Sunday, January 27, 2013


If London is Britain’s King of Cities, then York is its lighthearted Queen—elegant, sophisticated, rooted in tradition yet welcoming, playful and vibrant; it’s a place you wouldn’t mind hanging out in for awhile.

Day 1,  Arriving in York

Our big silver bus rumbled out of Chester and turned north east toward our next stop, York.We had left a hot and muggy London just a few days ago but as our circuitous journey across the lower half of England continued, the weather turned cooler and it began to rain. Anita, our gregarious English guide, true to her character and position had kept us entertained on these long road trips by mixing a fine blend of history and local gossip (ex: tabloid pictures of Prince Harry in his birthday suit in Las Vegas) with samples of quintessential English food and drink to wash it down with. Along the way she’s served us a variety of English candies she called “sweeties”, blood pudding, creamy cheddar cheese from the village of Cheddar in south west England, some meat paste that tasted suspiciously like animal parts that even my mother would have thrown out and she could eat anything, single malt Scotch whisky, and a favorite around King Arthur’s round table, mead (wine made with honey).

While Anita chatted pleasantly on the rain had increased and by the time we entered the suburbs of York, the streets had turned into iridescent ribbons leading us into the heart of the city. And what suburbs they were! Row after row of proper English manors festooned with hydrangeas the size of dinner plates sat regally on large expanses of immaculately groomed lawns. 

We continued down the tree lined street, appropriately called Blossom, gawking like the tourists we were when there looming in front of us was the grandest medieval entrance to a city I had ever seen.  It was Micklegate Bar, the main gate to York. I was awestruck. It practically shouted of York's considerable prestige, wealth and military might. I certainly got the message as well as, I imagine, any medieval invading force foolish enough to take them on.

Michlegate Bar on the south side of York.
The Queen must stop at Micklegate Bar and ask permission
Of the Lord Mayor to enter the city.

Boothham Bar, another of York's imposing gates.

(Note:  Bar is a Viking word for gate, whereas gate is Norwegian for street so Micklegate Bar would actually be Mickle Street Gate!)

We arrived at our hotel, the Park Inn on North Street around 4PM and as soon as our baggage was unloaded we grabbed our raincoats and umbrellas and joined Anita for a short introductory tour of York. With "whisperers" around our necks, (a listening devise with an earpiece that kept us from crowding around her like a gaggle of ducklingswe set off.  

Turning left from the hotel we walked to Bridge Street, crossed over the River Ouse and headed for one of the most interesting streets in York called the Shambles. It was raining quite hard and ominously dark by the time we got there which made the narrow little cobblestone street feel like a page out of a Dickens novel. Especially so after I heard Anita tell us through our whisperers, "The word “shambles” is an obsolete term for open-air slaughter houses. And if that isn’t gruesome enough, running down the center of the street is a sunken Roman style drain where the butchers would throw discarded carcass bits to be swept away." No wonder that the word “shambles” came to mean a big time mess! Now it is one of the best preserved medieval market streets in Britain and it smells a lot better too, fortunately for us.

The Shambles
Interesting note, the street was probably narrow to keep sunlight off of the carcasses.

 As we exited the Shambles, the streets opened up into cheerfully lit broad thoroughfares filled with very well dressed people hurrying to get out of the rain and into the many restaurants and pubs. The ladies were dressed to the nines wearing hats and fascinators (those tiny little hatlings which perch precariously on the side of one’s head). They had been celebrating Yorkshire’s Ebor Festival at the race track and the atmosphere in the streets was electric with excitement, and the evening had just begun.

Looking past the happy groups of revelers, I couldn't help checking out the latest fashions in the many upscale shops. I began to realize that ladies clothing here and elsewhere tended to fall into two camps. There seemed to be either the lady of the manor style, which consisted of a twin set, wool skirt and sturdy shoes or something I began to identify as Shabby Retro. In America, retro would be a modern take on clothing dating back a few decades; however in England it was more like centuries!  The style seems to consist of a blend of period costume with well-worn T-shirts.Definitely a fun look for the young at heart.

This one looks like a Edwardian rendition of mom’s old bathrobe accessorized with brother’s combat boots. If I were in my twenties, I would have told them to wrap it up!

We went back to our hotel to dry out and together enjoy a hot meal of “Curried Parsnip Soup, Honey Roast Bacon Loin, and Mango, Ginger and Orange Sponge with Custard”.I have to tell you that I  had nothing but the most delicious meals in England. If anyone ever tells you English food is bland and tasteless, sneer and asks them where they got their misinformation. It’s not your Granny’s Britain any longer!

Settling in for the night I realized that I had hit the jackpot with my room.The hotel was located right on the River Ouse and I had a panoramic view of York and York Minster from the comfort of my bed.  Sweet!

View from my room overlooking the River Ouse and York Minster in the distance.

Next time: York Minster, Walking the Wall, York Museum and the Viking Experience

Monday, January 14, 2013


“Oyez!  Oyez!  Oyez!  I bid you warmly welcome to the ancient and beautiful City of Chester!”  

