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Step back in time in York


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2002

YORK, England -- In this ancient city is an ancient area called the Shambles, and it is likely that the narrow, blocklong street looks much the same as it must have 500 years ago.

YORK, England -- In this ancient city is an ancient area called the Shambles, and it is likely that the narrow, blocklong street looks much the same as it must have 500 years ago.

In the early 1500s, this was the place where townsfolk would haggle over the price and quality of beef, pork, lamb and poultry.

The butchers' displays have long since disappeared, replaced by shops selling local art and crafts, ceramics, jewelry, leather and sheepskin clothing, plus the inevitable souvenirs. You can even have your family name traced and have your coat of arms hand-embroidered, in gold and silver thread, on fine silk.

While the stalls of the old Shambles are no longer there, the buildings have remained much the same.

At one end of this row of shops, the Golden Fleece stands, ready to quench your thirst or hunger or to offer a bed. Originally a coaching house, this narrow building dates to 1503. There is a standup bar -- no stools here -- in the front room, which provides a nice view of the Shambles outside. An uneven wooden floor slopes past the restrooms to another bar in the rear.

While you sip or sup, you can read about the 500-year history of the Golden Fleece and consider renting one of the upstairs rooms for the night. Lady Peckett's ghost is said to make the occasional appearance in the room named for her.

Well before the Golden Fleece came into being, the Romans arrived in 71 A.D. They stayed until 410. Later came the Saxons, who made the community their capital. Then came the Vikings, to ransack the city. They named the town Jorvik (Yore-vick).

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of the Viking settlement and have recreated it with the latest technology. Objects of everyday living found at the site are displayed in an award-winning museum -- beneath the streets of central York -- at the Jorvik Viking Center. A protective wall still stands around much of the old city. A stroll around the wall provides an interesting view of the center of the city. There are four gates, locally known as "bars." The most-photographed one is Micklegate, which royalty used when visiting the city and which now houses a museum displaying 800 years of history.

Another good way to get an insight into York and its people is to board one of the "step-on, step-off' tour buses. The Guide Friday buses carry a guide who narrates the tour, which beats the taped-narration system used by some companies.

On my recent trip, I stepped off the bus first at York Minster. This magnificent cathedral, Britain's largest Gothic building, was erected over more than 200 years. The newest elements date to the 1470s.

Viking gravestones and Norman items can be viewed beneath the central tower. For a great view of the city, climb the 275 steps to the top of the tower. Docents relate the church's history, including its change from Catholicism to Anglican under Henry VIII. The main building has an excellent collection of stained glass.

I later left the Guide Friday bus again at the National Railway Museum. This gigantic attraction is said to be one of the largest of its kind in the world. You could spend an entire day learning about train travel. There is a copy of a 172-year-old steam engine, named Stephenson's Rocket. There are also the streamlined Eurostar, used in the English Channel tunnel, and one of the Japanese bullet train engines.

Visitors can ride behind a diesel or steam locomotive and follow it with a tour around the museum's gardens on a miniature train. Twice daily an engineer demonstrates the workings of the engine turntable in the Great Hall.

York has its share of taverns, but one new one, the Maltings, has a special tale. When Paul Theakston was forced out of the five-generations-old family of brewers bearing that name, he set up this establishment and began brewing ale. He mockingly named it after himself: Black Sheep ale. Visitors also can tour his brewery (and sample the product) at Masham in northern Yorkshire, just a few miles from York.

-- Gardon Garrison is a freelance writer living near Toronto.

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