UK breaks: York

Historical buildings, contemporary art and the National Railway Museum

UK breaks: York The National Railway Museum - © Chris Waywell
By Chis Waywell

While we like to champion Britain’s lesser-trod paths, what about those places that do merit a visit but are already overrun with tourists? Chris Waywell takes on York.

It’s probably a good thing that York’s nuclear bunker is closed on weekdays, otherwise the Cold War might have claimed a late victim. I am knackered. The day has been exhausting – an unrelenting series of encounters with momentous epochs, from Viking to medieval to eighteenth century to contemporary art to… well, it was going to be the Cold War. And while nobody wanted Armageddon, it would at least have meant no more stairs.

Architecturally and culturally gifted

As befits a very flat place, York is architecturally gifted with lofty eminences and dungeon-like crypts, all reached by countless stone steps. My trembling hand clutches a one-day York Pass: for a one-off payment, it offers entry to more than 30 attractions in and around the city. I had decided to try to visit them all in a day, partly as a masochistic reminder of what ‘heritage tourism’ can be like, partly out of parsimony (a sympathetic reflex when holidaying in Yorkshire, perhaps).

York, to paraphrase Saki, produces more culture than it can consume locally. There are, for instance, numerous medieval churches and historical buildings, such as the Barley Hall, within the (complete) medieval city walls. There’s the Minster, the National Railway Museum and that 25-year-old pioneer of interactive historio-experience, the Yorvik Viking Centre. Hence this small city of fewer than 200,000 inhabitants receives four million visitors a year. This is good for York, no doubt; maybe less appealing for the casual visitor from the UK looking for a relaxing weekend away.

Initiatives like the York Pass might represent some kind of lifeline for those wanting to stay and experience the city without joining the tourist treadmill: more UK visitors staying here will hopefully help stop it succumbing to the international homogenised community of destinations – all those places in Greece and Italy (not to mention London and Edinburgh, Britain’s two great tourist-battered cities) with astonishing cultural treasures, lots of shit food, shit hotels, bitter locals and coach parks.

Changing the tourist landscape

This small, friendly city doesn’t deserve that, despite the locals’ apparent collective suicide bid through astoundingly tannic tea. And while the get-off-the-coach/go-in-the Minster/have-a-cream-tea/get-on-the-coach brigade are still in evidence, the tourist landscape of this beautiful place is altering for the better. The new Minster Undercroft is a challenging architectural space; St Mary’s is a new free contemporary art gallery. Both are intriguing, modern and crowd free.

Sure, the mainstream tourist dollar won’t ever lose its influence here – the Hogwarts Express has pulled in to the Railway Museum, and Yorvik’s animatronic defecators continue to strain for the amusement of the teenagers of the world. But one of the many benefits of having something like the York Pass is a clear conscience (and fatter wallet): once my foolhardy attempt to go everywhere stalled – I managed 12 places –  the underlying feeling was that the imperative of ‘doing’ the city was reduced. You can take your time, or not bother. If you want to use the city as a base, a brand-new six-day pass allows entry to a further 30 or so Yorkshire attractions, including Castle Howard. You might want to draw up a shortlist or something, though.

Getting there

National Express East Coast trains run from London King’s Cross to York; journey time 1 hour 50 minutes. Advance returns, booked online, from £26 standard class (08457 225225/www.nationalexpresseastcoast.com).

The York pass

One-day York Pass £28 adult, £18 child; six-day pass £68 adult, £44 child (www.visityork.org).

Where to eat

The Lime House
York used to have a couple of decent restaurants, and boy did they make sure you knew it. If you want to see an unfortunate cultural cocktail, try complaining to a Frenchman working as a waiter in Yorkshire. Happily, the whole British food boom has wrought wonders on gastronomy here. Of course The Lime House’s two rooms are charming – in this city drycleaners and heel bars have medieval premises – but it’s also friendly and unpretentious. Local produce is its speciality: rump of Yorkshire lamb and smoked haddock with gnocchi were highlights. A great-value set menu of £15 for two courses or £18 for three is available on week nights, including Fridays.

55 Goodramgate, York, YO1 7LS (01904 632734/www.limehouserestaurant-york.co.uk). Meal for two with wine and service: around £55.

Where to stay

Mount Royale Hotel
A frontage of two William IV townhouses bedecked in a varied collection of antiques, antlers and sporting prints gives way to a wonderful secluded garden, off which rooms with private verandas open. The independently run Mount Royale is a lovably eccentric establishment, with fantastic staff, a nice bar and interestingly un-York-like features, including a pool, sauna and hot tub. The amazing breakfast, featuring an imposing silver-lidded urn of boiled eggs, was one of the best I’ve ever had.

It’s also handy for the station and is on the way to the racecourse, if the nags are your thing.

The Mount, York, YO24 1GU (01904 628856/www.mountroyale.co.uk). Doubles from £99.

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