Town Travel – My Favourite town by Ann Victoria Roberts
York: A Personal View
York has always been part of my life. As a child in the 1950s, roughly once a month we’d visit my grandmother for the weekend. On that two-hour bus journey, I’d watch the landscape change from the wild moors of Brontë country to the gently rolling wheat fields of the Vale of York. Then, as we reached the city outskirts – passing the racecourse, climbing the hill – Mum would gather our belongings, we’d step down and she’d look up with a happy smile. There, in all its grandeur, stood the great limestone gateway of Micklegate Bar, guarding the entrance to the city, its medieval walls stretching away to either side.
It felt like magic to walk those walls, to be looking down on houses, streets and people – and to see the Minster, rising above the rooftops like a great ship in full sail.
Going into town, I’d beg to climb the steps and go along the walls, but Grandma didn’t always agree. She had several different routes and would distract me by telling stories of when she was young. Stories about her father, a compositor at the York Press, and her father-in-law, a bookbinder with his own business; and how she’d worked for Rowntrees’ chocolates as a girl, and had a friend who lived in the slums of Walmgate…
Her stories of ordinary life before WW1 added reality to the fiction I read while Mum and Grandma were talking over afternoon cups of tea. Collections of Victorian magazines – all beautifully illustrated – had been bound into books and lodged in Grandma’s attic sometime in the 1930s. I’d haul down my favourites, follow the serial stories, read sentimental poems and accounts of foreign travel, and marvel at fashion plates from the 1890s, showing the latest styles from Paris.
Entering my teens, I’d wander through the nearby park and along the riverside, discovering more of York’s past in the Castle Museum. It was and still is, a magical place. I was mesmerised by the Victorian cobbled street, frozen in time with its shops and police station, its coaching inn and Hansom cab complete with horse. I wanted to sit by the fire in the moorland cottage, take tea in the elegant drawing room, try on those elegant gowns, and go to a ball with a handsome soldier...
Decades later, researching the military side of my own Victorian novel, ‘Louisa Elliott’, I contacted the Museum and was invited behind the scenes to see the arms and uniforms up close – to get a feel for what I was writing about. Perhaps for the first time, I realised fully that museums are there to educate and not simply for entertainment on wet afternoons!
Thanks to the curator, that visit opened up other avenues of research, not least to a study of Victorian poverty, and life in the poorest part of York. The area that Grandma had described to me – Walmgate – where she’d gone to find her missing friend; which in turn led to a fictional account in the novel.
In town, the butchers’, bakers, grocers and tobacconists – one with a statue outside, depicting a man taking snuff – are largely gone now, replaced by cafes, restaurants and enticing shops. But the historic buildings remain, and ‘The Little Admiral,' standing on top of the clock, is still there on Coney St, still taking a sight of the sun after 200 years. Both survived the WW2 bomb which destroyed the church next door. Luckily, the Minster escaped and still dominates the city, its towers appearing above the rooftops from so many different angles. Worth a visit at any time, especially to hear the choir at Evensong.
Exploring the city, as I’ve done many times over the years, I’ve discovered most of the short cuts between streets. These paved paths and alleyways often have strange names, like ‘Coffee Yard’, ‘Mad Alice Lane’, and ‘Lady Peckitt’s Yard’. It pays to be bold, as wandering through reveals hidden gems and the true age of buildings behind the facades.
Over the years, I’ve often felt the best time for exploring is in the evening, when the streets are quiet. As night falls, those ancient buildings seem to release a sigh of relief and come alive – time no longer matters. From the Romans to the Vikings, through Plantagenets and Stuarts to the Victorians and beyond – they’ve all been here and left their mark. And at twilight time it’s as though they never left…
Ann Victoria Roberts
The Master’s Tale
One Night, Two Lives
Other wonderful places to visit on Town Travel, click on the links for more…
Leiden, the Netherlands with me
Barnstable, UK with Helen Hollick
Lectoure, France with Michael Reidy
Somerset, UK with Dizzy Greenfield
Las Vegas, USA with BarbaraGaskill-Denvil
Hexham, UK with Annie Whitehead
Assos, Greece with Gilli Allan
Find out where Town Travels is taking you next by clicking HERE