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Inside York’s city walls

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Climbing England's largest Medieval cathedral, shopping in The Shambles, and hoisting a pint in a haunted pub

By the time we got to York we had been on the road for almost a month and I had lost track of the number of castles, cathedrals, and historic monuments we had visited along the way. We were all feeling a bit jaded so when we left our B&B in the little town of Hexham, near Durham, and headed south for the Peak District we were determined not to get side-tracked in our quest for hills and wilderness, a place to hike and stretch our car-cramped legs. But how can you, in clear conscience, bypass the magnificent walled city of York without at least a token visit.

Alan, our U.K. friend who volunteered (possibly out of self preservation) to do most of the driving, parked near Monk's Bar and we made our way up a stone stairway to the top of the wall. Monk's Bar, not to be confused with one of the many watering holes in York, is not the place to go for a pint. In York, where linguistic remnants of it's Viking past still persist, a "bar" is a gate, a "gate" is a street, but a "pub" is still a pub – confusing, especially if you're thirsty.

The city walls, almost three kilometres of them, are remarkably well preserved. The portcullis on Monk's Bar actually still works, a tribute to the city council which has faithfully preserved much of York's medieval heritage. The first walls, no more than earthen ramparts, were built here by the Romans in the first century AD when they founded the fortress city of Eboracum. When their empire began to crumble in the fourth century AD Eboracum was abandoned and later taken over by Danish invaders who called the place Jorvik and, for almost a century, York became an independent Viking kingdom. The city was burned to the ground during the brutal early days of the AD1066 Norman Conquest, but it was also the Normans who rebuilt the city, replacing the wooden ramparts with the present stone walls, and building many of York's surviving medieval buildings.

Walking the walls of York is hardly wilderness trekking but it provided some welcome exercise and the views are fascinating. Below us a spider web of cobbled streets winds through a clutter of heritage buildings – houses, shops and pubs right out of the middle ages. And towering above it all the magnificently ornate Cathedral of St. Peter, better known as York Minster. This masterpiece of Gothic architecture, was begun by the Normans in AD1080 but little of that first church survives. Construction of the present building started in AD1220 and continued for the next 250 years. For students of architecture York Minster encompasses every stage of Gothic design blended into a single, meticulously crafted structure.

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