The Culture Vulture – The Walls

A few weeks ago, a casual conversation between friends revealed that some of the locals in the room had never walked on the city’s walls.

Or rather, The Walls, because they should only be referred to using the utmost of reverence. I mean, come on you guys, have you SEEN them? Oh right, most of you have, from your cars. I’ll tell you right now, this is not the right way to experience them.

Let me take a step back for a moment. When we first considered leaving behind the unendingly flat prairies of Canada (the joke is, you can watch your dog run away for three days, ba-dum-bum!) to move here, we were those boring, typical romantics who knew London, and… Stonehenge? Oh, and rolling hills with charming stone walls snaking their way randomly across farmland with quaint little cottages covered in roses overlooking said farms. So basically, our choices were, become farmers, or live in London. Obviously. But one of the universities that offered my husband a place to study was in York.

“York? Like… what they used to call Toronto? Like, the old version of New York?” Yes. Exactly like that. Except not.

The earnest research began. The first thing that Google revealed? The Minster, of course. And even if you’re not religious, holy hell, that’s one impressive building. Incredible history. And even better – it’s free to residents and not terribly pricey for tourists. What it doesn’t cost is £18 like St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The very next thing to flash itself shamelessly across my google results screen was The Walls. More walkable miles of wall than any other English city! And the gates! I mean the bars. Argh. It’s so confusing explaining to visitors that in York, bars don’t serve alcohol, they’re actually gates, and gates are streets. But never mind, it’s all pretty and there are plenty of pubs at the base of all the bars, so let’s move on.

So how is it that some of my Yorkshirian friends (is that the right word? “Yorkies” makes me think of the adorable dogs, and “Yorkshires” makes you sound like food. Delicious, golden chalices for gravy…) have never been up these walls to enjoy the view? We’ve been here nearly four years now, and the first thing we do with any visiting friend or family is take them up The Walls. My favourite section is the bit that runs along Lord Mayor’s Walk and Gillygate, from Monkbar to Bootham Bar, because it has incredible views of the Minster, Gray’s Court, and York St John Uni.

Walk this way

If you haven’t been for a walk on The Walls, well, that’s inexcusable. Shameful. Deplorable. Get your passive-aggressively apologetic bottoms (I mentioned this last time, and I swear I’ll write about it sometime, but I earnestly promise that I will win in a war of politeness and apologies, despite my aggressive demeanour as the Culture Vulture) up those stairs and look around!

Speaking of tourists. My mom (sorry, let me run that through the translator {beep boop beep}: mum) came for a visit last month and we did the Yorkshire Tour Extraordinaire. That’s not something you’ll find on the Rabbie’s website; I made it up. But we did it with the help of an English Heritage Overseas 9-day pass. All access to all the sites you’ve never seen, for a mere £33. I’m assuming you all haven’t seen them because you’ve never been up The Walls. Plus you (and I) can’t get the overseas pass, but I bought myself a proper, full-year pass for something along the lines of £3/month. Less than the price of a cup of coffee, as they say on those adverts.

Before I upset the National Trust people, I have one of their passes too. We use it all the time; Beningborough Hall and Brimham Rocks being among our favourites. But because we’d done those with my mom on previous visits, we decided to try something new. Our first stop was Helmsley Castle, with a side visit to the Walled Gardens. The castle ruins were pretty cool, although much more ruin than castle, and there’s a decent indoor display with some great interactive activities for kids. Worth the visit, but only if you have a pass. The gardens were… well, if you’re a garden person, and if you’ve been anywhere like Harlow Carr or Castle Howard’s gardens, then you’ll be disappointed. It’s fairly small and doesn’t have much whimsy. Maybe we hit it between blooming seasons, although the irises were starting and the laburnum arch was lovely.

Arch rival

At least, I thought it was lovely until we went to Brodsworth Hall. Now that’s a laburnum arch. Look at the way it frames the hall. It’s symmetrical perfection. It’s living art. The entire estate is incredible, from a rock garden literally built into the crumbling walls of an old quarry, to the most incredible pine trees that whisper secrets in the wind. I know. So barfingly poetic, but it’s hard not to wax that way when the gardens are basically a fairy playground. The interior of the hall is nearly as impressive, although they didn’t seem to have a handy child-distracting (erm, I mean, engaging) activity that buys parents a few seconds of peace to look around while the kid looks for hidden dogs or whatnot. The story of the hall, both the history of the Thellusson family and how it came to be an English Heritage property, is fascinating. I won’t bore you with the details right now, seeing as some of you can’t even be bothered to climb up The Walls in your own city, but if you feel like digging into some local history, start here.

We also stopped visited Rievaulx Abbey and Kirkham Priory, which were far more impressive then you locals let on. Rievaulx is stunning, simply because there is so much of it still standing. It really gives a scope of the size of community that once lived there (over 600 monks during its peak). There’s also just something about ruins that turns kids into monkeys. Mine could have spent the entire day there just climbing and rolling down the hills. Take note, York’s Museum Gardens. Not sure why you guys decided to take the joy out of the St Mary’s Abbey ruins, but those hostile placards have put a damper on our visits, to say the least. Kirkham Priory was also a fun stop, smaller than Rievaulx but still featured some impressive arches and hints of former life that sparked the imagination. We spent about an hour there before moving on down the road to the Mallyan Spout waterfall in Goathland.

Falling for Goathland

Anyone else shocked to learn there are waterfalls in Yorkshire? No? I’m the only one? Liars. But that’s okay, you just pretend you knew, like you’re now pretending that you’ve walked along The Walls. Goathland – apparently famous for being the set of ITV’s Heartbeat, but what do I know, I’ve only got Netflix – is a quaint community that might just be run by sheep. No one’s really spilling the beans on that front. There are a few shops, and so there must be at least a handful of non-waterfall-seeking-humans living there. The shops cover the basic needs of an adventure-seeker heading into the valley in search of waterfalls. Ice cream, water, and obviously tea, because we’re in England. My mother declared the scones at the Goathland Tea Rooms to be better than Betty’s (I’m not sure if those words can be uttered aloud in Yorkshire, but this is print so maybe it’ll slip past the sensors). Maybe just watch out for the disturbingly large selection of Gollywogs in the shop next to the tea rooms. Apparently the PC police haven’t made their way that far North yet. Anyway, here I am, digressing again. The falls are a fairly easy walk down into the valley – it’s the walk back up that’ll kill you – and it’s worth the hike. Although Mallyan Spout is a fairly narrow waterfall, its height and the surrounding rocks and the odd little money trees make the whole thing pretty magical. It’s slippery when wet (Bon Jovi knew what he was talking about) so good hiking boots and sure feet are a must.

The countryside adventures were dotted through with quieter days in the city, and visits to standard York tourist gems, all of which my mom has done more than once, but in case you’re local and haven’t heard of them, I highly recommend the Museum Gardens, the Minster, cream tea at Betty’s, and… walking along The Wall.

(Also. Total disclosure; I actually did know a lot about the UK before we chose to live in York. My dad was born just outside Manchester, and his family is from the Cotswolds. We first visited when I was five. But that doesn’t make the same impact, does it? So I take a few allowances with dramatic licence. At least I’m coming clean now.)



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