With the Rascal more or less settled and a full week left until the start of the Rally, it was time to do a little exploring. A quick Google search later and I had decided on York, about an hour north of Sheffield. It boasted more historically significant locations per mile than any other place in England. I was sold!
I pointed the Rascal’s nose north and we hit the M1. It was a little exciting when there was a semi that passed me, or a breeze, or even a god bump in the road. But an hour later I had found my way to the center of town. I parked in the car park behind Clifford’s Tower and set off to explore.
The obvious first stop was the giant tower in front of me. The sign out front explained that this had been the sight of an atrocity when a group of 150 Jews (some put the number as high as 500!) who were taking refuge in the tower decided to commit suicide rather than renounce their religion. Suffice it to say, this was off to an auspicious start.
The tower stands on the oldest site in the city. It was the site of the firststronghold, a quickly constructed wooden structure on top of the hill. Subsequent attacks by the locals who did not like the Roman occupation burned the structure to the ground. It was quickly re-built with stone, some of which remains to this day. The structure itself is in remarkable condition and offers commanding views of the city. I was immediately struck by how beautiful York truly was.
York sits at the confluence of two rivers. The ancient stone wall (again, dating back to the Roman occupation in the first century CE) surrounds the old city and is completely intact. The magnificent York Minster cathedral dominates the skyline to the east, while other architecturally interesting buildings dotted the view. I was going to have fun exploring!
The attendant at the gate informed me that all of the historical buildings closed down in fifteen minutes. So much for exploring the historical sights! I decided to wander the streets of the city and see what else there was.
Apparently York is the number one location for bachelorette parties, “Hen” parties, and 18th birthdays (the legal age for drinking in the UK). It was like a Victorian Vegas! As I sat in front of the local Starbucks “borrowing” their wifi, there was a constant parade of loud and increasingly intoxicated women walking up and down the pedestrian mall. The maid of honor was usually in the front, leading everyone to the next bar, while the rest of the women laughed, yelled, sang and danced for the buskers on the corner, and tried to keep up (and upright) in their heels on the uneven streets. Inevitably there was one one in the rear, taking on her cell phone, trying to locate a member of the party who had gone missing. Every so often several of these groups would converge at the intersection and form a zombie-like horde that moved off in the same direction as if drawn by some instinctual need for 2-for-1 shots.
I wandered the narrow city streets for a while, munching on my steak pastie. The city within the walls has been carefully preserved with only a few modern structures having snuck in over the years (mostly due to a bombing raid during WWII that leveled several buildings in more or less a straight line). The warm summer evening light bathed the city in a soft glow and I looked forward to returning the next day.
I found a quiet side street outside the city walls where I could practice my sleeping setup for the Rally. My friend Amy loaned me her hammock for the trip. I have found that if I string it from corner to corner in the Rascal I fit fairly comfortably. It is much better than having my feet sticking out the back door! I settled in for an early night and slept well.
The next morning I was up early. I figured that the hordes of tourists would be too hung over from the previous night’s carousing to be up and out before noon. I parked near the river and strolled the near-empty streets. I arrived at Starbucks just as they opened and used the wifi to download an app which gave me several self-guided walking tours of the city to choose from. Since I have always been fascinated with walled cities I opted for the city wall walk a two mile circum-navigation of the city. The view from the top of the wall changed as I moved along the water, through neighborhoods, near the rail station, behind the Minster, and eventually to the old parts of the wall dating back to the original Roman occupation.
Along the way I stopped to take in the original openings (or Bar’s) to the city. These impressive fortifications were designed to manage the flow of people in and out of the city. One was even fitted with a giant knocker. All Scots wishing to enter the city had to knock and ask for permission to enter. More often than not permission was denied! At times these towers were used as prisons, barracks, storage facilities, and even a residence. While more Bars have been cut into the wall over the years to accommodate the increase of traffic (first the railways, and later cars), the original Bars still stand and are used for bikes and pedestrians to get in and out of the city without having to deal with the tour busses and vehicle traffic.
The walk had burned through my small breakfast. I settled in at the Black Swan with a pint and baited breath. I had finally found a place that served a ploughman’s meal and I hoped it would not disappoint. A few minutes later the waitress brought me a most wonderful sight: a plate with bread, three different cheeses, two meats, two chutneys (one a standard Major Grey chutney, the other a mustard-based one), and good sized pickled onion...it was a proper ploughman’s meal! I tore into it, relishing each combination of meat, cheese, chutney, and onion. I was in heaven!
I finished lunch and contemplated the afternoon. I decided to visit the Minster. Atruly magnificent building, it towers over everything in the city. As awe-inspiring as it is to modern eyes, it must have been a truly mind-boggling edifice for the 16th century pilgrim. To put the size and splendor in perspective, the stained glass windows of York Minster contain over 50% of the stained glass in the entirety of England! The soaring ceiling rises over 200 feet in the air! I paid the extra £5 for the opportunity to climb 240 stairs up to the roof!
I entered a narrow stone spiral staircase and began to wind my way up, up, and up. About half way up we were led out a door and into the light. We perched on a narrow walkway where the roof began to pitch up to its apex. We were at eye-level with some of the spires that adorened the outside of the church and were able to take in the beauty and intricacy of the decorations. After a few minutes outside, we continued on. The passage became so narrow that I had to turn sideways to make it through some parts. Up and up we continued until once again we emerged in the sunlight. This time we were rewarded with a 360 degree view of the city and the surrounding area. A gorgeous, clear day allowed me to see far off into the distance, only stopped by the curvature of the earth hiding Edinburgh to the north and London to the south. The architects and builders who made this grand building must have felt closer to God than any other human when they stood here.
I relucktantly made my way down the narrow staris back to earth and the mortal realm. As I got closer to the ground floor I could hear singing. This was not the sound of the buskers in the square outside the Minster. This was the sweet sound of a choir. When I returned to the main chamber ofthe Minster I asked the guide about the singing. He told me that the Evensong service was about to start and pointed me to a section of the Minster surrounded by a high, elegantly carved wooden partition. I took a seat inside and waitied. Soon the clear and melodious singing began again. I was transfixed by the purity of the sound in that space. When the singing ended, the choir entered and took their place on either side of the main aisle. At various times in the service prayers and psalms were sung. As amazing as the Minster was, the choir was even more breathtaking. I found myself gettinlost in the beautiful notes.
Eventually the service came to an end and I made my exit. As I stepped out into the late-afternoon sunshine I contemplated my next move. I could not think of anythign I could do that could compare to what I had just experienced. So I bought an iced coffee, found the Rascal, and headed back to Sheffield and the adventures that awaited me there.