Historic city tour.

England, York Guide (A): Historic city tour.

York is a city shaped by its past. It resonates history from the Romans to the Blitz. Meet the Emperor Constantine, Eric the Boneless, Dick Turpin and Guy Fawkes. Familiarise yourself with York's compact layout and catch a glimpse of the city's fascinating past.
This article is featured in the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" on iTunes App Store and Google Play. You can download the app to your mobile device to read the article offline and create a self-guided walking tour to visit the attractions featured in this article. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and it works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

Download The GPSmyCity App

Download 'GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities' app for IOS   Download 'GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities' app for Android

Walk Route

Guide Name: Historic city tour.
Guide Location: England » York
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 12
Tour Duration: 2.0 hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.7 km
Sight(s) featured in this guide: Statue of Emperor Constantine   St Michael Le Belfrey   Yorkshire Museum   Betty's Tea Rooms and Cafe   Mansion House   St Martin Le Grand   The King's Arms   Tower Gardens   Clifford's Tower   Fairfax House   The Shambles   St William's College  
Author: Julia Hickey
Author Bio: I am a university lecturer and writer currently living in the north of England. In addition to professional qualifications, I hold a masters degree in English Literature and a B.A.(hons) in English and History. I am passionate about history and enjoy nothing more than exploring the UK's historic cities and buildings. In addition to travel writing and educational writing, I also write fiction for a range of women's magazines including the Woman's Weekly.
1
Statue of Emperor Constantine

1) Statue of Emperor Constantine

This bronze statue of the Emperor Constantine, commissioned in 1998 by the York Civic Trust and designed by Philip Jackson, commemorates York’s very own Roman Emperor.

In 306AD Constantine was proclaimed emperor in York-or Eboracum as the Romans called it- following the death of his father. The statue is situated near the south transept of York Minster because the Minster stands on the site of the headquarters of the Roman fort.

The statue shows Constantine seated on his imperial throne looking at a cross formed by a broken sword. This is a reference to the fact that Constantine became Rome's first Christian emperor. Legend has it that the night before the battle of Milvian Bridge, just outside Rome, he became alarmed by the size of his enemy’s army. He prayed to his pagan gods but saw a flaming cross in the sky. He was advised that this was a sign from God. The next morning his army marched into battle behind a banner bearing the symbol of a flaming cross and was victorious. He converted to Christianity and went on to rule Rome for more than thirty years. He founded Constantinople; modern day Istanbul.

A marble head of Constantine was excavated in Stonegate just across the road from here. It shows a hard faced leader and perhaps this is closer to the truth. Constantine was utterly ruthless in his pursuit of power. He even had his wife and eldest son murdered. The artefact is on display in the Yorkshire Museum.
2
St Michael Le Belfrey

2) St Michael Le Belfrey

The ‘Le Belfrey’ part of the name comes from the fact that the church is in the shadow of next door’s Minster belfry. The belfry is the part of the tower that houses the bells. St Michael’s is most famous for being the church where Guy Fawkes, the gunpowder plot conspirator who attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605, was baptized.

Its history is significant in other ways too. It was constructed during a twelve year period between 1525 and 1537, making it the last church built in York before Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church in order to marry Ann Boleyn. As the church took shape Henry took on the mantle of Supreme Head of the Church in England.

Most of the glass dates from the sixteenth century and is quite beautiful. The treasure, however, is the East Window which is pieced together from glass that came from the church that stood on this site during the medieval period. It depicts the story of Thomas Becket. This is a very unusual survival as Henry VIII ordered the destruction of all images of Thomas in 1538.

The exterior of the church has been altered by the Victorians who renovated it when a nearby row of houses were demolished. Inside, the church has a classical feel largely due to the very grand eighteenth century altar screen.

It is open from 10.00 am to 4.00 pm in summer and for services.
3
Yorkshire Museum

3) Yorkshire Museum

The museum is situated in the middle of the Museum Gardens. If you have time, explore the gardens to find the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, the multangular tower dating from the Roman period and also the oldest working observatory in Yorkshire.

The museum itself is a treasure house of York’s history as most of its finds come from York and Yorkshire. It houses biology, geology and archaeology collections. It has artefacts and displays dating from prehistoric times to the modern day. Come face to face with Romans, Anglians and Vikings as well as encountering some of the extinct creatures that once roamed Yorkshire. Exhibits include a mosaic floor, 2000 year old Roman hair, statues, beautifully carved Whitby jet as well as treasures such as the silver Ormside bowl and the Middleham Jewel. Find out more about religious life in medieval York and don’t forget to look at that marble head of the Emperor Constantine.

