Cathedral crowns the city of York

MAL CHENU
Last updated 05:00 22/11/2013
York Landscape

Whip Ma Whop Ma Gate: A tiny road with a big name where mediaeval men publicly chastised their nagging wives

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48 hours in York, England

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York has been invaded many times over the centuries - by the Romans, the Danes, the Vikings, the Normans and now the Hens, or brides-to-be.

This latest incursion has made York the Hens' Night capital of England.

They come for the cool bars and the boutique shopping. During our visit the snickelways (a York-specific word for the skinny walkways and alleys that criss-cross the old walled city) were filled with semi-pickled, free-range Hens.

One snickelway the Hens avoid is Whip Ma Whop Ma Gate, a tiny road with a big name where mediaeval men publicly chastised their nagging wives, according to the (male) York Sightseeing Bus guide.

Another interesting snippet from the bus tour bloke was that it is still legal for York men to shoot Scotsmen between dusk and dawn.

But only with a bow and arrow. So that's all right then.

The old town of York - 340 kilometres north of London - sits within the well-preserved city walls, begun by the Romans and maintained by everyone since.

Walking atop the 3.4-kilometre stretch of walls takes about two hours and is a great introduction to the town. Much of the inner precinct is car-free and the cobblestone ginnels (synonym of snickelways), squares and roads are crowded on this sunny summer Saturday.

The centrepiece of the town is the magnificent York Minster (or as it is more correctly known, The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York), the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe.

A church has stood on this site since 627AD and work on the current structure began in 1230, being completed in 1472. It is a masterpiece of stone and stained glass - two million individual pieces of glass comprise the 128 windows, including the 23-metre tall Great East Window.

The long transept, wide nave and towering ceiling are a lot to take in, and we just sit and let it wash over before exploring further.

There are more reasons to put York on your itinerary the next time you visit the Old Dart.

SHOPPING

Another likely reason for the Hen invasion is York's fabulous retail therapy. Charming boutiques are everywhere, especially along the ribbon roads in the Minster Quarter around Stonegate, Petergate and Shambles.

Check out the "only in York" options, including knitwear at Bill Baber, distinctive jewellery at Bradleys and Burgins Perfumery.

The Red House Antiques Centre in Duncombe Place houses 60 dealers and 30,000 items starting at the equivalent of $5. You'll also discover plenty of funky bric-a-brac, the odd magic/horror shop and quite a few chocolatiers, for York is the home of Rowntree, the maker of KitKat and Aero bars.

You'll also find a seven-day market at Newgate and the York Designer Outlet is just a 15-minute drive south. Betty's Cafe in St Helen's Square is another York icon and a great place for a rejuvenating pit stop.

FOR HISTORY BUFFS

Built on an actual archaeological site, Jorvik Viking Centre at Coppergate is a slow chair lift ride through the streets, houses and workshops of a thousand-year-old, Viking-era town.

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The child-friendly commentary explains the sites and sights, while moving wax models chat in a Norse tongue about life as a fisherman, cobbler, amber worker or child. There's even the smell of home-cooked stew.

A fully kitted out "Viking" greets you at the end of the ride to discuss life, Valhalla and everything.

The nearby and related Jorvik Dig at St Saviourgate, gives young amateur archaeologists the chance to grab a trowel and explore four excavation pits filled with Roman, Viking, medieval and Victorian artefacts.

Open 10am - 6pm daily. Adults £9.75 ($19), children £6.75. Add about £3 to include Jorvik Dig. See jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk.

NATIONAL RAILWAY MUSEUM, LEEMAN ROAD

Trainspotters of all ages love the more than 100 engines and interactive displays, including a full-size replica of Stephenson's Rocket, Queen Victoria's Royal train and a Eurostar train.

Open 10am - 6pm daily. Free entry. See nrm.org.uk.

CASTLE MUSEUM

The museum is best known for its Victorian-era street, Kirkgate, which faithfully portrays life in York from 1870 to 1901.

Costumed guides direct you along the cobblestones to exhibitions of the shops, newspaper and the people (and poverty) of the time.

The Sixties exhibition takes a wistful look at the fabulous music and not-so-fabulous clothing of the decade, from record players to fashion by Mary Quant, plus the space race, counterculture and women's liberation.

Toy Stories examines 150 years of kiddie fun and features a play area and a Teddy Trail.

Open 9.30am - 5pm daily. Adults £8.50 ($16.5), children free. See yorkcastlemuseum.org.uk.

NIGHTLIFE

York regularly features in tourism top10 lists on the strength of its food and nightlife. Favoured fine dining restaurants include Nineteen, Hotel Du Vin, Cafe no. 8 and Meltons.

After dinner, head to one of the town's renowned olde tavern watering holes - each of which boasts a unique personality and an assortment of local tucker - such as The Three Legged Mare, Plonkers Wine Bar, The Attic at Harlequin and The Yorkshire Terrier.

The town has two historic theatres - the York Grand Opera House and the York Theatre Royal - offering ballet, Shakespeare and classical music recitals.

The annual Illuminating York Festival celebrates the city's rich history with a digital arts and lighting show. See illuminatingyork.org.uk.

SPOOKY STUFF

York revels in the idea that it is Britain's most haunted city and ghost sightings are a common occurrence.

There are supposed to be more than 500 spirits here, allegedly including phantom shelf stackers at Marks & Spencer.

Certainly there is a lot of bloody history to draw on; executions and some very dodgy characters, such as highwayman Dick Turpin and gunpowder plotter Guy Fawkes claiming links to the city.

For Ghost Walks and the like, see: ghostwalkyork.co.uk; York Dungeon (scary good), thedungeons.com/york; and Haunted at 35 Stonegate - York's most haunted house dates back 700 years, see hauntedhouseyork.co.uk.

The writer visited York as a guest of Visit Britain.

TOUR DE YORK

On July 6 next year, the Hens of York will make way for yet another invasion as the Tour de France comes to town. As part of le Tour's three days in England, the peloton will wind its way through the historic walled city and surrounding countryside as well as taking in other Yorkshire cities including Leeds, the cathedral city of Ripon and Sheffield. The final day embraces Cambridge and Essex before finishing in London at The Mall.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Two trains an hour leave for York from London's King's Cross Station. The trip takes a little over two hours, with advance round-trip fares starting at £50 ($97) .

STAYING THERE

Mount Royale Hotel, The Mount, York. Walking distance to the railway station and city centre. Standard double/twin rooms from £125  ($243) a night, including full English breakfast. See mountroyale.co.uk.

WHILE THERE

The York Pass gets you into most of the city's attractions and a quick calculation will let you know if it's a worthwhile investment. Adult passes £34 ($66, one day), £48 ($93.5 two days); child £18 ($35, one day), £22 ($42.8, two days). Includes free guidebook. See yorkpass.com.

- FFX Aus

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