York: Vikings, Bygone Lifestyles, and England's Top Church

By Rick Steves
York Minster Church, York, England
The Minster gives York an air of stateliness. (photo: Rick Steves)

York is a highlight for any visit to Britain — by far the best stop between London and Edinburgh. It has a huge church...and, locals love to add, "A giant bell."

On my last visit a deacon led me up stairs halfway up the bell tower and we came to a room — vacant except for a fat lifeless rope hanging from the ceiling.

Like a kid, the deacon began pulling the rope. As he reached and reached, pulling ever higher and ever lower, I readied my ears for a thunderous ding dong. Suddenly he clenched the rope and soared high above me and clanging rang throughout the town.

Back on the medieval wooden floor he winked at me and said, "In York our bell is so big it rings the ringer." And we continued our tour.

York's Minster, or cathedral, is the largest Gothic church in Britain. Henry VIII, in his self-serving religious fervor, destroyed nearly everything that was Catholic — except the great York Minster. Henry needed a northern capital for his Anglican church.

To fully experience the cathedral, go for an evensong service (held most evenings at 5:15, no offering plates or sermon). Arrive early and ask to be seated in the choir. You're in the middle of a spiritual Oz as 40 boys sing psalms — a red-and-white-robed pillow of praise, raised up by the powerful pipe organ. You feel as if you have elephant-size ears, as the beautifully carved choir stalls — functioning as giant sound scoops — magnify the thunderous, trumpeting pipes. If you're lucky, the organist will run a spiritual musical victory lap as the congregation breaks up.

Just as a Boy Scout counts the rings in a tree, you can count the ages of York by the different bricks in the city wall: Roman on the bottom, then Danish, Norman, and the "new" addition — from the 14th century.

While York goes back to Roman times, tourists zero in on its Viking age. A thousand years ago, York was a thriving Viking settlement called Jorvik. While only traces are left of most Viking settlements, Jorvik is an archaeologist's bonanza, the best-preserved Viking city ever excavated.

Sail the "Pirates of the Caribbean" north and back in time 1,000 years, and you get Jorvik. More a ride than a museum, this exhibit drapes the abundant harvest of this dig in Disney cleverness. You watch a brief movie showing two people going back in time. Their clothes and the buildings in the background "morph" to fit the passing centuries, which flash by on the screen until...it's A.D. 975. You're in Jorvik.

You climb into a little car and slowly glide through the reconstructed village. Everything — sights, sounds, even smells — has been carefully recreated. You experience a Viking village. Then your time-traveling train car rolls you into the excavation site, past the actual remains of the reconstructed village you just saw. Stubs of buildings, piles of charred wood, broken pottery — a time-crushed echo of a thriving town.

Your ride ends at the museum filled with artifacts from every aspect of Viking life: clothing, cooking, weapons, ingenious locks, jewelry, even children's games.

While innovative 20 years ago, Jorvik seems tired and gimmicky today. For straightforward Viking artifacts, beautifully explained and set in historical context with no crowds at all, tour the nearby Yorkshire Museum.

The pride of York's half-timbered town center is the medieval butchers' street called the Shambles, with its rusty old hooks hiding under the eaves. Six hundred years ago, bloody hunks of meat hung here, dripping into the gutter that still marks the middle of the lane. This slaughterhouse of commercial activity gave our language a new word. What was once a "shambles" is now ye olde tourist shopping mall.

At York's Castle Museum, Charles Dickens would feel at home. English memorabilia from the 18th and 19th centuries are well displayed in a huge collection of craft shops, old stores, living rooms, and other intimate glimpses of those bygone days.

As towns were being modernized in the 1930s, the museum's founder, Dr. Kirk, collected entire shops and reassembled them here. On Kirkgate, the museum's most popular section, you can wander through a Lincolnshire butcher's shop, Bath bakery, coppersmith's shop, toy store, and barbershop.

The shops are actually stocked with the merchandise of the day. Eavesdrop on English grannies as they reminisce their way through the museum's displays. The general store is loaded with groceries and candy, and the sports shop has everything you'd need for a game of 19th-century archery, cricket, skittles, or tennis. Anyone for "whiff-whaff" (Ping-Pong)? In the confectionery, Dr. Kirk beams you into a mouth-watering world of "spice pigs," "togo bullets," "hum bugs," and "conversation lozenges."

Even if you're not into history, when you explore the past in York, you'll feel like a kid in a candy shop.