The museum runs an extensive program of special events, workshops and lectures. These can be found on the museum’s website: www.yorkshiremuseum.org.uk

The museum is open daily from 10.00 am to 5.00 pm except for the 25th/26th December and the 1st of January. The museum closes early on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
4
Betty's Tea Rooms and Cafe

4) Betty's Tea Rooms and Cafe

There’s usually a queue outside Betty’s Tea Rooms. And it’s not a surprise. Betty's serves a hearty Yorkshire breakfast as well as three course meals. The event that Betty’s is world famous for happens every day between 2.00 pm and 4.30 pm. Delicious Yorkshire high teas involving sandwiches, clotted cream scones and dainty cakes are served on elegant silver cake-stands.

You could try a fat rascal. This is a Yorkshire scone. It’s best served warm with butter. Or else, how about a piece of fruit cake? Here, fruit cake is served with a chunk of Wensleydale cheese because that’s how folk eat their fruit cake in Yorkshire.

The art deco inspired ground floor was designed by the same people who designed the ocean liner Queen Mary. This is because the founder of Betty’s, Frederick Belmont, was on the ship’s maiden voyage in 1936.

Betty’s has an important memento from World War Two in the basement in the form of a graffiti covered mirror. All the signatures are those of airmen, many of them American, based in Yorkshire who came to Betty’s on their rest days.

There is also a shop where you can buy teas, coffees, gifts, confectionary and some truly delicious cakes. If you do nothing else, at least look at the mouth-watering window display.

Betty’s is open from 9.00 am to 9.00 pm every day apart from the 25th/26th of December and January 1st. It closes at 4.30 pm on the 24th and 31st of December.
5
Mansion House

5) Mansion House

This striking Georgian building bearing York’s coat of arms is the official home of York’s Lord Mayors. Take time to admire the detail in its construction. Can you spot the gilded lions perched on top of the lamps on either side of the steps?

It contains a collection of civic regalia including the mayor’s chain of office, the seventeenth century Great Mace, silver plate and a medieval sword. There’s also an opportunity to see the ermine trimmed red Cap of Maintenance. This was granted to York by King Richard II and it gives York’s representative the right to remain hatted in front of royalty. The cap sometimes appears above York’s coat of arms.

The gateway to the right of Mansion House leads you into the courtyard at the read of the mayor’s residence. You can see that red brick lies behind the doll’s house-like classical façade.

The Mansion House is open to the public for guided tours on Fridays and Saturdays between March and Christmas at 11.00 am, 12.30 pm and 2.00p.m. Tours are also available on each Bank Holiday Monday.
6
St Martin Le Grand

6) St Martin Le Grand

The huge church clock topped by the figure of the ‘little admiral’ is a well known local landmark. On the side of the clock you can see the face of Father Time.

The church itself is partially ruined. It is a reminder of the air raid on 29th April 1942. The Baedeker raid killed 80 people and injured a further 238. Baedeker raids are so called because the Germans used the Baedeker travel guides to identify their targets. Towns with three stars or more were bombed. No wonder York was on the hit list.

After the war the tower and south aisle which had not been burned-out were restored while the remainder of the church was turned into an open air garden of remembrance. Two surviving grotesques have been placed on the wall near the garden at eye level.

St Martin’s contains some beautiful stained glass. The east window depicts York’s blitz and continues a tradition of painting with light. Astonishingly, the original east window survives. It is a complete piece of fifthteenth century glass known as the St Martin window. It was removed for safekeeping during the war years. This was just as well as contemporary accounts of the blitz describe St Martin’s glass melting into the road outside as the church burned.

St Martin’s was rededicated in 1968 and remains a place of remembrance for the fallen of both world wars, including the German airmen who so nearly destroyed this church. It is also a place of reconciliation.
7
The King's Arms

7) The King's Arms

The sign for the King’s Arms depicts King Richard III. He is usually remembered as the villain of the Shakespeare play. However, York thinks more sympathetically of him. He was from Yorkshire after all and he had a reputation for honesty and fair dealing here.

If you go in, take a look at the yardstick that records the different flood levels reached by the River Ouse. The King’s Arms is famous for appearing on the local news with its ground floor almost completely submerged beneath the swollen waters of the river.

Lying in the shadow of the Ouse Bridge, the pub was built during the seventeenth century as a customs house; it had become a pub by 1783.

In the summer it’s a pleasant place to sit and watch the world go by - though it can get very busy.

It is open from 11.00 am to 11.00 pm. It does not serve food.
Image by Keith Laverack under Creative Commons License.
8
Tower Gardens

8) Tower Gardens

This quiet corner was laid out during the 1880s making it the first public park in York. As well as tranquil paths and a walk along the River Ouse it contains a marker showing the river's flood levels. There is also a stretch of wall that was once part of the Norman castle's defences.

