York is home to the oldest shopping street in Europe, has one of the best preserved medieval guildhalls and its Minster boasts the world’s greatest collection of stained glass windows. It also has more than 365 pubs - one for every day of the year - which may go someway to explaining why the city has become a magnet for drinkers.
Take Sunday afternoon. While the sun wasn’t quite out, it was just about warm enough for the riverside to be packed with those determined to make the most of the bank holiday and an extra day off work.
A hen party, who looked as though they may well have been poured into the tiny DayGlo dresses they were almost wearing, tottered along the cobbles towards the King’s Arms. Just around the corner a group of lads from Newcastle were spilling out onto the pavement from a nearby bar. One for no obvious reason was dressed as Spider-Man; all had just one thing on their mind - drinking as much as possible before the last train home.
By the time the shops were shutting for the evening, the city’s streets were looking even less inviting. High heels had been abandoned, one bride-to-be was being propped up by her chief bridesmaid on Micklegate bridge and countless lost souls were already weaving their way back to the station.
“The scene is the same most weekends,” says Dick Syms, chair of York Street Angels. The church-led initiative sees volunteers patrol the city’s streets from 10pm to 3am on Fridays and Saturdays. “We’re there to pick up the pieces, to help anyone who has fallen unconscious, to look after those in distress. We hand out flipflops to girls walking around barefoot, in the winter we give out space blankets to those shivering in the cold and we’re always on the look out for anyone who appears disorientated and who has become separated by their friends.
“People do realise that we are there to help and while I have only been working as a volunteer for the past six months I’ve never had a negative reaction. In fact, I know that parents in particular are grateful to know that someone is out there keeping an eye on things.
“No matter what anyone says, if people want to drink to excess then they will. York has become a bit of a party capital and that inevitably has consequences.”
For most of those drinkers that will mean nothing more than a bad head the morning after the night before. However, since the start of this year three young people have died in the city’s rivers. All three are believed to have drowned while on night’s out and their deaths have brought some of the problems which exist in the city centre into sharp focus.
They are much the same issues which exist in most towns and cities. However, with York reliant on attracting tourists from both home and abroad, there are fears that if not tackled, the drinking culture could damage the city’s economy. Plans to change the night time offering in York have been talked about for sometime, but the proposals now seem to be gaining momentum.
Tonight a report which warns that previous reviews have found drink-fuelled anti-social behaviour “is seen as being a barrier to people visiting the city centre at night” will be considered by members of York Council’s cabinet committee and earlier this month an alcohol restriction zone was extended to help tackle anti-social drinking in public.
“It first struck me that something needed to change in York quite a few years ago now,” says York councillor Tracey Simpson-Laing, cabinet member for homes and safer communities. “I was walking out of the Guildhall with a couple of colleagues and a Spanish family who were visiting turned and asked where was the best place to go to coffee. It was 8pm, I thought for a while and then realised the answer was, ‘nowhere’. Of course there are pubs that sell coffee, but that’s not what they were looking for.
“One of the things I love about visiting Europe going out on a night and seeing so many families enjoying a meal together or friends meeting up for coffee. In places like Barcelona and Paris their night time economy is not just about drink. We have to change the culture in this country and that’s not easy to do.”
It has been mooted before, but momentum is gathering behind a pilot scheme which would see shops and cafes in York open later, giving those not intent on drinking the night away a reason to come into the city centre after dark. However, the trick will be convincing those businesses that it’s worth the cost and the effort of extended opening hours.
“A number of years ago there was an experiment with late night opening on Thursdays, but it didn’t take off,” admits Cllr Simpson-Laing. “However, I suspect that part of the problem was getting the word out. It was in the days before Facebook and Twitter and we would definitely stand much more of a chance of making it work now than we did then.
“The number of European and international visitors we have coming to York has increased. They come here with money to spend and they expect shops and cafes to be open later, because that’s how it is back home. Of course there are questions about footfall and about ensuring it is a viable proposition, but I think if we could get some of the big high street chains on board then it would give us the boost we need.”
York’s night-time economy is currently enjoyed by about 14,000 people between 6pm and 5am each week. Unsurprisingly most people go out in the city on Friday and Saturday nights, but York could learn some lessons from its European neighbours where the night time economy runs throughout the week.
“York has so much culture and so many attractions and we do need to find a way of ensuring that not everything shuts down at 6pm,” adds Cllr Simpson-Laing, who has recently joined the Alcohol Violence and Night Time Economy (AVANTE) task group. “Wouldn’t it be nice to think that you could come into the city centre at 7pm and still be able to go to a museum.
“I’ve only been in post for just over a week, but one of the things I want to do is bring representatives from the pubs, the hackney carriages and retailers together with the police and councillors to see if we can find a way forward.
“I met some students from York University recently in Yates’s. When I asked for some peanuts I was told they didn’t serve them and I think that does say something about the culture we have. Some of the major pub chains do need to come on board to look at what we call vertical drinking, where people go from one bar to the next rarely bothering to even sit down. We have to start changing the mind set.
“We can’t stop hen and stag parties coming to the city and nor would we want to, but we need to make York a city that everyone can enjoy.”