York is a ‘Scandy‘ town but not Durham.
York & Durham
Arriving in a very old city is a strange and wonderful experience. Often one may have relatively little knowledge of the geography, history or people but on arrival, there’s always a gut feeling one has about the place or at least a response as simple as, “I like it’ – or not so much. This intuition is a mere blink but travel enough and you start to trust these ridiculously fleeting impressions and often, after a little research, there’s plenty of flesh one can place on the bones of these feelings.
I alighted from the train at York in sunshine, after what must have been heavy rain as the streets were very wet, walked to my apartment located at one of the main entrances to the old Roman fort at Bootham Bar. The ancient city felt buoyant and fresh. There was optimism in the air and an openness about the place. Within minutes – and it was not in my mind or something that I was thinking prior to arrival – York felt so obviously more Scandinavian than any place I have visited in England over the last 21 years. It is hard to put my finger on the specifics but it was overwhelming. Yes, it was the faces in the street mostly – but also a vibe.
I had thought all this and then kept seeing people who looked like they had walked straight off the set of Vikings. For example, there was a tall blonde woman striding along with what was more wolf than dog; it was so large one instantly thought of Rob Stark’s direwolf. I was laden down with bags and packs and had no camera handy, even my phone was out of reach. Missed opportunity that.
When I arrived at this other Northern English city, my impressions could not have been more different than those about York. It was the most English of English towns…without even a whisper of anything ‘Scandy’. After visiting York, I was surprised that this was the case, expecting to see Viking heritage all around too but soon discovered more as I dug into the local histories of both cities.
York was founded by the Roman Legio IX Hispana in CE 71 as a defensive position and was known at that time as Eboracum. This area had been controlled by the Brigantes. Interestingly enough, and you will know this if you ever read Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novels or saw this recent film, that this Ninth Legion disappears from history by CE 120. Theories have abounded as to what happened to the legion but the most popular is that they were wiped out by the “indigenous Northern tribes”. There was a good reason, it seems, to build Hadrian’s Wall if a legion of 5000 of Rome’s finest soldiers were completely annihilated. Tellingly, the wall was commenced in CE 122 which lends credence to the theory.
Several Roman emperors visited York and Constantine, on the death his father, was proclaimed emperor while in the city. When the Romans withdrew from Briton, York declined. It was settled by the Angles in the 5th century and over the next couple of hundred years saw the growth of christianity. Viking raids from the late 8th century proliferated until eventually Danish or Norwegian kings ruled most of the north. Of course, when the Normans came York was consolidated into the new regime rapidly. It could have all been very different perhaps if these Vikings had not been defeated in 1066. In fact, the truth of the matter is that William the Conqueror’s great-great grandfather was a Viking anyway and had ruled Normandy. The Normans had long ago been infiltrated from Scandinavia.
For those of you who read, then watched Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I would particularly recommend a visit to the astonishingly beautiful and interesting York Minster. It is the main tourist attraction in York so most will visit as it is an absolutely magisterial cathedral par excellence but if you have enjoyed the series, it add a little extra interest, especially when in the Chapter House. I could not find a clip of the sequence, in the first episode of the television adaptation set in York Minster, where Mr Norrell proves his magical abilities to some disbelievers by bringing the cathedral statuary to life but the following video interview will give you the idea and is also a good insight into the challenges of adapting a novel for the small screen. It is very cool.
Here is another look at the special effects using York Minster and surrounds if you were a fan of the show.
York City Walls
York’s city walls are a treat for tourists who like walking. They are not continuous but there is certainly a few kilometres to traverse. Students of historical trivia should note that the only reason these walls still exist probably due to the fact the Archbishop of York fought the Corporation of York over the removal of some of the wall 200 years ago and won. The legal precedent effectively saved the walls from demolition and now York is the most complete example of such a city in Europe.
Another piece of trivia I gleaned was that Hitler wanted to retaliate for the loss of cathedrals in Germany during Allied bombing raids. He chose to attack York after reading a tourist guide book that waxed lyrical about the city, especially York Minster. Also, in a final not really related piece of trivia: I noted as I was wandering the walls just after finishing the second novel in Cixin Liu’s, Three-Body Problem trilogy, John Goodricke‘s amazing personal and scientific achievement.
