I love York. Or, if you are of the belief that you cannot love anything on such a slight acquaintance, I at least really, really like it. Regular readers will remember that I was there in December with Half Pint, Darcy, the Duchess and Princi. Our time was limited then, and as my mother noted, we seemed to spend most of the day either in Minster Gate bookshop or eating things at Betty’s. I for one remain entirely unrepentant about the manner in which we occupied our time, but when my family asked if I’d like to go on holiday to York and the moors with them this year, I was pleased at the opportunity to see more of the city.
We took a train from Oxford two days after I graduated. Within sixty seconds of purchasing a coffee in a poorly designed cup at the station, I had distinguished myself by pouring perhaps half of the scalding liquid down my front. It instantly soaked through the unresisting bodice of my dress, at precisely the moment at which our train was announced. My mother, through some sort of pre-verbal communication with the bewildered coffee shop guy, secured a bottle of water for me, which I, in an advanced state of pain and irrationality, promptly poured down my front as well. We boarded the train like a sort of farcical freak show, all in a rush, and I set about trying to fix myself in the train’s bathroom. The scald was disappointingly mild. I am the sort of person who considers pain affronting, and if suffering is necessary, I prefer it to leave some kind of dramatic mark with which to impress people later. This was clearly not going to happen; the skin was red and angry and too painful for clothing, so I improvised a top from a pashmina, but it wasn’t even remotely likely to scar. Feeling both relieved and disappointed, I returned to my seat and passed the journey by napping fitfully and reading the first installment of the Gormenghast trilogy (which is my new major reading project).
York station is exceptionally nice. In general, you can assume that a major city’s train station and its environs are not of the most salubrious character; in York, such is not the case. The station is large and attractive, in a solid way, constructed of characteristic dark yellow brick and containing footbridges which arch over the rails from platform to platform with gratifying delicacy. We arrived in the early afternoon; the day was sunny, and as we set off for our B&B, the route taking us past the Royal York Hotel, over Lendal Bridge, and through the Museum Gardens, the city appeared bright, pretty and welcoming. I remembered my excitement the last time I’d been there, and also the coldness of that December compared with this July afternoon. Re-visiting places is an odd activity, if you think about it. Some places (like my grandparents’ village in Sussex) appear to exist in a kind of benevolent twilight zone, fundamentally unchanging. But most places are never the same way twice, and re-visiting is a kind of negotiating process, where you have to come to terms with your past experiences there while also bothering enough to have new ones. (It’s a theory, anyway.)
We hadn’t managed to do Jorvik, the recreated Viking centre, in the winter, so I was extremely insistent upon it this time around. Led by my mother, we booked tickets ahead of time and, when we showed up to the centre’s doors, were confronted by the arresting figure of a solid man with flowing locks and massive beard, dressed in what was clearly a reproduction Viking outfit. It was historically accurate, thank goodness–no horned helmets here–and surprisingly colourful, consisting of a red tunic and soft tan leather boots. Altogether it was a civilized looking ensemble. As it turned out, according to the display cases in the underground room you first enter, the Vikings were almost inconceivably well-connected people. Their trading networks were vast. In the dig at York, archaeologists have found the usual Frankish and Western European coins and goods, but also a cowrie shell, which suggests a North African connection, lapis lazuli from modern-day Uzbekistan, and fragments of garments made from silk that originated in Istanbul. These were neither primitive nor ignorant people.
