Into the heart of York we went, the interconnected warren of narrow streets with The Shambles as its centrepiece. The Shambles – an Old English word for a slaughterhouse – is the perfect example of a well-preserved city in the 21st century. Many buildings date back to the 14th century and still have butchers’ hooks out front. The design is unusual: top-heavy timber-framed buildings in narrow streets but inclined inwards so they are even closer together at roof level. The resultant overhang actually has a practical purpose: to protect the ‘wattle and daub’ walls below from wind and rain and also keep out sunshine, thus prolonging the shelf life of the butchers’ meat in the shops below.
That’s Town Planning at Genius Level.
We’ve always treasured isolated snatches of conversation overheard in passing and the relatively crowded nature of The Shambles gave us a true gem: ‘she’s fifteen stone if she’s an inch.’
We couldn’t identify the speaker, but the words brought a smile to both our faces. Yes, we know what the woman meant, but it was the mangling of weights and measures that made it memorable. Ever since then I have muttered to myself as I get on the bathroom scales something along the lines of, ‘twelve stone twelve, give or take half an inch.’
An insignificant remark, utterly lacking in context, overheard in the street, the ramifications of which will probably stay with me for life.
With more attractions per square mile than any other city in the UK, as the Tourist Office proudly proclaims, we were never likely to be short of things to look at, but this trip was supposed to be an exercise in ferreting out undiscovered treasures. Undiscovered by us, obviously – we aren’t archaeologists. Sadly, we failed to locate anything earth shattering. Maybe next time?
We liked the street entertainment. A male opera singer, no more than eight stone wet through (give or take an inch) was bellowing lustily to a largely disinterested crowd of passers by.
‘He needs to sing Sweet Caroline or something else that they know so they can sing along,’ mused Marigold. As if he’d heard her the tiny tenor began to sing Nessun Dorma and several of the crowd applauded. Obviously the opera aficionados of York like to hear music they actually recognise.
Sing along to? Rather unlikely, even in Milan.
The Mini Pavarotti had a voice that belied his stature. As a woman remarked to Marigold, ‘he fair gives it some welly for a little ‘un, don’t he?’
Elsewhere there was a distinctly pulchritudinous young woman accompanying herself on the guitar to what I assumed were her own compositions. She couldn’t sing, couldn’t play the guitar very well and her songs were dire, yet only Marigold getting a bit stroppy persuaded me to move on.
‘She’s got something,’ I insisted. Marigold just sniffed.
We came across a man apparently dressed in kitchen foil who was walking in slow motion for 100 days for charity, trying to set a new record for the slowest ever walk. Marigold gave him some money, but when she offered to accompany him on his slow walk he noticeably speeded up. He would have been travelling faster than Usain Bolt if Marigold hadn’t taken the hint and abandoned the plan.
Gin is now the opium of the people. It seems to be everywhere we go lately, but gin used to be so cheap it was considered a working class drink. In much the same way as oysters were far from a delicacy in the Victorian era.
‘Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence, clean straw for nothing.’
That was the enticing advert intended to lure gin drinkers to London’s Gin Lane in 1751. Hogarth’s famous engraving vividly captured the scenes of depravity that ensued. It’s fair to say gin didn’t have the best of reputations at that time.
It’s very different now. We’re awash with fancy bottles of gin, different flavours seem to come out every week and the ancient buildings of York offer up several temples to ‘mothers’ ruin.’
The Royal Navy changed the fortunes of gin from Hogarth’s day. Sailors serving the British Empire often found themselves traveling to destinations where malaria was prevalent, so they brought along quinine rations to help prevent and fight the disease. Quinine tasted notoriously awful, so Schweppes came out with an “Indian Tonic Water” to make it more palatable. London Dry gin invariably accompanied sailors on these voyages. It ‘kept’ better than beer and those sailors may have started a craze by combining their gin ration with tonic water. Limes were also added to ward off scurvy and the Gin and Tonic of today probably made its first appearance aboard ships of the Royal Navy.
We discovered the Evil Eye by accident. At first glance it’s a small and rather dingy shop front, basically an off-license, but claims to have over 1,000 different brands of gin in stock. I lost count at 903.*
There’s a deeper, almost secret area, tucked away behind the off licence. We almost missed out on a real treat. It’s an odd little lounge, serving cocktails, mainly gin based of course, and the food smelled wonderful. We had already decided where to go for lunch, but the heady spiced aroma of what was in essence a tiny piece of Thailand plonked down in a back room in the middle of York brought us to the brink of changing our minds.
A member of staff told us this bar and The Trembling Madness were owned by the same man and that was to be our next port of call. The House of Trembling Madness (what a great name) is set up in similar fashion to the Evil Eye with a ground floor off-licence greeting visitors.
