diamond geezer

 Thursday, July 18, 2013

Day out: York
York is a historic northern city - handsome, compact and full of tourist-friendly things to do. It's also a very expensive city to enjoy. Most its attractions cost a pretty penny to get inside, with the National Railway Museum an honourable free exception. There is a special sightseeing smartcard, called the York Pass, which permits entry for nothing if you pay up front, but even that's a bit pricey. I got 20% off the one-day cost by travelling to York with Grand Central trains - that's £28.80 rather than £36. But even then I only got my money back* by visiting attractions briskly and by not stopping for a sit-down lunch. Check your wallet is deep enough before you arrive.

York Minster [£10]
This great cathedral is second in the Anglican pecking order only to Canterbury, and in terms of size the largest in Northern Europe. Pay nothing and you can get in to see a tiny corner near the cash desk, pay extra and you can add a trip up the tower. Everything's a little loftier or grander or more ancient than your usual cathedral, even the scaffolding currently covering the eastern end. To counter the disappointment of visitors hoping to see the enormous medieval stained glass window, an interactive exhibition has been staged which offers considerably more insight than you'd typically get staring at the designs from afar. It's hard to believe it's 30 years since the south transept was gutted by fire, such is the quality of the workmanship above, and there's also been major restructuring of the foundations below. A new exhibition opened this spring in the crypt, entitled York Minster Revealed, which greatly increases how much there is to see and enjoy here. The cathedral is built on the site of the Roman garrison at Eboracum, whose stonework can now be seen beneath a glass floor, in a fascinating juxtaposition. This underground display tracks 2000 years of history, with considerable aplomb, but is easily missed if you don't think to walk down the steps near the exit. All this, plus the everyday life of a working cathedral, makes the Minster a must-visit.

Jorvik [£9.75]
Excavations below York's shopping streets in the seventies revealed the presence of the old Viking town buried in damp clay. Starved of oxygen a surprising amount had survived intact, included timbers that'd normally have rotted away and thousands of everyday artefacts. The York Architectural Trust stepped in and created a visitor attraction onsite, or more rightly a "visitor experience", which has been upgraded a few times over the years. You walk down to part of the uncovered site where the edges of wooden buildings, posts and fences can be seen beneath a glass floor. The basement's dimly lit, which makes trying to read the laminated information sheet very difficult, but most visitors just stand around and watch the films instead. And then the ride! You're ushered (but not crammed) into a six-seat car which dangles its way through a recreation of a Viking settlement. Hairy faces smile and wink, children play by the riverside and a rat nibbles on meat outside the butchers. It's immersive and educational, swinging through wooden houses and market streets, while a commentary in the language of your choice belts out from speakers in your headrest. Upon alighting you get to see the uncovered artefacts, or at least some of them, including pots and skeletons and (unusually) some perfectly preserved human faeces. Staff dressed for the part explain the stories behind various exhibits, and the emphasis is always on science, evidence and entertainment. Impressively done.

York Castle Museum [£8.50, or £10 the pair]
You'll know this as the museum with an entire Victorian shopping street inside. That street is Kirkgate, and several dozen shopfronts have been created to display the museum's collection of products and wares. In the pharmacists and grocers you can chat to the shopkeeper, in Terry's chocolate shop you can buy sugar mice, and occasionally an audio thunderstorm breaks out with 'rain' splashing the cobbles. This is the best bit of the museum, but there's tons more to see on the sinuous route around two distinct buildings. Some is very Yorkshire-based, but more is about the human experience in cities and villages over the years. I enjoyed the rooms stuffed with period toys, and the prisoners' tales in the old gaol, and especially the The Sixties exhibition (where every visitor of a certain age stopped and smiled and nostalged). Well worth a visit.
Yorkshire Museum [£7.50, or £10 the pair]
This is the companion museum to the above, situated in attractive gardens near the Minster. The emphasis is more on history, from Roman times through the city's turbulent medieval past, with exhibits ranging from chunks of stone from abbeys to tiny exquisite goldsmithery. A surprisingly large part of the museum is given over to biology, in particular prehistoric creatures. I learnt a great deal from the displays on Extinction, but I didn't stay long, and I was unconvinced this museum is worth the full entrance fee.

Clifford's Tower [£4.20]
This is a motte and bailey castle, although only the motte remains (the bailey would now appear to be car park). Climb the steep steps up the grassy mound to enter the tower and then, oh, there's not much within is there? Staff keep younger visitors amused by seating them on a throne and crowning them, for the benefit of family photos, but for everyone else the main attraction is the walk round the ramparts. A one-way system operates from the gatehouse, up to an impressive 360° panorama from the top of the walls. The weather being perfect I spotted the Humber Bridge in the distance, as well as the Dales and of course the towers of the Minster closer by. But more a viewpoint than a place to linger.

Fairfax House [£6]
York has a number of fine houses, from the Arts and Crafts home of chocolate magnate Noel Terry to a medieval merchant's hall. That I ended up in this one is purely by chance - I was passing, and it was on the York Pass list. This is a Georgian townhouse, very finely restored after spending several decades as a cinema and then a dance hall. It was built by Viscount Fairfax, a local landowner who hoped it would help springboard his daughter into Yorkshire society. Alas she wasn't really interested, and swiftly moved back to the country, starting two centuries of decline which ended only when the York Civic Trust took over. Their volunteers were the friendliest I met all day, one per room, and each keen to tell the story and to point out the finer features of the furniture collection and decor. A genteel treat.

York's Chocolate Story [£9.50]
This is York's newest attraction, launched last year, which aims to tell the story of the city's most important manufactured product. The Rowntrees and the Terrys were two local Quaker families, pioneers in the British chocolate industry, and far ahead of their time in treating their employees fairly and equally. The attraction is part theatre, part hands-on experience, as your tour group is led round two floors of the building by a slightly Wonka-esque guide in an apron. Our guide managed to coax a tour group that was half French schoolkids without losing their attention, which is high praise. Upstairs is the history bit, nicely delivered, with surround cinema, interactive screens and several chocolate samples. And downstairs there's the chance to make your own chocolate lolly, and watch an expert make posh chocolates, and take away both to eat. I was won over by the video wall of Rowntree/Terry TV adverts, where I fervently hope nobody else noticed me singing along to the 1971 classic "Smartie people are happy people" like a brainwashed loon. Nothing especially highbrow, but eighty minutes well spent in the company of (slurp) chocolate.

Typical admission prices
National Railway Museum £0
York Minster £10
Jorvik £9.75
York Castle & Yorkshire Museums £10
Clifford's Tower £4.20
Fairfax House £6
York's Chocolate Story £9.50
Total = £49.45

Cost of York Pass (20% off) = £28.80
My total saving = £20.65*

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