York's three miles of city walls get their own festival

Its walls have defended it since Roman times and those that remain are the longest in England. This weekend, for the first time, a festival will be held in their name.
Martin Hetherington on the walls at York. Picture by Simon HulmeMartin Hetherington on the walls at York. Picture by Simon Hulme
Martin Hetherington on the walls at York. Picture by Simon Hulme

The walls that encircle York are nearly three miles long and are considered the best preserved defences in the land. They should therefore easily withstand the strain of a few extra pairs of feet, the city’s archeologist said last night.

“They’re very robust. We get about a million people a year walking on all or part of them,” said John Oxley, who will help to open the weekend-long York Walls Festival on Friday night.

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It has been organised by community groups, in partnership with the council and York’s library and archive services. As part of the family sideshows, children will be invited to help construct a replica of the walls in Lego bricks.

“A festival is exactly the right thing to be doing,” Mr Oxley said. “The walls are like wallpaper – after a while, you stop noticing them.

“So I hope this will jerk people into releasing what an amazing monument they are.

“It’s a small beginning, but from small acorns great festivals sometimes grow.”

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Martin Hetherington from the Friends of York Walls group, which is helping to organise the festival, added: “It’s a chance for people who might not otherwise come, to experience the walls.

“As walks inside a city or a town go, this is one of the best, and it’s unusual to have all the towers open at the same time.”

The volunteer-run Red Tower near Navigation Road by the River Foss, the only section of the walls to be built of brick rather than magnesian limestone, will be among those open at the weekend. It is currently the subject of a community redevelopment project after years of dereliction,

Along with the Postern Tower on Fishergate, close to York Castle, which was once surrounded by its own walls and a moat, it is usually opened on only around 25 days of the year.

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Despite the efforts of some Victorian industrialists to pull them down to make way for the railways, the walls retain all their main gateways, and incorporate Roman, Norman and medieval work with modern renovations.

Mr Oxley said he hoped the festival would encourage walkers to venture further than the well-trodden path behind the Minster.

“What we’d like to do is to see how we can enhance people’s understanding and enjoyment of the walls, and if that means venturing further afield than Bootham Bar and Monk Bar, that would count in my eyes as a great success,” he said.

Despite the extent of the walls, little of the stonework dates back to the Roman period. The Multangular Tower in Museum Gardens is the most noticeable remaining Roman structure, with most of the remaining work dating from the 12th to the 14th centuries.

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