If you continue along the path and beneath Skeldergate Bridge you will find yourself in St George’s Field. This car park is an important part of York’s flood defences. During high waters, the river floods here first- saving buildings like The King’s Arms from the Ouse’s damp and muddy embrace.
9
Clifford's Tower

9) Clifford's Tower

William the Conqueror built a motte and bailey castle on this site. The motte is the mound and the bailey, at that time, would have been a wooden palisade. The people of York didn’t take kindly to their new overlord and revolted. It didn’t take long for William to recapture the city and he set about teaching the people of York and the North a lesson they wouldn’t forget. He systematically destroyed farms and villages and killed the population. This terrible time is remembered as the Harrying of the North. The population of York dropped from 8,000 to about 2,000.

Given York’s turbulent history it’s not surprising that Clifford’s Tower has seen more than its fair share of tragedy. It's named after the rebel Roger de Clifford, defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. He was hung in chains from the battlements. Before that, in 1190, York’s Jewish population came here for safety during anti-Jewish riots. One hundred and fifty men, women and children died either by their own hand or those of the mob. Jewish financial records were then burned in the nave of the Minster. The daffodils that you may be lucky enough to see on the banks of the town walls and Clifford’s Tower were planted much more recently in remembrance of York’s Jews.

The tower is in the care of English Heritage. It is open daily from 10.00 am to 4.00 pm in winter and 6.00 pm in summer.
10
Fairfax House

10) Fairfax House

This lovely Georgian house was built in 1762 as the dowry for Ann Fairfax, the only surviving child of the ninth Viscount Fairfax. During the twentieth century it has been both a cinema and a nightclub. Today it has been restored to its former glory by the York Civic Trust.

The house is home to the Noel Terry Collection of English Furniture. The furniture helps bring the house back to life so that you can get a feel for what it was like here in the Eighteenth Century.

There’s something very calming about the classically inspired interior of Fairfax House. It’s light and airy. The grand stair case, with its huge windows, high ceilings and wrought iron balustrade makes you feel as though you ought to sweep down it in grand Hollywood style.

If you visit during the Christmas period you’ll be in for a special treat as it is always decorated for the season.

Fairfax House is open from the middle of February until the end of December. Self-guided tours occur throughout the week Monday-Saturday, excluding Friday from 11.00 am to 4.30 pm. On Sundays the house is open from 1.30 pm to 4.30 pm. If you would like an hour long guided tour then plan a visit for a Friday. Tours are available at 11.00 am and 2.00pm. Special tours are also available but these must be booked in advance. A complete list of tours, talks and exhibitions is available at www.fairfaxhouse.co.uk.
11
The Shambles

11) The Shambles

The Shambles are mentioned by name in the Doomsday Book that William the Conqueror ordered in 1089.

This narrow cobbled street with its overhanging half-timbered buildings is where the city’s butchers used to sell their wares. The wide window ledges are a reminder that the meat was sold through the open windows. The jutting first floors were built like this to keep the meat out of direct sunlight, not that it would have been particularly hygienic. People leaning out of the upper storey windows on opposite sides of the street can shake hands with one another.

There’s only one butcher’s shop in The Shambles these days but there are plenty of craft shops, a clog maker and several cafés. Side lanes lead from the Shambles into York’s open market.

There are many little alleys or snickelways as they’re known in York. There’s one on the right hand side of the Shambles as you enter it called Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate. It’s a very short lane with a very long name. There are two theories as to its origins. It could be that in medieval times wrong doers, probably nagging wives, were flogged here. Alternatively, it is an expression of disbelief, as in; ‘That’s a street, you call that a street? You must be joking!’
12
St William's College

12) St William's College

Built in 1461, this is an excellent example of a medieval half-timbered building. It originally housed the Minster’s chantry priests. A chantry priest said masses for people who gave money for that purpose. Following the Reformation when such practices were no longer tolerated it became a private home.

Charles I set up a printing press here in 1641 when York became his capital for a time. There was also a mint making coins close by. Perhaps fortunately for York’s historic buildings he removed his court to Nottingham where he raised his banner in June 1642 and in so doing began the English Civil War that saw York besieged twice before it fell to the parliamentarians.

During the nineteenth century St William’s College was divided up into tenements. Some of the poorest people in York lived here at that time. It’s amazing that it survived. Fortunately it was purchased and renovated by Frank Green at the beginning of the twentieth century and then sold back to the Minster.

Today it is the Minster’s visitor centre and offers conference facilities. There are often craft fairs held here too. If there’s one on during your visit take the opportunity to see the medieval rooms with their timber roof supports.