The hidden historical gems of York

PUBLISHED: 18:05 05 May 2011 | UPDATED: 19:19 20 February 2013

The hidden historical gems of York

The hidden historical gems of York

There are hidden historical gems down almost every York snickleway, as Jo Haywood discovers Photographs by Andy Bulmer

At 200ft high, 500ft long and 100ft wide, York Minster is difficult to miss. It remains the tallest structure in the city, dominating the skyline since 1472, but it is not the be all and end all of what the countys historical capital has to offer. York is crammed literally in the case of Shambles with fascinating ephemera and long lasting cultural gems. There are museums, attractions, shops, restaurants, pubs and magnificent architecture at every turn, but not all are as obvious at the minster.

Some, like the Micklegate Bar Museum and Richard III Museum, are tucked away up on the city walls away from the direct gaze of pavement-bound visitors.

The former is often described as one of Yorks best-kept secrets despite being located at one of the busiest entry points to the city and is a great jumping off point (not literally) for a walk along the city walls.

Micklegate Bar has stood guard over the main road from York to London for around 800 years and, to this day, whenever a royal party pays an official visit to the city they pass through this gate. Thankfully, they are no longer greeted by traitors heads adorning the battlements, but the whole gory story is still laid out in glorious technicolour most of it blood-red inside.

The Richard III Museum, lovingly created and run by history impresario Mike Bennett, is located further along the wall in the imposing gateway to Monk Bar, the only one of Yorks four gateways with a working portcullis.

Like many of the citys hidden gems, the museum doesnt rely on high-tech displays and interactive jiggery-pokery to attract visitors, leaning heavily instead on dramatic reconstructions and well-researched information to encourage guests to make up their own minds about this controversial king. Was he an evil, hunchbacked monster who brutally murdered the princes in the tower, or a loyal, courageous ruler, unfairly maligned by historians? You decide.

Richard didnt rule for long, but he packed a lot in, said Mike who, perhaps not surprisingly, has a distinct liking for Britains most notorious monarch. He was undoubtedly a controversial figure, but he died a heroic death. Ive always been quite pro-Richard, which probably explains why I do what I do.

Mike grabbed the crucial Monk Bar location when the lease came up without any real idea of what he was going to fill the space with. He eventually focused in on his passion for history and particular interest in Richard III, launching his ambitious project with more enthusiasm than funding.

I think were pretty well supported by the council and the people of York, he said. But I do get envious of larger concerns in the city. I run this place myself with no real resources and I dont get any funding from anyone. But Ive always liked working for myself to be honest, I dont think I could do anything else now.

York has more than its fair share of fascinating, although not always grand, houses that can be overlooked by visitors on a mission to tick off all the biggies on their to-see list. Margaret Clitherows house, for instance, is a tiny place in Shambles, transformed from a former butchers shop into a peaceful shrine to this selfless Roman Catholic who sheltered persecuted priests in the 16th century and was deliberately crushed to death for her trouble.

Other notable houses include Barley Hall, a meticulously restored medieval townhouse tucked away down an atmospheric ginnel; Mansion House, which has been home to the various lord mayors of York since 1725; Treasurers House, famous for its ghosts a company of Roman soldiers who appeared through the cellar wall in 1953 and its tearoom (maybe the legionnaires were just peckish); and Merchant Adventurers Hall, which has stood largely untouched for more than 600 years.

For something a little different, you can take a tour round Yorks award-winning independent brewery (yes, you can taste the products), or delve into the citys Cold War bunker, one of the UKs most complete nuclear hideouts and the first of its kind to be designated a scheduled monument.

And last but certainly not least, there is the charming Bar Convent, a working convent (one of the oldest in the country), caf, guesthouse and secret garden offering peace, tranquility and delicious cakes at the heart of the otherwise bustling city.

The word convent is not necessarily a good marketing tool, said James Foster, general manager of the Bar Convent. People envisage a cold, unwelcoming environment, when actually the exact opposite is true. The sisters are warm, informal and great fun.

They are a wonderful surprise. The sisters are very sociable and actively enjoy being part of an attraction. Theyre also very hands-on with the business.

Most are very experienced business people in their own right, but I still find it a little strange that my line manager is a nun.

Going places

Annual figures compiled by Visit York on behalf of Yorks Big Attractions Group for January to December 2010 showed that 2.3 million visits (including education and group visits) were made to the citys key attractions. This figure doesnt include visits to smaller attractions but is a good guide to how well the tourism sector is performing.

The results showed the Castle Museum hosted 336,000 visits (a nine per cent increase); Cliffords Tower 126,000 (up 11 per cent); National Railway Museum 620,000 (down 16 per cent); Jorvik 385,000 (up three per cent); York Dungeon 174,000 (up 14 per cent); York Minster 512,000 (down one per cent); and Yorkboat 130,000 (down six per cent).

Early signs for 2011 are positive, with the Minster recording a 64 per cent increase in visitor numbers for January and the NRM celebrating a bumper February half term with daily visitor numbers often exceeding 8,000. Meanwhile, York Art Gallery has welcomed an impressive 43,241 visitors since the launch event for David Hockneys Bigger Trees Near Warter.

Recycled city

York is a city that likes to recycle its buildings, which means you can eat, sleep and play in some extraordinary architectural settings.

You can:

Stay overnight of have brunch in the oldest active convent in England (Bar Convent).

Have a slap-up meal in a former turn-of-the-century brothel (The Blue Bicycle).

Have a drink in a 16th century pub with no foundations (The Golden Fleece) or in a Tudor merchants home (The Black Swan).

Shop for designer goodies in the same streets our ancestors shopped in 2,000 years ago (Stonegate and Petergate).

Eat cake in a Grade I listed building dating back to 1080 (Grays Court Tea Rooms).

Getting there: York is just 20 minutes from the M1/A1/M62 motorway network and is served by the A64, A19, A1079 and A166 roads. Frequent park and ride bus services run into the city centre from sites adjacent to all these roads. The city is on the East Coast mainline with trains running to and from London every half hour and directly to and from most of the main regional centres around the UK. Yorks nearest airport is Leeds Bradford, just a 45-minute drive away.

Where to park: There are numerous paid-for car parks in York, but they tend to be on the expensive side, so bring plenty of change. For 24-hour parking, try Bootham Row, Castle, Esplanade, Haymarket, St Georges Field, Union Terrace, Marygate, Monk Bar, Nunnery Lane and Peel Street. For more information, visit

What to do: No visit to York is complete without a trip round the Minster, northern Europes largest Gothic cathedral and the jewel in Yorks historical crown. But that is really just the tip of the cultural iceberg. Also on the tourist trail are the 3.4km medieval city walls; the dynamic 10th century experience of the Jorvik Centre; the world-renowned National Railway Museum; river cruises; great days out at the races, courtesy of the citys 280-year-old racecourse; and, of course, the higgledy-piggledy delights of Shambles (dont call it The Shambles as it annoys the natives). For more information, click on

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