City of York
City of York: historic urban core is part of the Tentative list of United Kingdom in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
The historic urban core of the City of York covers surviving buildings from the Roman arrival to the present day, including Norman, Anglo-Saxon, and Victorian. Its cathedral, York Minster, stands out, notably for its 15th-century stained glass.
Map of City of YorkLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
"Eoferwic was, and still is, the chief city of northern Englaland. It possesses a great abbey, an archbishop, a fortress, high walls, and a vast market. It stands beside the River Ouse, and boasts a bridge, but ships can reach Eoferwic from the distant sea, and that was how the Danes had come." - Bernard Cornwell (The Last Kingdom) from The Saxon Stories
My awareness of York (or Eoferwic) was primarily through literature, as illustrated in the passage. I had acquired only a vague understanding of the World Heritage label at this time (November 2007). In the 16 years since, my planning has certainly been influenced and enriched substantially by World Heritage travel. However, what led me to reserve my train ticket to York was the stories I had read.
Coming South from Edinburgh, I had a full-day to explore the city. While visiting the highlights of the "Historic Urban Core" my money quickly dwindled. In 2007 the exchange rate was equivalent to £1 per $2 (USD) and nearly everything in York seemed to have a sizable ticket price! I notice in 2023, the Visit York Pass is priced at £59, which seems reasonable if you plan a full itinerary (currently with a favorable exchange rate).
I prioritized the historic sites throughout the city that corresponded to various periods of York's rich history. Did I eat anything, a late breakfast, lunch? My poor travel companion! I cannot recall eating anything in York. Having visited only a few historic European cities by this time, I was not burdened by comparison. What was York's OUV and was its historic ensemble overrepresented? World Heritage terminology would have been lost on me. Yet, I could feel that York was special and mile after mile walking my appreciation for the city increased.
Did I stand in front of The Great East Window in awe? No. I did not have the comparative knowledge to comprehend that this was one of York's great cultural treasures. Walking the nave of York Minster I was impressed by everything and increasingly worried about my bank account. I had just only recovered from my decision to pay the steep ticket for the Minster ONLY and not to pay extra and climb the Central Tower. Was I missing out I wondered as I passed the "largest single expanse of medieval stained glass in the world". with only a brief pause?
I wouldn't change a thing from my trip to York. It was part of the joy and good fortune of travelling in your early 20's. Years later, I learned more about the city's rich history through the lens of World Heritage. I hope one day to revisit after inscription.
Read more from Kyle Magnuson here.
I was in love with a wall. York is famous for having the longest set of medieval walls in the UK, but it was not these crenelated stretches and their impressive gate towers that most impressed me. It was not the overhanging upper stories of the half-timbered houses along The Shambles that caught my eye. It was not even the preserved Roman fresco displayed in the Undercroft of the towering York Minster. No, the wall that made me catch my breath was a short stretch of woven wooden wattles, maybe four feet high. People milled around, largely oblivious, before forming into a queue for a fairground ride. But this fragment of wall formed part of a domestic house one thousand years ago. That it had been protected for so long in the sodden earth beneath York, England’s second most important city for much of its existence, was a marvel. But what added glamour and mystery were the people who had erected it. This wall dated to the period of Jorvik, the largest settlement in England of the people known as the Vikings.
The city of York has a long history. The legionary fortress of Eboracum became Eoforwic, chief city of the Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. The Vikings ruled it as an independent fief for almost a century as Jorvik and even when it was subsumed into the Kingdom of England it maintained a distinct heritage. The city’s importance persisted throughout the medieval period, not least because York was home to its own Archbishop, second only to that of Canterbury in England. It was only after the Civil War in the 17th century (during which Parliamentary forces besieged the city) that York’s position as England’s second city began to slip. Regardless, it remained one of the country’s major cities, and in the Victorian era was particularly famous for its railways and confectionary-manufacturing.
A history buff can thus have a really good day – or more likely weekend – in York, seeking out all these elements of interest. I would say that there isn’t much left of Roman York above ground – the base of the multangular tower in Museum Gardens, the foundations (and aforementioned fresco) of the basilica of the fort in the undercroft of York Minster, the remains of a Roman bath in the basement of the, erm, Roman Bath pub and the rough street layout of the northern quarter of the walled city where Stonegate and Petergate follow the Via Principalis and Decumanus Maximus. In my view, if you want to see a well-preserved Roman fort layout in England head across to Chester instead.
But York has something really unique in its well-preserved Viking history. Upon construction of a new shopping centre in 1976 archaeologists were granted permission to excavate a sizeable chunk of land around Coppergate. Their work was revelatory in understanding the Viking city beneath the streets. This research culminated in York’s most popular tourist attraction, the Jorvik Centre, where visitors travel on suspended carriages around a recreation of (part of) Viking York. Yes, this verges on the kitsch at times, but I’ll stick up for it because what you see is genuinely based on the evidence discovered here – and half the fun is visiting the museum exhibition afterwards and identifying some of the artefacts you saw in the animated diorama. The characters are based on the skeletons discovered, as are their clothes, their accoutrements and their activities. You even pass a grunting chap on an outdoor privy during the ride, a testament to the discovery of the only poo I have yet seen with its own Wikipedia page! On my visit they were also displaying the Silverdale Hoard, a stunning collection of silverware dating from 900 CE discovered across the border in Lancashire. Part of the original settlement can be seen underfoot – and, in the case of my beloved wall, to one side – in the entrance hall. Entry is £13.50 for adults, £9.50 for children, and prebooking is highly recommended, particularly at weekends or during holidays.
