jaw-dropping £8 per adult, and we saw virtually nothing that we hadn't walked to in our previous two days in the city. (Whilst I am moaning, I should add I can't link directly to the page about York on their site due to a horrible bit of javascript-frameset-redirecting they have at www.city-sightseeing.com).

Foodwise we enjoyed some TexMex style cuisine in Plunketts, which got very busy, and enjoyed a couple of nice teas and coffees in Café Concerto, which is uniquely decorated with sheaves and sheaves of turn-of-the-20th-century sheet music. We also ate one night at Caesars Italian restaurant, which was a bit of a disappointment. We stayed at the Georgian Guest House, just around the corner from BBC Radio York, which was comfortable enough (we even had a room with a four-poster bed), but the breakfast was pretty ropey. It also turned out that I had stayed there before on a previous trip to York. So once again, The Bootham Tavern became my de facto local, apart from during the England - Poland game which I have already written about.

In my hunt for music I didn't really come across many shops of interest - I spent some time in Tracks but came away unsure why it has such a good reputation - I found it poorly laid out and the stock disorganised. I also popped into a hi-fi separates shop, The Sound Organisation, for a very useful and informative chat about DAB radios.

There were also a couple of bizarrely memorable moments. One was seeing a toy aeroplane that I used to own for sale in the antiques centre on Lendal Street. Someone should have this down as a rite of passage, "the first time you see something you owned as a child being sold as an old thing". The second was being in York Minster with my wife and walking past, unacknowledged, Hazel Brockhurst, who was my first serious girlfriend nearly twenty years ago.

I was the only one of our party to climb the main tower at the Minster. It was well worth doing, and there are some spectacular views - but it was a hard work - and a horrifying snapshot of just how unfit I am. I floundered out onto the roof from the 275 step staircase gasping like a fish out of water. Maybe I should be taking up some of the challenges from Fat Nation!

View from the roof of York Minster    View from the roof of York Minster    View from the roof of York Minster

*Actual level of train nerdery is disputed by my wife and I.

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