York wall and Minster - just the top of an historic iceberg.
York wall and Minster - just the top of an historic iceberg. Supplied/NZ Herald

England: Time travel

RELAXING in York's Museum Gardens, in the chilly but golden early-autumn sun, the view is a time capsule of British history.

Across the road a section of the city's famous wall stands guard, as it has since Roman times. Beyond that to the east, the spires of York's famous Minster, England's largest Gothic building, call to the devout, as they have for centuries. And here in the park lie the elegantly wasted ruins of St Mary's Abbey, reduced to rubble following King Henry VIII's 16th-century dissolution of the monasteries.

Today the ruins seem a grand memorial to that fractious period of British history in which, not for the first or last time, a monarch ran roughshod over England's religious and social structures. Some say ill-feeling against the monarchy created by Henry's stroppiness towards Catholics was key in the raising about 60 years later of the infamous Gunpowder Plot to blow up parliament involving Guy Fawkes, a son of York.

Back in the beautiful Memorial Gardens, the wide-open spaces are a nice opposite to the inner town's close, cobbled snickleways (a York-made word describing the back alleys and narrow lanes that criss-cross the city).

The gardens are also home to Yorkshire Museum, where archaeological remains paint a clear picture of the Roman settlement that was once here.

From there it's a short jump to the Middle Ages via the wall.

Though it was the Romans who fortified York, the parts of the wall still standing date mostly from the 12th to 14th centuries. The only remnant of the Roman wall is the Multangular Tower in the Museum Gardens.

Walking the wall is an excellent way to get your bearings in this city, historically and geographically. Plaques and signs around the circuit direct you to sites of interest and are filled with historical anecdotes. The walk also entails climbing down and around the four wall gates of "bars", now home to a variety of exhibitions documenting aspects of York's history.

The most interesting is the Richard III Museum at Monk Bar, devoted to clearing the name of England's most reviled king, also a Duke of York.

The quirky museum points the finger at William Shakespeare for unfairly besmirching the king's name in his eponymous play. The museum presents evidence for and against the king's character, and invites guests to decide if he was malevolent or simply misunderstood.

Disembark the wall at Fishergate on the southern side and you're able to visit the dramatic and sobering Clifford Tower.

The dramatic, isolated, clover-shaped stone keep is high on a man-made hill, which in spring becomes a carpet of daffodils. It's all that remains of York Castle, built in 1068 by William the Conqueror. The sombre white tower is also the site of a grim slice of York history - 150 Jews committed suicide by setting the tower alight in 1109 rather than face slaughter by an angry mob outside. It remains an evocative place, but it is also worth climbing the many stairs to the doors for the stunning views across the city, bettered only by those from the minster steeple.

Before heading back to that side of the city, though, I stop at the Castle Museum, once the Debtors' Prison, scene of Dick Turpin's final days. It is now home to a vast collection of artefacts and recreated scenes from medieval to Victorian times.

The walk back towards the minster is a chance to explore more of those engaging snickleways. Some are charming nooks of cobbles and ivy, others a little more "lived in", but they all offer a pleasant way to get lost and discover other examples of well-preserved architecture. All of it, though, seems somehow understated when you hit the Shambles.

This narrow, winding, flagstoned lane in the centre of town, complete with overhanging rooftops, is ridiculously quaint. It has been named England's most picturesque street and looks as though it's been created by Harry Potter's set designer. In fact, it stands much as it has for 900 years, albeit now filled with cafes, boutiques and souvenir hawkers rather than the butchers who were its original occupants.

From the northern end of the Shambles, it's just a short walk to the minster. It is home to the world's largest medieval stained glass window - the East Window, one of 128 inside the church - and, apparently, half the medieval stained glass in all England.

Inside the church is a vast, cavernous space, humming with tourists, even during services. The church's most intriguing areas are the crypt and undercroft. Darker and danker, both spaces are filled with nooks housing relics of the church's history.

They're a fine monument to the fact that history isn't really revisited in York. Rather it exudes from every cobblestone, brick and ruin. Pop into an innocent-looking pub near the minster to rest your feet and you find it's the birthplace of Guy Fawkes (one of two spots vying for the title).

"Remember, remember the fifth of November", the oft-repeated rhyme cautions of the infamous Gunpowder Plot. In York you're unlikely to forget it, but it has to take its place in a long line of historic dates that make up this must-see city, like a genetic code.


* Visit historyofyork.org.uk to download York walking trails that take in ghostly pubs, key sites in Guy Fawkes' life and the city's heritage railway. The site has maps to follow and narrations to upload to your iPod.

* If you're keen on the Viking history of York, visit the very touristy but effective Jorvik Viking centre, where you can visit, examine, and even smell the city as it was during the Danish occupation around the 9th century.

It gets hugely busy in peak season, so book ahead rather than waiting in a queue for hours.

Where to stay: Park Inn in York is conveniently located on the banks of the Ouse River in North St. It's about five minutes' walk to both the centre of town and the railway station.

Getting there: Qantas has daily flights to London from Australia. York is about a two-hour train ride from London's King's Cross.

Getting around: Europcar rentals, which has an office at York Railway Station, is a good option if you want to self-drive. The company has a wide range of vehicles and price plans and can put together packages with connecting flights and hotels.

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