City without limits

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YORK: Jill Turton teams up with the volunteer guides for a trip around the city that is suited to all seasons and all types of visitors.

Every day, twice a day, rain, hail or shine, seven days a week, Ivan Martin and his team of volunteer guides take visitors free of charge on a walking tour of York: St Mary’s Abbey, the Roman Multangular Tower, Bootham Bar, the Shambles, the City Walls and York Minster, the crown jewels of the city’s historic sites. This year Ivan Martin added a layer of history of his own, honoured as Tourism Ambassador after more than 15 years as a guide to the city he grew up in and loves.

The visitors keep coming – an estimated seven million this year – and York’s battery of guides keeps rewarding them with its rich fund of stories: on ghost walks and snickleway walks, through cemeteries and stonemason’s yards, on pony and trap rides, open-top bus tours, river trips and rickshaw rides, even on guided cycle rides or accompanied jogs. The accolades keep coming, too. Last year York was voted Britain’s Favourite Small City by the Rough Guide and a search engine named it Britain’s Most Beautiful City.

It’s an easy sell. York’s got history to spare from Vikings and Romans, Emperor Constantine and Cardinal Wolsey, the Flying Scotsman and Betty’s fat rascals, Guy Fawkes and Dick Turpin, Rowntree’s and Terry’s, Whip-Ma-Whap-Ma Gate and Mad Alice Lane and enough architecture to fill 100 pages of Pevsner’s classic Buildings of England. It’s all there in little more than a couple of square miles, largely encircled by the most complete city walls in Britain.

The pivot, as it has been for more than a millennium, is the glorious Minster, first dedicated to St Peter nearly 1,500 years ago. The planners, while letting through a few city centre horrors, have never allowed any building to compete with its soaring height, the biggest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. Among its many superlatives, is that the Great East Window, the biggest piece of medieval stained glass in England, is due to be unveiled again in 2016 after a nine-year programme of cleaning and repair. Temporarily in its place is a full-scale photograph of the window – fittingly, the largest photograph ever printed. And in a city of multiple attractions from Berwick Kaler’s 33rd year as the Theatre Royal’s pantomime dame to the UK snooker championships at the re-opened Barbican, the city’s hottest ticket is probably still the Minster’s Christmas Carol Concert.

Beyond the Minster, there are another 19 medieval churches within the city walls. The city’s abundant museums range from the tourist blockbusters like the National Railway Museum, Jorvik and Castle Museum to the revamped Yorkshire Museum where only last month two metal detectorists walked in with a pair of 2,000-year-old gold bracelets, the first iron age jewellery to be found in the north of England. More esoteric delights are to be found at the Quilt Museum or the oldest working observatory in Yorkshire in Museum Gardens.

It might seem that York is a city wallowing in the past but it’s also a city that is commercially vital enough to have ridden out the worst of the recession, whose city centre still finds space in Gillygate and Fossgate for independent traders, where housing demand has held up. Its schools excel in league tables. The University of York was recently voted University of the Year by the Times Higher Education supplement.

York is as culturally alive and contemporary as any city of its size. Its annual lighting festival is one of the most thrilling displays of urban art anywhere; the City Art Gallery has staged David Hockney’s stupendous Bigger Trees Near Warter; in a city of rolling festivals its Food Festival is the country’s biggest gourmet showcase and complements the clutch of independent restaurants, food merchants and traditional pubs. Expect a revitalised version of the York Mystery Plays next summer in the hands of Mike Kenny the man whose restaging of The Railway Children became a transatlantic hit. There’s plenty of modern music, comedy and film and is there a more agreeable city centre cinema than York’s City Screen with its riverside bar and cafe?

York has spawned many famous sons and daughters – WH Auden and Dame Judi Dench, AJP Taylor and John Barry in the 20th century alone. New names continue to be added. In 2011, Jonny Bairstow, schooled at St Peter’s, made a spectacular six-hitting debut with England and in 2012 Bootham School old boy Jeremy Heywood takes over as Cabinet Secretary.

More: www.visityork.com

Getting there

Essential website: See www.visityork.org

York’s Visitor Information Centre at One Museum Street. See www.york.gov.uk/visiting/

Leeds Bradford International Airport is 45 minutes drive from York and Manchester Airport is two hours. There are direct trains to York from Manchester. www.leedsbradford airport.co uk and www.manchesterairport.co.uk.

York is on the East Coast Main Line. Fastest trains take less than two hours from London and 2½ from Edinburgh.

Park & Ride bus services operate into the city from sites next to the A64, A19, A1079 and A166.