Today we walk the walls of York.
I meet the ‘boys’ off the train, they’re full of excitement and need the toilet!
I’ve planned the walk to start on the wall opposite the station and walk clockwise with a short break at each tower followed by a bite to eat at a wonderful cafe in a hidden gem of a building that is part of the Bar Convent; I’ll expand on this later.
We ascend the steps just under the arch on Station Road/Station Rise and the view is instantly transformed. We have York Station through the castellations to our left but to our front and over the river is a wonderful view of the top of the Minster dwarfing the buildings surrounding it. I’m in full flow now regarding the timeline associated with the walls.
Initially, a wooden affair surrounding Eboracum and made of wood. The tiny Roman settlement was established following the defeat of the tribes north of the Humber referred to as the Brigantes. They were Celtic in origin but then so was most of our island that only became England after a good kicking from some gentlemen from Denmark referred to as Angles i.e. Angleland then modified to England (no, I have no idea!). At the time York (Eboracum) was little more than 500×500 metres and was established in the area where the Minster is now. It’s hard to imagine this little settlement of about 6000 when you see what it is now.
So we continue along the wall to the Ouse and descend to Lendal Bridge with its small defensive towers, Lendal Tower to the South and The Perky Peacock Coffee Shop Tower to the North (5 stars in TripusAdvisorius AD 79 and one of Emperor Septimius Severus’ favourite watering holes; he was known to call off there before rogering the entire virgin population of the city which was then estimated at three!
In later years, between the towers, an iron chain would be raised to stop the tax evaders from accessing the city through the night without paying their tolls.
From here we pass Museum Gardens and onwards to St Leonard’s Place and on to Bootham Bar and the gateway, not only to York but also our access to the next walkable part of the wall.
The Major Entrances to York – The Bars
Bootham Bar is one of four ‘bars’ or barriers where tolls were extracted to enter the city.
This is located on a site that has had a gateway into York since 71AD the current three storey stone tower replaced an original and much smaller wooden structure built by the Romans to give access to Principia, the Roman Headquarters.
Bootham Bar contains some stonework from as early as the 11th Century, such as the main archway, although the majority is from the 14th when it was heightened to add a portcullis which although no longer working is still housed in the tower which you can access and see.
It was the last of the Bars to lose its defensive barbican in 1831 and fortunately managed to avoid complete demolition in 1832 due to strong public opposition. Thankfully in 1834 work was started on repairing the bar to bring it up to its current standard.
We ascend the steps and begin our traverse of the wall towards Monkgate. We’re privileged to tremendous views of the back of the businesses on Gillygate; oh, and the Minster, yes the Minster looks fabulous on our right.
As we approach Monkgate I regale my captive audience with a few tales of capital punishment in the middle ages when high treason would be dealt with by being hung, drawn and quartered. Apparently, it was common practice to pay the executioner a few groats to ensure that you were dead when it came to the ‘quartered’ element. Just to explain: the words were actually assembled in that order because of the rhythm, when you say hung, drawn and quartered, it scans better than drawn, hung and quartered which was a rather more accurate description.
Hung, Drawn and Quartered – but not necessarily in that order!
The process went like this…
If convicted of high treason, and this was not a hugely difficult task, especially if the officials didn’t like you, then you would be:
Drawn: You were ‘drawn’ through the streets i.e. dragged but great care was taken to ensure you were not rendered unconscious as it was important that you appreciated what the officials of the town were doing for you.
Hung: You were then ‘hung’ for a while but further care was exacted to ensure you didn’t die at this stage or the executioner could find himself in the victim’s place. The victim would now be getting somewhat anxious and was known to dance on tiptoe, well he would, wouldn’t he! This was sometimes referred to as ‘dancing with the devil’ and was greatly appreciated by the crowds. If the executioner accidentally put you out of your misery then he could really be in the shit (it was rumoured and often assumed that you could bribe the executioner to ensure you were dead before the next stage as it was at this point that things became really rather unpleasant).
Quartered (preliminary procedures – emasculation): This part of the proceedings was usually preceded by significant baying, cursing and rude words from the crowds should you show any sign of not paying attention. There was the cutting off of the penis bit, then the removal of the testicles by which stage the victim would probably not be too worried about the next stage.
Quartered (follow up to preliminary procedures above): the body was then cut into four parts and these would be hung from the ‘bars’ of the city as a bit of a warning to others. Since this entertainment would happen for several hundred years, I’m not sure about the discouragement value.
There are reports that some bad guys had their heads stuck on spikes at these gates for nine years. I’m not sure what they’d look like then but Dave felt it may well have been the forerunner of the fat ball now offered to birds.
Ladies were not subject to this kind of barbarism as it was thought that it would be unchristian to show their bits so they were just burned at the stake or pressed to death!
We make our way parallel to Jewbury to Foss Bank.
York doesn’t have a good history with Jews and in the 12th century there was significant unrest resulting in them taking refuge in the great tower (now known as Clifford’s Tower) and the only way out was enforced baptism with which they weren’t best pleased. This went on a while so the throng outside got a bit fractious and set it on fire. The jews inside decided to stand their ground and committed suicide rather than subject themselves to baptism.
We’re now at the point where there are no walls for about ten minutes of walking along Foss Islands Way. The reason for this lack of walls is that this area was traditionally marshlands so defenses were not necessary.
