York is a feast of churches, dozens of them, no two alike.
There’s St. Michael le Belfrey, a squat 16th-century edifice where Guy Fawkes, the revolutionary who tried to blow up Parliament, was baptized in 1570. It’s now home to a “rock ministry.”
There’s a 650-year-old window at All Saints North Street called “Pricke of Conscience,” which depicts the 15 signs of the end of the world.
St. John Micklegate, dating from the 12th century, is now a cocktail bar.
And there’s the famous Minster, its towers pushing toward the sky.
Over the past 1,500 years, this city in the north of England has dedicated a hell of a lot of real estate to the glory of God.
But Mammon gets his props, too. York was capitalist before capitalism was cool, a mercantile center since about 866, when Viking invaders hung up their axes and opened storefronts to sell the silks, spices and gems they’d forcibly imported from Ireland, Russia and Italy. York had an affluent middle class in the Middle Ages, raking in profits from the wool trade. Its citizens still value quality, whether in churches or chocolate.
My friend Rebecca Jenkins, a novelist from the north of England, teaches in York part-time and recently invited me to tag along on one of her commutes. Needing no encouragement to take a break from revising a novel that refused to get finished, I packed my walking shoes. While Rebecca tried to get her students to appreciate the glories of subject-verb agreement, I set out on a pilgrimage to as many of York’s religious buildings as I could manage, while also making time for some soul-uplifting eating and restorative retail.
I began where the spiritual and the material collide. The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St. Peter, to give the Minster its formal name, is as cool and serene as a forest, especially if you get there before the busloads of tourists and field-tripping packs of schoolchildren. Inside the Minster, the nave soars upward on slender gothic pillars nearly 800 years old, dappled with blue and red light filtered through ancient stained glass windows — York has more than half the surviving medieval stained glass in England.
In Anglican Church hierarchy, York is second only to Canterbury and boasts the U.K.’s first black archbishop, Ugandan-born John Sentamu. Westminster Abbey may be more famous, not least because of all those royal weddings — Liz and Philip, Margaret and Tony, and now Wills and Kate — but I think that York is much more beautiful, unmolested by Victorian “restoration.”
And York has had a few royal weddings of its own: the Queen’s cousin, the Duke of Kent, and Katharine Worsley in 1961; and, back in 1328, Princess Philippa of Hainault and King Edward III. Edward and Philippa buried one of their children in the Minster. The tomb of Prince William, who died in infancy, is topped by the effigy of a miniature knight in chain mail, his face turned poignantly to the wall.
Perverse though it sounds, the Minster’s graves and memorial markers bring the place to life, even more than the glittering saints and carved stone kings. One marble memorial tells of Ensign Henry Whittam, “in the 26th year of his life accidentally drowned in the River Ouse, May, 1809” or the fancy 17th-century painted stone relief of the Gee family, which exhorts “Stay, gentle passenger and read a sentence sent thee from the dead.”
The voices of the dead speak extra loud in the eerie Undercroft, where the work of centuries becomes visible. The present Minster was built on the site of a Norman cathedral that in turn replaced a Saxon church, and the whole shebang sits on a Roman basilica, essentially a city hall, dating from A.D. 71. A 25-foot column excavated from the basilica now stands outside the Minster, supposedly marking the place where, in 306, Constantine was declared emperor of Rome.
Eboracum, as the Roman Sixth Legion called York, was a cosmopolitan garrison town, an important military base for Rome’s Britannia colony. The city flourished from the 1st century to 410, when the Romans, overextended abroad and attacked by Visigoths back home, withdrew from Britain. There were villas and temples to deities from Mars to Mithras. The boys in uniform could luxuriate in the baths (a caldarium, the “hot room,” was discovered under a pub in St. Samson’s Square) and watch professional bruisers from around the empire fight wild animals. In 2010, archaeologists discovered York’s gladiator graveyard: 80 skeletons showing major sword wounds and bite marks from lions or bears.
Big as they were on recreational bathing, the Romans would have loved Stonegate, York’s prettiest shopping thoroughfare. They could have bought Egyptian cotton towels at the White Company and oils and lotions in scents such as lime basil and mandarin, orange and geranium, and “pomegranate noir” from Jo Malone. For something a little less Messalina and a little more vestal virgin, Culpeper the Herbalist, around the corner on Petergate, is known for its English lavender.
A note on the local nomenclature: While the city is ringed by superb fortified walls, mostly dating from the 13th century, “gates” have nothing to do with portcullises. In York, that kind of gate is a “bar.” “Gata” is Old Norse for street. The Vikings blew into York during the 800s, and by 954, when the Saxons threw them and their leader, Eric Bloodaxe, out of the city, they had imprinted the place with their genes (there was a lot of intermarriage), their mercantile values and their language.