The whole point of Jorvik, however, is not to brood philosophically, but to go on the ride. The centre opened in 1974 and features a rather 1970s (though it has apparently been recently updated) kind of fairground ride, where you are strapped into a blue space-age carriage and are ferried via electronic track around a reconstructed Viking village. The lighting is low, and the village is “populated” by mannequins whose resemblance to actual human beings is by no means great, but is sufficient to be disturbing. The carriages actually swivel towards some of the mannequins, and the recorded commentary engages in “conversation” with them. It’s partly endearingly goofy (“Hello, Gunni the Blacksmith! What are you doing?”) and partly terrifying (one of the mannequins turned its head slowly towards me as we approached, and blinked. I swallowed a wail of panic, only to be overcome when a voice behind us turned out to belong to an elderly Viking crone mannequin, who seemed keen to gossip in Old Norse.) The Jorvik ride is also famous for its smells, but the most off-putting thing about them is that they bear almost no resemblance to real smells. The scent of ordure (cow, pig, human) is recognisable; so is the scent of wood smoke, furs, fish, grease. The smell in Jorvik, or the combination of smells or however they do it, is none of these things. It smells filthy, but in a strangely chemical way, dark, bitter and gritty. Impossible to tell what actually constitutes the filth.
After the ride, there is still more to see in the way of artefact cases. I have a tricky time with artefacts; to understand them and appreciate them properly in their own context requires a particular type of imagination which I don’t possess naturally and which I frequently can’t be bothered to summon. But skeletons are a different thing entirely. In a case near the exit lay the skeleton of a young man which, as the staff member standing next to it was explaining, suggested a truly appalling death. He was a young soldier, probably 20, and had been attacked by two or three separate enemy soldiers. He suffered a blow to the leg which chipped the thigh bone–you can actually see it–and, unable to put any weight on his leg, he would probably have known that he was finished. What finally got him, discounting the various relatively minor wounds on his arms, was a blow to the back of the head which virtually decapitated him. But by that point he would have been bleeding freely, essentially hacked to death by a gang of enemy soldiers working together. “But,” said the Jorvik staff member pensively to the assembled and spellbound crowd, “the thing about this boy is that he was loved. The battlefield is thirty miles from York, but he’s buried here. Someone cared enough to bring him all the way back. And he wouldn’t have been a pretty sight. But somebody cared.” He tapped the glass of the display case and gazed tenderly at the gaping skull. “Yeah, this boy was loved.”
With that on our minds, we went to the Minster. It’s an appropriate place to go after Jorvik, since both make use of layers upon layers of history. The Undercroft (crypt) museum of the Minster is brilliantly, lucidly designed and makes it very clear how much building has been done on the site: it began as a Roman fort, but a Norman missionary church was built partly on the same site, and the current Gothic minster also shares foundations with some of the Roman buildings. That evening, though, we didn’t go the museum, just wandered round the cathedral. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen–and I’ve seen a lot of churches in the past month, partly as a result of the Assisi tour. The architecture, magisterial though it is (and the Chapter House, which was built in the twelfth century with no central supporting column, but is still standing and in excellent nick, is about the most impressive construction I can think of) has been written about by other people. The memorials are what surprise me. There are so many of them, memorials for every war, every campaign, all the way back to the Indian mutinies and beyond. There are memorials for individuals who died tragic deaths, young captains and lieutenants. One who drowned accidentally in the Ouse. Another was taken captive by Greek brigands in 1871, held for ten days, and then killed, for uncertain reasons. The memorial tablet is detailed–it would have been expensive: “He refused to purchase his own safety with the lives of others”, it reads, in part. Nearly a paragraph is engraved in the stone. A third monument details the life and achievements of a worthy gentleman:
His virtues were equal to his descent;
By abilities he was formed for publick,
By inclination determined to private life…
He was in religion exemplary, in senate impartial,
In friendship sincere, in domestick relation
The best husband, the most indulgent father.
His justly afflicted son, Thomas Lord Malton, to transmit the memory of so great worth to future times, erected this monument.
Morbid it may be, but I could not help hoping, as most people must from time to time, to die as deeply beloved as both the massacred Viking boy and Lord Malton clearly were.
On our way over Lendal Bridge the next day, I noticed a sign on the bridge tower. It read, in part, “In 1677, the predecessors to The York Waterworks Plc received the rights to lease the building in perpetuity, at the rate of one peppercorn per year.” This, as I pointed out to my mother, is precisely the reason why no full-blood American can take Britain completely seriously. (Another reason, of course, is the plethora of villages with names like Giggleswick, Ugthorpe and Nether Poppleton. I jest not.)