We join the wall again at the Red Tower. There’s a tale around this:
The Red Tower, built in 1490, forms the only brick section of York’s famous city walls. Because it was built of brick its construction did not sit well with the local stonemasons. So much so that it was the cause of dispute and even murder. The masons who worked on the majority of York’s walls and buildings were unhappy about the employment of tilers to build the Red Tower; their unhappiness led to them attempting to sabotage the building of the tower. The tilers had to ask for protection from the city council to stop the masons from threatening them and breaking their tools. This protection made little difference, however. In 1491, the tiler John Patrik was murdered. Two leading masons, William Hindley and Christopher Homer were charged with the murder but quickly acquitted.
York’s most complete and recognisable Bar still comprises its defensive barbican, portcullis and oak doors. In fact Walmgate Bar is the only town gate in England to survive with its barbican intact.
The stone archway dates back to the 12th Century, the walled barbican is 14th Century and the original oak wooden gates are 15th Century. The timber-framed and plaster building to the inside of the bar is 16th Century but has been recorded as being pre-dated by another building which was let out as early as the 14th Century, today it houses a cafe where you can stop off for a brew and a bite to eat while walking around the walls.
The biggest repairs to Walmgate Bar were in 1648 after undergoing severe damage during the Seige of York and again in 1840 after years of neglect. Today the Bar is still undergoing repairs due to its age but also due to a car driver who crashed into one of the supportive stone pillars.
From Walmgate we head past The Barbican (an excellent event stadium that I would recommend to anyone) and on to Piccadilly where a serious decision needs to be made regarding the use of Wetherspoon’s, it transpires that the gents toilet is the only requirement so, after a short wee break, we carry on.
Over Skeldergate Bridge and back on to the wall at Baile’s Hill. It takes us 10 minutes and we’re at Micklegate Bar. As we walk the element I’m thinking of the York timeline, its strategic importance and the people that have had a major impact. The Romans from the first to the fourth century, the Angles and the dark ages when we’re not really sure what happened, the Vikings in 900ish who sailed up the Ouse and had a great time with ladies (although I’m not convinced it was reciprocated) and did nasty things to the men whom I can vouch were not particularly happy. All of this was then followed by William the Conqueror who ‘persuaded’ the tribes that he was the true king, so the Normans and subsequent French influence on our land and our laws were well established and York was at the centre of it all.
In the 13C Henry III was feeling a bit insecure and ordered the wooden elements of the walls to be fortified in rock because of the threat from the Scotts, and this was real.
Around the 16C the walls were made ready to face the Northern Rebellion when the Catholics weren’t best impressed with Elizabeth 1st and she reciprocated that feeling.
In 1600’s Charles 1st prepared York’s walls to face Civil War armies supporting the Parliamentarians but still lost!
Taking its name from Mykill (Great) and Gata (Street) Micklegate Bar is the prestigious entrance to within the City Walls at which important guests from London and the Monarchy would be met and welcomed into the city.
Erected between 1196 – 1230 on older foundations the original 12th Century structure was a two-storey stone gatehouse which in the 14th Century was extended up two stories, topped with bartizans and also had the now-removed barbican and portcullis added.
The interior of Micklegate Bar was renewed and beautified in 1716-1737, had the barbican removed in 1816 and was completely restored in 1952.
Micklegate Bar is famous for displaying the skewered heads of rebels and traitors above the gate as a warning to others. These were a regular fixture with the longest being up there for 9 years. The last one to be displayed was removed in 1754.
The Coats of Arms on Micklegate Bar belong to King Edward III and also the Lord Mayor of York in 1737 when the original restoration was completed.
This is where I’d planned to call off for a coffee or a meal and to show the team around a hidden jewel of York, Bar Convent.
Bar Convent was established when it was illegal to be a Catholic and is now dedicated to people of all faiths and none. It houses a chapel which was built so it could not be detected from outside and is beautiful. I would recommend visiting this glorious site whether you have any religious views and especially if you have none. I’m glad I took the decision to take the team around the walls in this direction as it is clearly a high point (and these guys are not highly religious). I show them St Margaret’s hand and tell them the story of her fortitude in refusing to renounce her faith for which she was ordered to be crushed to death and suffered the ordeal of being strapped to some wood and having stones laid on her until she expired. She was ordered to be buried in the vilest part of the city but someone found her, dug her up and reburied her in a more appropriate area but not, bizarrely, before cutting off her hand (yes, OK, I’m baffled too). At this point, I draw up the curtain to reveal said hand to my audience.
I then explain the need for multiple exits and the ‘priest hole’ where the priest could hide should the authorities raid the Mass. There was considerable interest in the hole when I switch on the light to reveal the claustrophobic area under the floor and explain how they would be concealed in walls and roofs too.
Back down to the cafe and we check out the menu and decide to stay at a table that sits in a bright and cheerful atrium, we each choose different dishes and agree that it’s an excellent meal.
The staff here are second to none and we’re well served.
An excellent end to an excellent walk with wonderful friends.
Enjoy the snaps…G..x
Acknowledgements: Wikipedia, Simon Mattam (Friends of York Walls), Bar Convent and Cecilia Kennedy for the information that made this walk come alive. Thank you also to Peter Hymer for his excellent pictures together with those from Friends of York Walls. Thank you.