Not gin this time, here it’s beers, well over 600 different beers in stock which is pretty impressive. I no longer drink alcohol, but still love visiting pubs, especially when they’re crammed with character and this place is awash with character. Most of the attraction lies upstairs – very steep stairs too - where a bar is tucked into the exposed eaves of a 12th-century Norman house, decorated with animal skins and ancient taxidermy, some of it being very strange indeed.
Marigold declined the challenge of drinking a yard of ale. She’s such a wimp. Toilet facilities were buried in the basement, it’s completely mad yet so fascinating. We will remember this place for a long time.
And so to lunch, to misquote Samuel Pepys. Rather late in the day, but we’d been so busy wandering around we’d neglected ourselves shamefully as regards grub. Yorkshire (Yarkshire) means fish and chips or pies and there were plenty of both available, but we were in contrary mood and decided on vegan fare.
In response to the obvious question from anyone who knows us personally - no idea.
A late lunch and a spur of the moment decision. I can’t even remember the name of the establishment, which suggests a lot, or very much about the meal itself. I liked the potatoes, the vegetables were well presented, no, sorry, it’s gone. Just trust me, we ate something or other alongside a group of vegans*, found them disturbingly normal and I really enjoyed the accompanying plastic beaker filled with unidentifiable liquid.
*No idea either of the collective term for vegans. I assume there is one and could take a stab at guessing, but probably best to refrain.
We were unable to even view Clifford’s Tower from a distance as it was covered in scaffolding and canvas sheeting. We could have walked around the city walls, but we just never got round to it. Walking uneven ancient streets is hard work and we never even contemplated ‘doing the walls.’ We did mention the omission in passing, on the following day, but without undue regret.
Hang on, I hear you say, you’ve been to York and never even mentioned its most famous, or infamous son, Dick Turpin.
Well now, he wasn’t from York, he wasn’t the dashing outlaw of legend and he didn’t own a horse called Black Bess. Yes, Dick Turpin was tried, executed and buried in York, but most of the ‘legend’ is untrue.
In St George’s Church graveyard, not really a ‘cemetery’, is a grave reputed to be the final resting place of the highwayman,DickTurpin. The headstone reads: ‘John Palmer, otherwise Richard Turpin The notorious highwayman and horse stealer. Executed at Tyburn, April 17th 1739 And buried in St George’s churchyard.’
Dick Turpin was born at The Bell Inn (now The Rose and Crown) at Hempstead in Essex in 1705 – nowhere near York - and during his lifetime was a cattle and horse thief, a smuggler and a highwayman.
Turpin was a member of the notorious Gregory Gang, only becoming a highwayman when they split up. Having shot and killed a man who attempted to capture him he fled to Yorkshire. He stole horses in Lincolnshire and returned with them to Brough to sell. These offences came to light while he was in Beverley House of Correction having been arrested for shooting his landlord’s cockerel. He gave his name as John Palmer.
He was moved to York Castle, from where he wrote to his brother asking for help. His brother refused to pay the sixpence due on the letter and it was returned to the local post office – where Turpin’s old schoolmaster recognised his handwriting. His identity was revealed and he was sentenced to death and subsequently hanged.
Harrison Ainsworth, in his 1834 novel Rookwood (wrongly) attributed a famous ride from London to York, to Turpin and a horse named Black Bess for the purpose of establishing an alibi.
The event referred to actually took place some thirty years before Turpin was even born and was performed by Swift Nick Nevison, another famous highwayman. The fact is that Turpin was just a common thief and not the romantic character portrayed.
Even so, gullible Yorkshire folk of the time were ready believers of ‘fake news’ – imagine what they’d have believed if they’d had access to Internet Conspiracy sites.
Lots more ‘Yarkshire Stuff’ to come, but will have to wait for another day.
Just one final York nugget – the shortest street in York is the exotically named Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate. That’s unusual, to say the least, but we spoke to a flat cap attired old gent outside Betty’s Café who told us, before he retired he was a stone mason and in 1984 laid a York Stone pavement along the length of Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate.
I tracked down a plaque commemorating this event which also told me the first reference to the street’s name was in 1505 when it was called, wait for it, Whitnourwhatnourgate which simply meant, ‘What a Street.’
What a street, indeed.
Just want to mention the rediscovered joy of open top motoring. Our new car isn’t anywhere near as practical as the one it replaced, but whether it’s short trips around town or a run out to York, having the option to take the roof off is such a delight. One more bonus, petrol consumption on that last trip was over 60mpg. With the hood down. No, we didn’t get an electric car as we can’t charge it at home. That’s just one of many reasons.