We had arrived just in time to witness a continuation of a 500 year old tradition, the local Town Crier gathering a crowd at the Chester Cross in front of St. Peters church located in the middle of town.   Ringing a bell almost as big as his head and wearing a red frock coat and black tricorn hat,  this Town Crier was more intent on entertaining us with a bit of local history flavored with Cheshire humor than hollering out the news of the day as was customary in days gone by.

“Goodly citizens,” he shouted, sweeping his hand in front of him indicating an evil looking wooden devise equipped with a padlock, “can anyone identify this instrument of punishment I have before me?”   After several shouted wrong answers (including mine--I thought it was called “stocks” and still do! See note below.) he said, “Alas, it is called a pillory and the purpose is to expose the poor soul confined to it to ridicule and mockery. Do I have a volunteer to be mocked and ridiculed?”  Larry (one of our tour group) not-so-gently shoved his reluctant wife Barbara to the front where she was ceremoniously locked in and as her punishment was held captive for the entire length of his speech.

“Chester, good friends, was first established in 74 AD as a Roman stronghold. As one of three main Roman bases, Chester was the major settlement in Britannia situated as it is on the border of Wales and at the mouth of the River Dee. It is also one of the best preserved walled cities on our fair island and still contains a large quantity of Roman artifacts. In fact, on this very spot once stood a Roman fortress! We can also boast of having the largest Roman amphitheater in Britain, built to accommodate 7,000 people.

Roman remains like these are found all over
 Great Britain.
“We also have the Romans to thank for the unique structure of our stores and shops in our fair city, called the Rows.  You might say that we were the very first to have a two tiered shopping center!  The lower level, which had been cellars or storage areas called undercrofts and are now fine shops, are the remains of Roman buildings upon which around the 13th century were built upper buildings that overlapped the crofts providing a covered walkway or Row. Thus the ladies and gents of Chester could shop at their leisure protected from the elements."
I looked over his shoulder at the buildings beyond and I could see what he was talking about. The first floor wasn't actually a full floor in height, but partially buried below street level. One would have to take a few steps down to enter the undercrofts.

 One of the stair entrances to the "Rows", the balcony walkways unique
to Chester.  (Upper left in photo)

Shop in the undercroft. The brick work has been preserved as well as part of
Roman wall in the back of the shop.n

The hand hewn timbers are centuries old.
“And if it looks like you might meet William Shakespeare walking down these cobbled lanes at any moment that is no accident. The Victorians took great care to restore many of the Jacobean era (James I, 1603-1625) half-timbered style buildings adding an air of refinement to the style as was their custom.

Example of Victorian restoration on the beautiful buildings of Chester.
“Ah, I see our time has come to an end. Sir, you may retrieve your fair matron. Her time of humiliation is over and she thanks you all for your restraint in not throwing rotten produce. And now I must take my leave, but first this thought:

The Romans gave us the wall,
The Saxons, our name,
The Normans, the Cathedral,
The Victorians, the Clock,
The US, McDonald's!”

After we retrieved Barbara, Anita, our tour guide, took us on a short tour of the town. Almost everyone in our group had never heard of Chester before and was anxious to see more of it. We started by climbing the steps of Northgate and walking along the well preserved medieval walls, which proved to be a great vantage point to start appreciating this charming place. Beautifully restored and maintained, I really could imagine the Bard himself strolling along the Rows window shopping for fine Chester wares. It didn’t look centuries old at all, but alive and vibrant as the day it was built. On our way, we walked by the grand and sedate Chester Cathedral, enjoying its lovely gardens. Then we climbed some steps onto a bridge spanning main street where the intricately ornate Victorian Clock that the Town Crier alluded to presided over the town. Crossing the old stone bridge to the other side, we walked along one long side of the wall and almost 75' below us we saw a part of the canal system that crisscrosses the island.

Northgate and portion of the medieval wall of Chester.

The canal below the old Roman and medieval wall surrounding Chester.

Chester Cathedral as seen from the wall.

The ornate Victorian clock.

Sean had one too many sweeties and felt a bit woozy!

Our tour being over, my new friends Chuck and Paula and I were starving and after listening to my raving about how delicious Cornish pasties were, we found an eatery with a sign outside advertising fresh pasties right out of the oven. As if stuffing our faces with the hearty meat pies weren't enough, we made a visit to the local "sweetie shoppe" for dessert and Sean flirted with the counter girl.

Sean the Sheep making friends with Chester's Town Crier.
We all agreed as our big silver tour bus drove out of town that Chester had been indeed a very pleasant surprise.

(* When I got home, I looked up “stocks” and “pillory”. According to Wikipedia: “The stocks are similar to the pillory....With stocks, boards are placed around the legs or the wrists, whereas in the pillory they are placed around the arms and neck and fixed to a pole, and the victim stands.”  With all due respect to our Town Crier, I believe the fair matron Barbara was incarcerated in stocks.)

Next stop: York!