York’s street names are often directional: Fossgate leads to the River Foss; Castlegate goes to the castle. They reveal the local trade, maybe name-check a landmark or important person: Swinegate was the pig market; Colliergate, the coal market; Spurriergate where they made spurs. Gillygate is named for the Church of St. Giles and Davygate for David le Lardinier, Henry III’s kitchen manager.
York’s best street name has to be Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, which may have something to do with the town’s whipping post. Or not. Whatever it means, it’s on the way to lunch. I head for the highly recommended J. Baker’s Bistro, home of “moderne” Yorkshire cuisine, where I’m greeted by an amuse-bouche of tiny potatoes served with sea salt and local goat cheese. Then a cup of “pumpkin froth,” followed by Whitby crab and smoked cod roe, all from within 50 miles.
After such fleshly indulgence, I figure I’d better take in another church or two. All Saints Pavement (so named because it sits on one of York’s first paved roads), has a lacy lantern on top, built in 1400. It was lit at night to help guide travelers through the wolf-infested Forest of Galtres north of the city.
Now a cafe and shop selling crafts from developing nations, the 900 year-old St. Michael’s Spurriergate is a restful place to have a cup of (extremely good) fair-trade coffee. The church was “made redundant” years ago and sold off, though it retains its early English Gothic arches and many monuments to parishioners on the walls and the floor.
But the loveliest and most poignant of York’s smaller churches is St. Martin le Grand. In 1942, the Luftwaffe bombed York, killing nearly 100 people. Most of the building burned, except for the south aisle and the tower. It was restored after the war as a memorial to peace and forgiveness. One of the German bombardiers who’d carried out the air raid traveled to York a few years ago to apologize to the people. I sat in a pew, watching as the windows threw muted colors from the glass onto the stones. Some of the stained glass is contemporary, but there’s a huge medieval window illustrating the life of Saint Martin of Tours, the patron saint of soldiers.
York’s spirituality and wealth combined to make it, after London, the most powerful city in medieval England. The Yorkshire Museum’s artifacts attest to the city’s importance: extraordinary objects such as the York Helmet, an 8th-century masterpiece with a brass noseguard etched with interlaced animal designs; the Anglo-Saxon Gilling Sword; the Viking Cawood Sword; and the elaborate silver bowls enjoyed by the elite of 1,400 years ago.
The museum sits amid the 13th-century ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, once the richest monastery in England. One of the museum’s treasures was on my mind as I indulged in a little fantasy shopping. In 1985, a guy with a metal detector messing around at nearby Middleham Castle uncovered a spectacular gold pendant, probably made in the second half of the 15th century. The Middleham Jewel is engraved with the Trinity on the outside, has a piece of the True Cross inside and sports a 10-carat sapphire. From the gold Viking arm bands in the museum to the jewelry shops in Stonegate, people around here like their bling. The window at Barbara Cattle (45 Stonegate) blazes like a five-alarm fire with diamonds and rubies and pearls only slightly smaller than golf balls.
Thank God it was nearly time to meet Rebecca in Davygate at the city’s most celebrated eatery. Now, I’m sure that Davy was a fine fellow, but the place ought to be renamed Bettygate: Betty’s Cafe and Tea Rooms is a festival of butter, large pieces of meat and great hunks of cake served on proper china by waitresses in starched white aprons who address you as “madam.” Rebecca tells me that “everyone comes to Betty’s.” And judging from the long queue (Betty’s does not take reservations), she’s right.
Betty’s Cafe is a monument to Yorkshire food: sausages from the Vale of York, pork from Stillington, Samuel Smith’s beer and curd tarts. But it’s also as Swiss as a secret bank account. It was founded in 1919 by an emigre confectioner named Frederick Belmont and is still family-owned, and the menu includes rosti, cheese specialties from the Engadine and, of course, sinful chocolate. Rebecca and I order glasses of Fendant de Sion, a perfumey Swiss white wine, and I agonize over whether I want scrambled eggs with meltingly rich smoked salmon (Betty’s serves breakfast all day) or local ham with new peas.
As for dessert, well, you can go for the Coupe Matterhorn, homemade ice cream smothered in Betty’s Swiss chocolate sauce and whipped cream and accompanied by little chocolate pastries. Or you can just buy a box of handmade dark chocolate langues de chat and a bag of Fat Rascals (scones exploding with candied fruit), go sit in front of the nearest church and contemplate the sin of gluttony.
Roberts is a commentator for NPR and the BBC. She divides her time between London and Tallahassee, Fla.