It’s the early 80s and I’m on my first school trip. Everything is going swimmingly. No coach sickness, I haven’t cried (due to the fact my entourage includes mum, auntie and two older cousins) and I’m reasonably excited to visit the rail museum. Then disaster strikes. I take my eye off my posse for a split second to concentrate on my ice cream cone, and they are all missing. Instead of calmly studying the faces around me until I find one I recognise, I panic and set off at breakneck speed into the railway museum, losing the ice cream in the process and waving an empty cone around for dear life.
Thankfully, one of the sensible older children found me and returned me to the party as I fought the stress-induced tears and stinging blushes in my cheeks. I’d also like to add that I didn’t get a replacement ice cream either. So, you can understand my trepidation when I bravely decided to revisit York to see if it still holds such white-knuckle experiences.
I am happy to report that this trip was free of gut-wrenching fear. In fact, I had a wonderful day out discovering one of the most beautiful cities in our fair land. First off, I followed the crowds to York Minster, which has really sorted itself out in terms of being an active place of worship, as well as a tourist attraction. Once inside, the majesty of this cathedral is unmistakable. I headed first for The Undercroft, a museum located in the foundations of the building, taking us back 2,000 years to when the site held a Roman fort, and then onto the Norman minster that stood on the site. It’s a modern affair, with interactive exhibitions and stories. The exhibits are awe inspiring with a 1,000-year-old elephant tusk presented by a Viking Lord, alongside the burial artefacts of Archbishop Walter de Gray who died in 1255. Yes, it might be a bit macabre. But it’s fascinating nonetheless.
Back upstairs and what a tranquil experience to wander around this beautiful building, taking in the art and the stunning 128 medieval stained-glass windows. The Crypt holds the resting place of Saint William, an Archbishop from York who died in 1154 in suspicious circumstances. But it was said that miracles were performed after his death leading Pope Honorius III to canonise him. Believers have travelled to York for centuries to pay their respects and next door is an exhibition on Pilgrimages. If you’re braver than me, there is an add-on to your entrance fee where you can climb the central tower and take in the whole of York below. At 275 steps of winding staircase, I passed on the opportunity.
For those of you who like their facts condensed, there are free guided tours of the Minster. Unfortunately, my schedule didn’t allow for this but I did earwig as I walked round and they sounded engaging. If you have little ones, they are also covered with Explorer Backpacks – everything they need to become the next Indiana Jones.
When you’re done with the inside, I would heartily recommend walking a circuit round the perimeter and just staring up (if it’s not raining, obviously). The majestic architecture is something else and clearly demonstrates why the Minster has stood over the beautiful city of York for so many centuries.
But who knew that just across the road from all this religious beauty, one of the most notorious criminals in the UK was born?
The Georgian front of Guy Fawkes Inn blends perfectly with the other stunning buildings of York. However, if you go into the back yard, there are some much older constructions. One of these was registered to Mr Fawkes’s grandmother, and it is widely believed that this was the birthplace of the original twisted Firestarter. Nowadays, it is a wonderful place to grab your lunch. Occasionally inns and pubs with historical significance rest on their laurels in terms of service and quality, but Guy Fawkes Inn is not one of these. I received a warm welcome and found a nook at the back overlooking the yard.
The menu is themed (obviously) with a ‘Light the Fuse’ nibble selection and ‘Let it Burn’ desserts, but I asked my lovely waitress for her recommendation and ended up with the most delicious steak pie I’ve experienced in a long time. You know you’re in a classy joint when they bring extra gravy and not just any old gravy, but a baby onion, mushroom and smoked bacon concoction, thank you very much. I attacked it with the vigour of a 17th century rebel but, unlike one of the previous occupants of this building, I most definitely finished the job. Sadly, I had no room for a dessert, I was as full as a barrel of gunpowder. The price was reasonable too at £15 for a lunch so hearty that I skipped dinner. And the service was faultless. No matter what your political leanings, who can argue with a good pie?
York can fill your head with all sorts of facts about Vikings and Romans, so it’s nice to bring things up a notch and to explore the heritage of chocolate in the city. So off I toddled to the York Chocolate Story. See how I’ve just lost the “I skipped dessert” gold star?
Growing up in the 80s, the names Rowntree’s and Terry’s bring about a whole host of treat-related memories. They may have since been taken over by far bigger companies, but the brand names are still familiar to us all: KitKat, Fruit Pastilles, Chocolate Orange. I’m salivating just typing this. That’s why the York Chocolate Story is my kind of tourist attraction, and I’m pleased to report there are samples every step of the way. The guided tour starts with an elevator ride to the top of the building. I seem to remember another famous chocolate factory trip that had a lift, although this isn’t of the Great Glass variety much to the disappointment of one of my young co-passengers.
At the top, it isn’t Willy Wonka waiting, but a cheery guide who takes us through two floors of chocolate trivia from the origins of the simple cocoa bean to its transformation into the Food of the Gods we know today. Oh, and did I mention the samples? They’re not all a treat sadly: the first chocolate drink tasted like sweetened soil and I couldn’t wait to cram a much-needed Quality Street into my mouth to take away the taste. We were then treated to the story of how York became the chocolate capital of the United Kingdom and the rise of Mr Rowntree and Mr Terry.
The main export from York is the familiar KitKat, the second biggest selling chocolate bar in the world after…Snickers (I was surprised too). The KitKat owes its massive success not to a home market, but to Japan where the saying Kitto Kattsu means you will surely win. This has transformed the chocolate bar into a good luck charm which people give to each other as gifts. It’s almost enough to make you book a flight to Tokyo as the guide regales us with the many different flavours available. There are more than 300, including the best-selling soy sauce, green tea, sake and erm…pepperoni pizza. Yes, pepperoni pizza with actual bits of pepperoni inside. Unfortunately, we can’t taste them in this country as they are banned due to caffeine levels.
Our guide then shows us the transformation from the bean to the bar, and after sampling each step with mixed results, we are taught how to palate a piece of perfect chocolate like a connoisseur using taste, smell, sound and sight. You’ll never eat a chocolate bar the same way again.
Guided bit over, we get to put our hands on some chocolate and make a lolly out of white chocolate before a demo in how to rustle up gourmet chocolates. It might not be the longest tourist attraction in the world, and it is on the pricey side at £13, but with samples aplenty and a guide that kept us nicely entertained, I was as enthralled as Charlie and Uncle Joe. No sign of an oompa-loompa, though.
In the evening I was lucky enough to be invited on one of the City Cruises boats and journey down the River Ouse. The evening was perfect as it had been a belter of a day, and I was surprised to see how quickly you go from urban to rural. There is literally the end of a street and then fields. The countryside that we travelled through was superb and there were some seriously creative houseboats, complete with residents ready to moon at us. But let’s not go into that.
Overall, my experience in York was top notch. There’s loads to do and even though it was half-term, there wasn’t too much crowding apart from The Shambles but that’s the whole point of it, isn’t it? If you haven’t been for a while, it’s worth a wander round. I believe the rail museum is still there, but I wasn’t brave enough for that.
By Chris Park, Travel Editor