Towns / Cities Visited: 130
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 13,335
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,287,195
Today would see us come to the end of our six week galavant around the UK. Thats not to say that we wouldn’t be coming back at the end of the year, and as such it would be more of a ‘see you later’ than a ‘goodbye’. Still, we weren’t leaving just yet, and so we planned on making the most of our final day. Although we had seen a small snippet of York the previous day, we decided to head back into town once more, to delve a little deeper into the history of this area, which was first settled almost two thousand years ago.
Now, naturally, every adventure requires proper fuelling, and with our imminent departure from the land of scones looming, we snuck into a little tea rooms off The Shambles, and hunkered down to enjoy one last cream tea. As exciting as the upcoming foray back into mainland Europe was, it was impossible to ignore the sadness I felt about leaving my ancestral motherland, and a place where we had created so many fond memories. Still, my melancholy was swallowed with the last bite of jam and cream smothered scone and the last sip of tea, and we were soon on our way once more.
We had planned on starting our day with a visit to York Minster, the massive gothic church which rises up out of the heart of the city, but finding it closed for a private event until 1pm, we went to plan B and headed towards Clifford’s Tower. Despite its name and appearance, this medieval fortification is not simply a defensive tower, but is, in fact, the ruined keep of a motte and bailey Norman castle built here by order of William the Conquerer. The original castle, built in 1068, was destroyed the following year by viking raiders, after which a stronger castle was built, with a moat and artificial lake surrounding it. In the middle of the 13th century, the then crumbling castle was rebuilt in stone by Henry III. Its history, like most castles in this land, is bloody, including the death of 150 jews in a pogram in 1190. Throughout its long past it has been used, more often than not, as a military base or a prison rather than a royal residence, although during the Scottish Wars of Independence it was used as a location for the royal administration. It was even part of the York Prison complex all the way up until the 1920’s. Today however, these ruins are now in the care of English Heritage, and thus we made the trek up the steep steps to see what the interior of this hilltop tower had to show us.
Walking inside, the first thing you notice is just how small the place is. Even with most of the interior rooms which encircled the inner courtyard gone, the space is very compact. The second thing you notice is its rather unique shape. The tower keep was built as a quatrefoil; a sort of rounded equilateral cross which appears like the outline of four connecting circles. This strange architecture actually allowed for greater angles out of which to shoot arrows, thus giving the tower a superior advantage in terms of defence. Within the still standing outer wall, you can also spot the holes in which the wooden beams would have held up the floors of the interior rooms, and a few obvious fireplaces remind you that this was once more than just a silent relic of the past.
There are a few information boards dotted around, and a small diorama which depicts the castle and the city walls as they were in their hey day, which allows you to further picture the true nature of this place. You are also able to climb the narrow spiral staircase of one of the towers, up to the parapets. On the way, you pass the old chapel which now plays host to a rather impressive collection of pigeon and their droppings. The journey up is a little questionable, but when you reach the top you are gifted with a stunning view over the city, including the easily noticeable white stone spire of the Minster.
With our feet back on the ground, and lunch time having rolled around, we tottered back towards the centre of town. We settled on finding sustenance in a little shop which sells Yorkshire pudding wraps; think everything thats good about a roast dinner, wrapped in a large Yorkshire pudding instead of a flatbread. Trust me, it tastes better than it looks.
With stomachs satiated, a few stunning pictures of the York Minster exterior snapped, and the clock about to tick past one, we headed to the entrance and joined the ever growing line of tourists waiting to file in when it opened to the public once more. A minster, for those of you wondering like we were, is an honorific title given to a large or important cathedral in England which was built as part of a monastery. Although minsters were once common, only a few now remain; the most noteworthy, of course, being Westminster Abbey.
Now, a stroke of good fortune saw us manage to link into a free tour which was about to begin, and we happily spent the next hour being shown around the stunning features of this towering beauty. York minster is one of the largest of its kind in Northern Europe, and there has been a church on this site since 627. The current church wasn’t started until the 12th century though, and, thanks to a lack of funds and a few bouts of the plague, it wasn’t completed until the 15th century. Like so many others, it was stripped of many of its possessions during the reformation, and also fell victim to wars and a number of fires, both accidental and deliberate, which destroyed all of the ceilings at some point or another, except for that of the Chapter House, which now sports the only original ceiling in the building. The most recent fire was in 1984, and resulted in fire services purposely collapsing the south transept by pouring tens of thousands of gallons of water into it in order to save the rest of the building.
Another fascinating part of this house of God is the Great East Window, which was completed in 1408 and stands as the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world. As our guide led us around, he showed us both this window and the many other impressive stained glass windows which grace this place. They are currently in the process of painstakingly cleaning them, and its spectacular to see these works of art in their proper glory, free of centuries of grime.
The most striking feature of York Minster is not the windows though, but rather the lightness of the space. The soaring vaulted ceilings and clean white stone which makes up its beautiful gothic architecture gives it an almost etherial feel, and it left me feeling as though I may have just stumbled into the Ivory Tower from The Never-ending Story.
As glorious as the Minster is, it is the Chapter House which stirs the most emotion. As you walk past its filigreed wooden door and look from its fan vaulted ceiling, down past it encircling stained glass, to the intricately carved faces atop the stone pendants above the seats; the history here is almost palpable. Walking around the room we studied the faces, which are not simply generic, but rather based on the locals who used to frequent this church all those centuries ago.
With the tour complete, we took some time to visit the crypt, then headed to the undercroft, which offers a unique look at the churches history. You see, when it was discovered that the Minster was starting to sink and crack, they dug down to the foundations to fix the problem and discovered that it was built atop the foundations of the previous Roman, then Norman churches. Obviously these foundations were not designed for such a massive building, and thus were struggling with the weight, which had to be reinforced to prevent collapse. Your are able to view these foundations today though, and its fascinating to see how layered human history really is. There is also a number of displays holding artefacts discovered during the excavations, or belonging to the Minster’s history; including a beautiful ivory drinking horn from the first Minster at York during viking times.
Eventually, it was time to leave, as we had a three hour drive ahead of us, which eventually saw us arriving at an hotel just outside of Luton Airport. We finally bid farewell to the little Audi which had seen us safely around the UK for the last month and a half, and headed back to the hotel for a quiet dinner in the restaurant, before settling in for our last night in England for now.
Tomorrow would see us head back to the realm of foreign lands with foreign languages, however as I lay in bed I couldn’t help but let my thoughts venture not forward into the future, but rather back to York. There are times during travel when you find special places; not special because of their history or their beauty, but because when you reach them, they feel like home. Places you find yourself unwittingly thinking ‘I could live here’, even if you can’t put your finger on why. We had only stumbled upon this rare feeling a few times before, and at each point it had made me smile to know that there are towns and cities on the other side of the planet in which my heart could rest peacefully should I wish to bid a more permanent farewell to Australia for a time. It is on this trip that I have learnt first hand that home is not made up of bricks and mortar, it is a feeling of peace, wherever you find it.