YORK is not so much steeped in history as drenched in it.
The city’s rich heritage dates back 2,000 years and includes the Brigantes, Romans and, of course, the Vikings. Tudor and Stuart kings were among its visitors and in Georgian times it was the social capital of the north, before the coming of the railway helped it re-emerge as a key industrial hub. It’s fair to say that York has never had much of a problem selling itself as a tourist destination to the outside world, but in its latest campaign Visit York is attempting to woo visitors through romance rather than history.
The campaign, backed by the national tourism organisation Visit England, hopes to entice visitors from across the country to choose York for a romantic break. And although the city is best known for its stunning Minster, along with railways and chocolate, it has stronger romantic links than you might realise.
York Castle Museum houses one of the biggest collections of Valentine cards in the UK. It contains more than 1,000 romantic messages in its archives, including what is believed to be the oldest printed Valentine’s card in the world which dates back to 1797 and was sent by Catherine Mossday to a Mr Brown of Dover Place, Kent Road, London.
York is also the birthplace of the poet WH Auden, who famously wrote O Tell Me The Truth About Love, while according to local superstition if you kiss your partner below the west window of the Minster you will remain together forever.
According to Visit York, almost half of the weddings in the city are for couples who don’t live there, which perhaps isn’t surprising given the number of impressive venues where people can tie the knot. Couples can wed on the platform at York Railway Museum, or inside an historic carriage and then there’s the Minster, of course. The Duke of Kent married Katherine Worsley there in 1961, which was the first royal wedding at the Gothic cathedral since Edward III married Philippa of Hainault in 1328.
The city’s new marketing campaign is being funded by the Government’s Regional Growth Fund, as part of the Growing Tourism Locally project, and Visit York was recently awarded more than £600,000 to produce a series of campaigns over the next three years to encourage more Britons to holiday in the city.
York is one of seven UK destinations that’s being promoted by Visit England, along with Bath, Chester, London, Oxford, Salisbury and Stratford-upon-Avon. These are already popular tourist hotspots, and you might question why somewhere like York needs another reason to entice people to pound its historic streets.
But, between January and November last year visits to attractions in the city were down four per cent on 2011, despite the high-profile festivals marking 800 years since it was granted its Royal Charter by King John, and the small matter of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Olympics.
Gillian Cruddas, chief executive of Visit York, says predictions about how many people would visit last year were overly optimistic. “We had a lot of big events but last summer was quite unusual with the poor weather, there were a lot of things for people to watch on TV and the economy hasn’t bounced back from recession as well as people thought it would.”
This is one of the reasons that they are trying to attract new visitors. “We are always trying to come up with new ideas and reasons for people to come to York. We talk about the Viking heritage and the Roman heritage and 2,000 years of history which helps create a romantic setting,” says Cruddas. “We are constantly told by visitors how romantic they find the city – the quirkiness of the independent retailers and the bars and restaurants. We want to encourage people to come and visit Britain’s most romantic city.”
But she says it’s not just about promoting York. “If we can get people here they use York as a gateway to places like Harrogate, Haworth and Leeds, so it’s about promoting the whole area.”
Even York, which attracts more than seven million visitors each year, can’t rest on its laurels. “We are in competition with Edinburgh, Bath and Chester and also places like Bruges and Barcelona, so we can’t afford to sit back and assume people will just come here. They won’t, and we need to remind people about what a great city this is and come up with new reasons for them to visit.”