When you walk out of York Minster or off the city walls, there’s a jumble of medieval streets to explore and many plaques that bring the past into the present. If you like wandering such cities it really doesn’t get much better. The Shambles is particularly great to explore and I found some cool gifts for my family.
I visited the York Museum, mostly to see an exhibition about Richard III but was very underwhelmed. It seemed the mainstay was a video of Laurence Olivier playing the legendary king who murdered his nephews. That’s not completely fair commentary but the huge banner out the front of the beautifully located museum did lead one to expect something more expansive, especially with all the controversy in recent years.
I am not a pub-goer but loved the names of those medieval drinking establishments close to my accommodation. In fact, all over England it is a delight to note pub names. In Australia, we tend to have pretty boring names for inns and hotels imho.
“I unhesitatingly gave Durham my vote for best cathedral on planet Earth.”
One can see why Durham was chosen for the final resting place of St Cuthbert, my new favourite medieval saint**. The location is a brilliant one to defend against the Viking hordes who were pillaging Lindisfarne, the original resting place of this most important early christian saint, as the river is not navigable. This is one of the reasons why Durham did not feel the impact of two hundred years of Viking incursions and rule, as did York.
I particularly liked the ‘Sanctuary Knocker‘. When a wrong-doer sought sanctuary at the Cathedral and knocked, watching monks would grant entrance, day or night. In 1623 new laws effectively meant that sanctuary was no longer legal for criminals.
The market square is truly charming and walking along the riverbank on a hot day is just as relaxing a pursuit as one could possibly imagine. Fans of the most Venerable Bede should note he was also interred in the cathedral to avoid the Viking excesses.
Even though York Minster is truly inspiring in every way – architecture, history and the stories – I do not disagree with Mr Bryson!
**I was initially attracted to Cuthbert’s ‘incorruptibility‘, but soon realised it was not anything to do with this saint being a particularly ethical character. Click on the link as it is an important part of the Durham story. 😉
I visited Durham as Thomas Guillod was baptised here in 1772 and my efforts to uncover more detail about his ancestors had drawn a blank. Thomas’ baptismal record only lists his father, Daniel. I have made so much progress with my other research that is hard to accept that Daniel, who I placed on a tree so very long ago, is proving so resistant to my investigations. My visit to the Durham Record Office confirmed that there is nothing at all in Durham re: the Guillod family, that can be uncovered. In the lead-up to my trip several archivists tried to find out about Daniel but without success and during my visit they were very helpful but all to no avail. That’s not quite true. I did discover that the vicar at St Mary-le-Bow*, which is now a heritage centre, would not record the mothers’ names on the baptismal record.
I visited St-Mary-Le-Bow where Thomas was baptised and learnt a great deal to help me creatively re-imagine the period. Firstly, it stands literally in the shadow of the grand cathedral, at the North Bailey. Secondly, after seeing some of the exhibits at the heritage centre and talking with the staff, I realised that Durham was a major stop on what was the Great North Road between London and Edinburgh. It was especially thriving in the time Thomas was baptised.
I am starting to hypothesise the Guillods emigrating from Switzerland or France. Maybe they were heading south to London, where Thomas seemed to live his life. Could it be possible that Daniel had Thomas baptised en route from a port further north? It would explain why there are no other records of the family in Durham.
*BTW The ‘le Bow’ quite literally refers to a part of the wall that was buckling under the weight of the stone.
I am fascinated with the story of Thomas’ daughter Jane, orphaned before she became a teenager, when Thomas dies of consumption in 1815. Jane, dies in Australia in 1879 and I am slowly uncovering her life, travels and times. More on that next post.
Before catching the evening train back to York, after a well-satisfying day, I sat by the river and had a grand late lunch, or maybe it was an early dinner. It sure beat the cold meat and cheese sandwiches I eaten for the last week. The photo of the poached egg and wild mushrooms does not do the meal justice. 😉
Featured image: flickr photo by Darcy Moore http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/21659775842 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license