By Pamela Hartshorne
Friday: Ancient roots
Handily situated in the middle of the quickest marching route between London and Scotland, York was founded by the Romans in AD71. Much later it was an important staging post for the long-running wars against the Scots in the Middle Ages. The famous city walls still follow the medieval line and you can walk right round them. One of the four great stone gateways, Monk Bar, has a working portcullis, and if you stand outside and look up, you’ll see four fierce stone figures holding boulders, ready to repel invaders. Today, visitors are more welcome.
A complete circuit of the walls will take you a couple of hours, but for a more leisurely introduction to the city, walk the short – and prettiest – section behind the minster. Climb up on to the walls at Bootham Bar and stroll round, peering into the gardens of the Minster Close, before squeezing down the narrow stone staircase inside Monk Bar to Goodramgate. A few steps will take you to Ambiente, which serves fine tapas.
In York, the past is present wherever you look. Medieval churches jostle with fine Georgian buildings; 17th-century houses sit next to modern offices and Victorian edifices. Walk down Stonegate, and you’re walking the same route as Roman centurions marched nearly 2,000 years ago.
Saturday: Medieval minster
York is crammed with museums, but the minster is one building you must visit. The largest Gothic building north of the Alps, it rarely feels crowded. There’s too much to see in one visit, but don’t miss the finest medieval stained glass at eye level in the futuristic York Orb.
For a change of scale, wander down Goodramgate, past the row of 14th-century cottages, and turn into the tranquil churchyard of the deconsecrated church of Holy Trinity Goodramgate. The interior is dominated by the 17th-century box pews and everything is slightly askew.
Most weekends there’s a market of some kind in Parliament Street, but escape the crush by heading instead towards Peaseholme Green. A fine medieval guild hall that was once a workhouse, St Anthony’s Hall now houses the Quilt Museum. Outside, the York Conservation Trust has transformed what was once a dull patch of ground into a sensory garden, laid out particularly with the blind and partially-sighted in mind, below the city walls. Backing on to the gardens, Le Langhe serves irresistible homemade pasta for lunch, but you’ll need to book; this is one of the most popular restaurants in York.
Avoid the busy shopping centre around Parliament Street and Coney Street and stick to the quieter side streets and alleys where unexpected gems hide. When you’re ready for tea, try the Hairy Fig in Fossgate, and some of the deliciously light fairy cakes. The café at the back of the shop is cramped, but on a fine day you can sit out in the gardens of the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, built in 1357.
York is reputed to have a pub for every day of the year, so there is no shortage of places for a drink at the end of the day. The airy bar at City Screen overlooks the Ouse and can make a pleasant change from low ceilings.
There’s a high ceiling of a different kind in the House of Trembling Madness in Stonegate. Don’t be put off by the unprepossessing entrance. Climb the metal stairs and you find yourself in a timbered medieval hall, complete with a bizarre collection of stuffed animals on the walls and a view over the tiled rooftops to the minster. The bar serves an interesting range of beers and wine, and you can eat here, too. Or for a more traditional meal, make your way out of Bootham Bar to Café No 8 in Gillygate.
Sunday: Into the countryside
Betty’s in Stonegate is the place to head for a leisurely brunch, and the breakfast rosti is worth a possible wait on the stairs. The same menu is available at Betty’s in St Helen’s Square, but the Stonegate branch is hard to beat for its old-fashioned charm.
Then leave the crowded streets behind and drive out to Beningbrough Hall – or if you’re feeling energetic, hire a bike and cycle along the river. Beningbrough is only 10 miles from York, but it’s a world away from the higgledy-piggledy city.
Here, all is ordered Georgian calm. The hall itself holds a collection of paintings from the National Portrait Gallery, and the gardens are popular picnic spots. A four-mile walk on clear paths will take you around the parklands to end up at the excellent farm shop, but a shorter option will give you time to fit in a visit to the Dawnay Arms, a pub in the neighbouring village of Newton-on-Ouse.
In York, streets are called gates (from the Norse gata) while, confusingly, the city gates are called bars. These bars were used to collect tolls from people entering the city.
A short walk from Micklegate Bar and the city centre, Carlton House is situated close to York’s racecourse on the leafy Mount. A lovingly restored Georgian townhouse, this is a B&B that prides itself on catering for families.
Grape Lane was the red light district in medieval York. Today, Maude and Tommy specialises in ethically sourced fashion. The shop is small and packed with colourful clothes and accessories.