Aboveground, the medieval remains are easy to see. You can almost circumnavigate the inner city by walking on the walls (though note that in many places they are barely four feet wide with drop offs on the inner edge). These are pierced with impressive gateways (called ‘bars’ – ‘gate’ on a map of York will refer instead to a street). My favourite is Walmgate Bar out to the east which you might be tempted to skip but it is the only one to retain a protective barbican (which is awkward to appreciate unless you stand right in the middle of a busy road). It also has a snug coffee shop in its upper floors. At the south-east of town stands Clifford’s Tower, the keep of one of York’s two castles (the locals were so rebellious that William the Conqueror had to build a second and then flood the river). It is an odd, hollow, four-lobed structure atop a conical hill. English Heritage have done well in explaining its history, including the city’s darkest day when, in 1190, the local Jewish community was besieged inside the Tower by a local mob; around 150 Jews died, either through mass suicide, the accompanying torching of the wooden castle or being murdered by the mob. In the north-west of town stands the towering York Minster.
York Minster alone has almost enough to be a worthy addition to the List on its own – certainly if it had been nominated in the 1980s or ‘90s before we got a glut of Gothic cathedrals. Second largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe (after Cologne – though construction of the Minster was complete by 1472 whereas Cologne dragged on for another four centuries…). Second most important church in English Christianity (after Canterbury). But it is for its remarkable collection of medieval stained glass that it truly shines. If pushed for time head straight for the far end beyond the quire. The Great East Window [photo] is the largest single expanse of medieval stained glass in the world. It is essentially a comic book from 1405-8, with scenes from the Bible telling the story of the world from Genesis to Revelation. It is being touted in its nomination as a ‘masterpiece of human creative genius’. I’d happily agree with that. Contrasting ages and styles of window can be seen elsewhere in the Minster. Proceeding clockwise from the east end, the window in the south quire transept devoted to St Cuthbert (of Durham fame) was under renovation at the time of my visit, meaning that panels were on display at eye-level. The south transept has the famous Rose Window commemorating the union of the Lancastrian and Yorkist lines and their heraldic red and white roses into the Tudor dynasty. The tracery of the Great West Window is almost flamboyant with intricate pieces making the shape of a heart. In the north transept the Five Sisters window is least attractive and looks almost modern – but is actually grisaille from around 1260 and the largest lancet window in the world. And finally don’t miss the octagonal chapterhouse from the 13th century. The lack of a central pillar allows a good look at the surrounding windows. Entry is £12.50 for adults and there are frequent free volunteer-led tours. For an extra £6 you can book onto a timed ascent of the main tower, which is not recommended for those who dislike heights or enclosed spaces. Having done it once, I wouldn’t do it again. Just concentrate on the incredible display of stained glass and the very accessible and contextualising museum in the undercroft – don’t miss the Roman fresco or the Viking-era Oliphant horn.
If stained glass is your thing (or the eventual nomination focuses down on Criterion (i)) there are other churches to hunt out around York. Principally I would recommend All Saints on North Street (one of the few places of note across the other side of the Ouse) whose stained glass dates mainly from around 1410, and Holy Trinity, hidden away off Goodramgate, with some nice 1470s windows and early 18th century box pews. Holy Trinity is testament to the little hidden treasures you can find tucked away in York. The Merchant Adventurer’s Hall off Walmgate is a historic guildhall comprising hospital, chapel and business halls. The streets themselves have their medieval charm too, with The Shambles and neighbouring streets retaining their Olde Time™ atmosphere, as immortalised in a thousand “I found the real life Diagon Alley!” Instagram posts.
Since the nomination includes a surprising number of references to ‘the remarkable archival and artefactual evidence’ you can view remains from all periods in the small but well laid out Yorkshire Museum in Museum Gardens. Unlike most museums in the UK, there is a fairly hefty fee to enter (£8!), but it explains the history of the Romans, Vikings and Medieval York well. While exhibits come from across Yorkshire there is plenty that is hyper-local (so much so that place of discovery is often given in street names). My highlight was the Coppergate Helmet, a Saxon relic carefully disassembled and hidden down a well roughly around the time of the Viking invasion. Whilst not as ornate as the famous Sutton Hoo Helmet in the British Museum it is much more intact. And for a child-friendly introduction to archaeology, Jorvik DIG offers timed slots where a member of York Archaeology Trust will talk about their work and what they can learn from their finds, followed by an excavation session in four sand-filled replica pits representing the Roman, Viking, Medieval and Victorian eras (£7.50 for children, £8 for adults).
So, in a List where gothic cathedrals and medieval European townscapes are well represented, does York deserve a place? On balance, I’d say yes, for three reasons. Firstly, I still think that Viking heritage is fairly under-represented on the List, and the quality and quantity of the preserved finds in York is genuinely impressive. Secondly, the range of medieval stained glass is like a primer of architectural styles. Thirdly, while there has been some inconsiderate development within the city centre there is a range of historical ages represented from Roman through Viking, Norman, Medieval, Georgian, Victorian and modern periods, testament to York’s continued importance as a city. Even without inscription, York makes a great day or weekend out. It is also well-placed on the East Coast rail line between London and Durham / Edinburgh. Saltaire is less than an hour away by train (changing in Leeds), and by bus it is 30 minutes to Ripon from where local buses run to Studley Royal Park.
World Heritage-iness: 4
Our Experience: 4
(Visited August-September 2022)
2023 Added to Tentative List
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