People push past us on the thin walkway. The stairways are narrow and old. Our newly walking toddler keeps making a beeline for the precipitous drop to our left. To the right our view extended all the way across the city, from the minster to the big wheel, and across countless lanes, streets, gates and Pavement. All is peaceful up here: unspoilt views and ancient stone. Then, one turn to the left and the stairs take us back down to earth, and the hustle of an ancient street. Welcome to York.
We had rented an apartment in the city centre. The location was hardly unique: York is a city rich in amenities; everywhere one turns there are ample opportunities to eat and drink, and in such variety that no one need ever be disappointed. The local supermarket was only one of ten we could walk to.
A tepee had been erected in the middle of a pedestrianised street. It was surrounded by stalls with sausages and mulled wine, and it was bedecked in images of Viking lore, Thor’s hammer being the chief symbol employed. Stalls selling knick-knacks ran for several kilometres, through rambling and ancient streets, casting light and laughter on the cobbles, and repelling the deep deep darkness.
The cold was crippling; we were standing in a field, waiting for a Viking longboat to be set alight, in a recreation of an ancient funeral rite. The fact that we were on a racecourse in 21st Century York, rather than a harbour or a river in 11th Century Denmark was irrelevant to us all. Men walked to and fro in chainmail and leather, quaffing beer from horns. We stood together, hands deep in pockets, wishing the festivities to draw to a close, so that we could get in a taxi and escape to the gig venue.
A gig venue which contained a cloud of steam, so hot were the people contained within. We shed our winter coats and grabbed a cooling pair of pints as we waited for the bands to come to the stage. Chainmail-clad men quaffed more beer from their substantial horns as the Viking-charged death metal shook the building to its foundations. We sweated our way through the support acts, wishing for the cool of the racecourse. And then came the true Vikings, and all thoughts were lost.
I wanted to climb up the tower, but I had a child on my back, and the stairs were steep. I was afraid that I would topple over on my way up, and that I would kill us both. And yet, on we climbed.
As the river level rose we knew we needed to get ourselves out of Dodge. The hotel which ran our apartment was a metre underwater, and the usual entrance was out of order. Hastily erected signs pointed us to a secondary entrance, via back of house storage areas and stairways down in to the Ouse. We finally managed to get to the Reception, handed in our keys and we were off, zooming up Micklegate like our lives depended on it. (Which they didn’t, but it was fun to pretend it was.)
The street was full of revellers enjoying the Christmas festivities as we tried to make it soberly back to the apartment. Taxis flew in all directions as we crossed busy junctions and swerved past kebabs.
We crept our way back through the icy streets, a little worse for wear and buoyed by the twin joys of Viking song and Jack Daniel’s Whiskey. The street, lit by a sole lamp, was awash with a fog in the air and a sparkle underfoot. It was like being in our own frosted, wintry wonderland. The old walls kept us safe as we made our way through the unfamiliar city; the ice around us provided reflected light, so that we could make our way through this frosted darkness. And then familiarity was restored.
We took a gamble on the Castle Museum; it was our last day and we were sick of being outdoors the whole time. We had heard good enough reviews of the place, but we weren’t sure. The staff were all friendly enough, offering us an annual ticket which we stupidly declined. What lay inside were a pair of old York streets, built to precise detail, and held within the walls of the old Castle jail. We walked through the Victorian street, Kirkgate, feeling as if we had slipped in to another era. Moments later and we were in the 1960’s arcade, its street awash with the artefacts of our modern history. I still regret turning down the annual ticket: we would have returned to York for this museum happily.
In large part we were in York for the Christmas market. Christmas markets in the UK are curious gestalt affairs: one part craft stalls, selling miscellaneous crap; one part traditional German fayres, tempting you out of the darkness with heat, alcohol and sweet goodness. We did have our British traditions of Christmas markets, just as the rest of northern Europe has; they were outlawed by Cromwell and his Puritan confederates after they murdered Charles I in 1649. It’s a pity, really.
York is a wonderful city to get lost in: every twist and wrong turn opens up a square, an arcade or a marketplace. I thoroughly recommend getting lost in York at any time of the year, although we have largely done it in winter. From the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, sunk down from Piccadilly, up to the twisting turning Goodramgate, York is never-ending in its little box of wonders. Yes, there are tourist attractions – I always enjoy Yorvik and the Railway Museum – but the town itself is the main event.
Many of our cities carve old buildings out of new – panelled rooms within buildings of concrete, steel and glass – but York does the opposite: gleaming architecture sits inside old stonework; the needs of the modern world are carved out of the wood and the wattle and daub of our own antiquity.
As with all of the most attractive cities, York is far from a tourist resort or a model village – if you want a model, go to the Castle Museum – it is a place of work and play for a population of people who see tourists every day of their lives. That it still manages to function with all of this going on is beyond my puny powers of comprehension. As long as they keep the Viking Festival I won’t mind.