Bye Bye woolly ramblers. So long Mr. Stud.
We all had a touch of the blues having to say Farewell so soon to sheep-studded fells, massive bulls and other rustic delights of the Lake District. Luckily, the vacation wasn’t over. Next on the agenda: a visit to a northern England town long on history –York.
I imagined an over-night stop in York would satisfy my curiosity; it was a side-bar to an itinerary filled with other highlights: the Cotswolds and Chatsworth House in Derbyshire — the magnificent setting to scenes of the 2005 movie version of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. Ever since Keira Knightley played Elizabeth Bennet (a feisty young woman with definite preconceived ideas about her Prince Charming, the proud and brooding Mr. Darcy), I’ve wanted to see the place. The Cotswolds, known for honey-colored limestone, thatched roofs and medieval villages and market towns, rounded out the travel plan.
Aside from history, three silly reasons tempted me to visit York: dogs, food and comedy. As a teen, I fell in love with a friend’s Yorkie. While stationed in England, I ate my fair share of Yorkshire pudding and was introduced to one of England’s longest running sitcoms, Last of the Summer Wine. Promised plentiful proof of ancients: Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Vikings, Normans, all of whom came, plundered and settled here, “…the best preserved medieval street in the world”, England’s city with the longest stretch of intact fortifications and a whopper wedding cake of a topper – Gothic-style York Minster – naturally it was time to dig in.
Approaching York from the Lake District, we followed a stretch of rolling green waves, the gentle hills and valleys that make up the Yorkshire Dales. Like us, people were heading to the city to sightsee. And as in days gone by, to shop, eat or carouse within ancient York.
Delayed by an afternoon thunderstorm, we hurried to the cathedral. The sun played hide and seek as cool winds blew away the clouds to reveal flashes of blue skies.
It was an hour before closing. Advised to first take in the story of the cathedral, we headed down to the Undercroft.
Evidence suggests that some sort of worship took place here dating back to Roman times. Constantine (a statue sits outside the cathedral), credited with ending persecution practices like barbecuing Christians, became Emperor in 312 AD while visiting York. As Rome’s power declined it withdrew its legions from Britain. Since then, various churches were built on the foundations of the Roman basilica. Saxons prayed and resisted Viking invasions here; that is, until “…in the mid 9th century AD…Danish Vikings…captured the city.” After the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066, Normans built their own version. The latest, an early Gothic-style, rose during medieval times (1220 to 1472).
Over time, Cathedrals –houses of worship and centers for pilgrimage meant to lift the spirit –became filled with treasure, virtual Aladdin caves collecting relics adorned in gold, silver and precious stones, intricate wood and stone carvings, marble, statuary and tons of stained glass. On a bright day, as you drift along while light glitters through York Minster‘s array of glass, it’s easy to feel buoyant, a little like riding on a magic carpet.
That day, however, with the sun unable to make up his mind, the atmosphere felt gloomy. In dim corners I had a glimpse of what it must have felt like to be an illiterate medieval peasant in church to do penance and pray for deliverance; the fierce grotesque looking down on me was a fitting reminder of the dread of hell and damnation.
With breakfast old history, it was food, not salvation that was on our mind. Still, we decided to attend Evensong.
The boys’ choir was, “…on a well-earned break” therefore a procession of adults entered the Choir. In a magnificent place filled by a massive organ, intricately carved woodwork ornamenting pews and chairs, stained-glass windows and soaring ceiling, we listened to the ritual of lesson reading followed by choral singing. At the end we left with a new awareness for enjoying cathedral visits.
In the nearby alleys, we explored the old city.
In the Shambles timber-framed houses along narrow twisting lanes lean towards each like gossiping neighbors. For a moment I closed my eyes, ignoring shops peddling modern wares and the display of one enterprising shopkeeper: broomsticks, snowy owls, magic wands and spell books, bait designed to lure in Harry Potter devotees. In such a setting it’s easy to transform today’s din –shoppers talking and hen-parties shouting—into yesterday’s chaos of sounds, where the peal of church bells called the faithful to prayer while geese honked, chickens clucked and peasants, out to buy their mutton, waited for butchers to do the deed.
Leaving the market, we noticed a group gathered around a local Pied Piper. Dressed in black top hat and cape, he led them away, tossing jokes, like coins, over his shoulder to an eager audience lured by the promise of ghost stories.
In the streets people strolled and came in and out of restaurants. Tipsy, boisterous women in party-dress, adorned with ribbons and veils, worked hard to add to York’s recent reputation as a mecca for Hen-parties.
Surrounded by this madness, we stumbled on an oasis– Betty’s. Much in this elegant Vienna-style coffee house seemed to point back in time. A pianist played while staff in formal dressed behaved in the civilized manners of yesterday
Sipping tea, I reflected on our walk through York, an ancient town which seems, at times, tinged with just a touch of madness. Nevertheless, it has the power, like the sweet treat before me, to make you want to indulge, linger and leave you wanting more.
For me, our stopover did just that.