Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

The grand old city of York

It's difficult to imagine a Hewlett-Packard printer large enough to produce an image of the Great East Window of the York cathedral or minister — 24 metres high and 9.5 metres across — but apparently one was built soley for this purpose.

It's difficult to imagine a Hewlett-Packard printer large enough to produce an image of the Great East Window of the York cathedral or minister — 24 metres high and 9.5 metres across — but apparently one was built soley for this purpose.

And there the image hangs, with apparent translucence, while this most celebrated assembly of medieval stained glass — said to be England's "Sistine Chapel" — is conserved and restored. In a five-year project to cost 15 million pounds and be completed or "revealed" in 2016, the East Window's intricate stonework and glass is being lovingly disassembled, replaced, repaired and restored by master masons and glaziers.

The largest project of its kind in the U.K., the east end of the York Minster currently includes state-of-the-art multi-media galleries where you can investigate and participate in this undertaking at one of Britain's most important religions icons.

York, in northern Yorkshire, was founded as a Roman camp in 70 AD. The city of about 200,000 is therefore two thousand years old, and the minster, completed in 1470 after 250 years of construction, remains essentially as it was in the late Middle Ages.

Today the city of York still clusters around this massive edifice, with its soaring tower (which you can climb) and adjoining fortifications, like a low-lying village.

To get a sense of the city's historic parameters, I took a short cruise on the River Ouse, which flows from the Yorkshire moors into the Trent River and ultimately the North Sea. At York, the Ouse is wide and placid, and a YorkBoat cruise from a stop below Lendal Bridge reveals some of the city's remaining fortifications and handsome riverside buildings that date back two or three centuries. You can even glimpse the sprawling remains of St. Mary's Abbey, once a Benedictine monastery, through some greenery.

To get further afield, I joined an open-top bus tour, and was able to see where York, not a large city, dissolves into the countryside.

But York is best known for its extant medieval quarter, called The Shambles (after an old English word meaning "slaughterhouse"). Today its narrow, winding lanes are lined with smallish shops — some global brands, but also independent retailers — as well as pubs, tearooms and artisan food stalls. Many of the buildings are still timber-framed and slate-covered — and slightly listing.

A cobbled street called Fossgate, wending its way out of (or into) the Shambles, is dotted with small bistros or restaurants for which York has become known. Nearer the city centre, in St. Helen's Square, where a golden-coloured Norman-like church of that name holds court, I found the popular tea-room-slash-restaurant known prosaically as Betty's.

In a late afternoon, when most restaurant-goers were indulging in tea with fancy sandwiches and cakes, I revelled in Betty's Swiss fare: an Engadine-style pasta dish laden with cream sauce and raclette cheese, mixed salad with beetroot and hazelnuts, all chased down with an excellent Swiss Chasselas white wine. From the full-length windows of Betty's you can watch the goings-on in this gathering spot. Perfect.

I'd holed up at one of many small hotels and B&Bs close to the city centre, within walking distance of all the attractions. And my room at the St. Deny's Hotel was considerably better than what one gets for the same price in London, where I was based.

Ultimately, I headed back to the minster — among Europe's most notable gothic cathedrals, along with Chartres, Notre Dame, and Reims in France, Santa Maria del Flore in Florence, Cologne, Milan, St. Stephens in Vienna, and Burgos and Seville in Spain.

Step through the Great West Doors and you are in the widest nave of any purpose-built Gothic cathedral, in the Decorated Gothic style. With its complex vaulting, and curtain walls of pointed arches, the setting is hugely impressive.

Surprisingly perhaps, the over-arching colours and tones are light and bright — almost modern. But then York Minster is very much a functioning and well-maintained church. And throughout the entire cathedral is the vastness of intricate, glittering glass — including the Five Sisters Window in the North Transept, and the circular Rose Window — some of it originating in the 13th century.

But the East Window, as it's formally called, is the most celebrated. Created by Coventry glazier John Thornton between 1405 and 1408 and said to be the largest expanse of medieval glass in the world, its themes range from the creation of the world in the Book of Genesis to its end as prophesized the Book of Revelations.

Step through the Quire Screen in the central Transept, and you're in the Quire, or kind of ceremonial hub. This is where you find the intricately carved choir stalls, an organ with more than 4,000 pipes, and the "cathedra" or throne of the Archbishop of York.

Most afternoons, at 5:15 p.m., the choir, mostly men and girls — mainly children, on the day I visited — sing Evensong, and visitors are welcome. The weekday event was full. And the opportunity to sit in a centuries-old Quire stall and hear fine choral music and elegantly spoken text beautifully rounded out my visit.