There is a fast train from London to York that takes just two hours to get there. In another nod to the more famous city, the train line is called "The Grand Central". It was still morning when we arrived into York Station and too early to check into our hotel, so we had a few hours on our hands. Right next door to the train station is the National Railway Museum, the largest museum in the world devoted to train travel. It is a vast hanger filled with locomotives through the ages all polished and shiny and inviting to the touch. We spent a few hours admiring Queen Victoria's personal train carriages, the worlds first steam locomotive, as well as the first 'bullet train' from Japan. If I had seen this place when I was a kid, it would have been hard to get me to leave. Indeed, on a Saturday morning in the middle of winter, the place was packed with eager freckled faces. Before it got too packed, we set off to find our hotel.
York is a very small city, so accommodations within its ancient walls is very limited and expensive. We chose to stay in a grand old Inn three miles outside of the city. Middlethorpe Hall was built in the Italian style by a wealthy industrialist in 1699. It has been sympathetically restored with period art and antiques and has had an indoor pool and spa recently added that manage to fit in with the surroundings perfectly. For the same price as a hotel room in the city, we had a grand Marie Antoinette style room with an enormous four-poster bed that overlooked the twenty acres of parkland surrounding it. The service and cuisine at Middlethorpe Hall were impeccably understated, and it was just a $10 cab ride into town. To hell with the Hilton!
After a quick refresh, we headed into town to uncover the many layers of this historical place. The imposing stone walls that surround the city were built during medieval times to ward off invaders, and there were plenty of those! The Romans established it in 79AD and called it 'Eburacum'. It became the capital city of the Roman territory known as Britania, and was far more important than that little town called Londinium to the south. Constantine The Great was crowned Emperor of Rome here in 306AD. He went on to rule the known world, legalize the Christian religion and build the city of Constantinople. Not bad for a Yorkie! The city was then taken over by the Vikings in 867 who gave the city the name of 'Jorvik'. When William I conquered England in 1066 the Viking name was anglicized to become simply 'York'.
We circumnavigated the walls around the city, stopping to admire each of the ancient stone entry gates. Not only are they still in excellent condition, but they are still the only ways into the old town. The city has retained so much of its medieval structure that walking into the center is like entering a living museum. Black and white Tudor buildings lean at all angles over the cobbled streets: one of which is famously called 'The Shambles'. Grand stone buildings look over little market squares that still teem with vendors flogging their wares. There are no cars allowed in the city center, so you really do feel you have stepped back in time...except you can stop for a Starbucks coffee every couple of blocks. We made our way to the star attraction, which is the staggering York Minster Cathedral. This is one of the largest Gothic churches in Europe and one of the best preserved medieval structures in the world. It took two hundred and fifty years to build, finally finished in 1420. York Minster houses the largest collection of stained glass in Britain, some of it almost one thousand years old. An unbelievable treasure.
As night falls the daytrippers leave and the city is taken over by the younger locals looking for a good night out. The many stylish restaurants and bars along the Ouse River fill to capacity and have to turn people away. The first two restaurants we tried were both fully booked on this cold February night. And the one gay bar in town was also packed with friendly, trendy, boozie lads and lasses that were not shy about having a good time.
On Sunday we enjoyed the city at a slower pace and took in some of the smaller churches and a few of her glorious old pubs. One of the best in town was The White Swan. A fine old drinking establishment twice the age of the United States. As the drizzle started to slicken the cobble stones outside we sat down to a Sunday roast in front of a crackling fire. We thought about all of those that had come to this place before us to warm their feet and fill their bellies. There is enormous comfort to the soul to be in such a place. The weekend was coming to a close when we walked back to the train station in the thickening rain through the ancient gates and across the muddy river. I could see why the people of England have always loved this small, fair city. The men that carried her name across the Atlantic did so because they loved her, and wanted to further her renown. Perhaps they saw the New World as the place to continue the long enduring history of the city of York.