Day Trip To York

Somehow, we (Haley, Kourtni, Grant, Alex, and I) all made it to the meeting point by 8:15 a.m. We caught the bus to the train station for only £2, and went to the ticket stand, since we hadn’t bought our train tickets beforehand on the recommendation of Kourtni’s flatmate, who said that it would be the same price to simply buy them at the window. He was right; we got a day return round-trip ticket for only £13. By 9:30, we were seated on the train (Alex’s first ever train ride, he’s pretty sure) and off to York.

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The ride only takes about 30 minutes, so by 10:00, we were in York and starving. York is a quaint town surrounded by the original medieval walls that you can walk on almost all the way around the city centre. From the station, we could see the large York Minster cathedral that marks the city centre, so we headed off in that direction. On our way over the river, we saw an adorable little cafe called The Perky Peacock built into a round turret next to the water, and headed down a set of stairs to reach it. The picture shows a similar structure across the river from the restaurant.

We made a solid choice, because everyone inside seemed to be locals and the food was delicious. I ordered Yorkshire tea and a bacon sandwich, and everyone else got some sort of brunch food. The inside of the cafe was tiny and packed with people, but somehow the only large table (seating exactly five) was free. This was a foreshadowing of the fortune we would encounter the rest of the day.

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After our breakfast, we continued on our path to York Minster. Rachel had told us that it is one of the most beautiful churches in England, and she wasn’t lying. The exterior was absolutely stunning, and we managed to sneak in and get a look at the interior without actually paying £10 for the ticket. We each lit a candle and left it before heading back outside and asking a random woman to take our picture in front of the church.

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Also a little back story on our journey: we made absolutely zero plans ahead of time, except for asking Rachel if there is anything she’d recommend seeing. She told us York Minster and a museum called Jorvik Viking Centre that encapsulates life in Viking times. (While digging for a building’s foundation, the builders happened across an ancient Viking street. They dug up the rest of it, and it is now part of the Jorvik Centre). So we literally just decided to go with whatever happened and made all of our decisions on the fly. Being the planner I am, I was absolutely petrified to travel this way.

After sufficient gawking at the church, we headed off into the heart of the city, to an area known as The Shambles. Basically, most of the streets have limited car access and are primarily for pedestrians. The streets are narrow and cobbled, with shops and restaurants lining both sides. Everything in the centre of York is old and quaint and beautiful. Just wandering the streets is an interesting activity. We passed a few street performers and stopped to listen, as well as tons of people dressed up in Viking garb.

As it turns out, the weekend we chose to go to York coincided with the Jorvik Viking Festival. Rachel had warned us of this previously, saying that York would be packed with tourists and that we should maybe pick another weekend, but we all agreed that the festival would add to our experience. And we were correct. Around every turn we’d see guys with long beards carrying spears and wearing chain mail and helmets, and women in long dresses. It also gave us extra things to see, like a camp set up with activities in the middle of a square, plus a few shows that I will detail later. As far as tourists go, even with the festival, York wasn’t nearly as busy as other tourist hubs. In fact, I’m pretty sure there are larger crowds on campus when Domino’s is giving away free pizza slices than we encountered in all of York.

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Of course, since the five of us went, we had to find a place to take a squad picture. At one point, a tiny alleyway dipped off of the main road, so we snuck in and took the above photo. Afterward, we did a bit of shopping in a metal sign store (Mom and Dad would have loved it), a dress shop, and an armory store.

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We left the store and headed for Clifford’s Tower, the remains of a fortress built up on a tall hill overlooking York. We climbed up the hill and paid our £4 entry fee. Inside the fortress, we took a few more squad pictures (see picture at right) and then climbed to the top of the walls. Grant also went into the gift shop and (in true Grant style) asked the woman if he could hold the sword displayed on the wall behind the counter. To my surprise and his delight, she actually said yes, and pulled the huge sword down for him and Alex to take pictures with.

We walked along the top of the walls of the tower and got some amazing views of the city and of York Minster. While I don’t particularly like heights, it was still a great way to see everything. The weather was beautiful as well, though it was quite windy being up so high. Otherwise, we were blessed with a slight breeze, warmish temperatures, and even some peaks at the sun (so rare in England, that I sometimes forget what sunshine feels like).

The above picture shows the inside of Clifford’s Tower.

The above picture shows the inside of Clifford’s Tower.

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While descending from the tower, we saw a Castle Museum nearby and decided to stop in to find the loo for Grant. As a person that usually hates museum settings, this was easily the best one I have ever been to. No exaggeration. It was technically a period museum, so as we walked through, it was like being in an old Victorian town. They literally put you in the setting, with life-sized buildings and streets and stables all built into the museum. It was like being transported back in time; they even had smells that correlated with each room (i.e. when we were in the stable, it smelled like cattle and manure; the old-fashioned outhouse smelled like feces; the candy shop smelled like sweets; the bakery smelled like fresh-baked bread; etc.) They also had sounds incorporated into the setting, and if you stood outside in the “street,” it gradually grew from evening (with a dog baying loudly) to morning (with birds chirping) as the lights grew brighter.

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People were staged in certain areas to explain life in those times as well, from suffragettes to a worker in the candy store explaining that people in Victorian times had the first version of the conversation hearts that we now pass around on Valentine’s Day. We saw everything from a personal home to a butcher shop to a jail cell. Many things were interactive, but there were no placards detailing every item. It was just meant to be an immersion experience, which was so refreshing.

There was also an activity area, so we all sat down and colored for a bit to take a break from walking. As we colored, we looked outside and noticed a crowd gathering around an open field filled with Vikings.

I would just like to point out again that none of this was previously planned. Somehow, by some divine intervention, all of these amazing experiences continued to happen to us, simply because we were open to anything. It was absolutely incredible how everything fell into place as we went along. And I don’t think any amount of planning could’ve given us the same incredible day.

Anyway, outside we found a spot with great views of the action and wound up realizing that we were watching a Viking larp. I had never previously heard the word larp, but Kourtni and Alex explained it to me as basically a staged fight. The Vikings were up against the early Christians (with the Vikings winning every time due to it being a Viking Fest and all) and we watched as men and women of all ages in period dress ran into each other and faked battle. It was actually quite violent, though the weapons were blunted and of course all deaths were acted out dramatically. To give you a better picture, here are a few photos:

After the fights, we headed back to the Jorvik Viking Centre (which we never entered due to the high cost and the hour-long line) to get a snack of large Yorkshire sausages. Grant and I shared a garlic and chili sausage sandwich, while Kourtni, Haley, and Alex each bought a Cumberland sausage sandwich. Because of the chilly temperatures in the square, we went to a nearby Bagels Nash (a chain similar to Caribou Coffee or Dunkin’ Donuts) and sat upstairs for a bit while everyone finished their food. I bought tea to make our stay more legitimate and we planned our next moves from a brochure that Grant had grabbed at the museum.

We each had a few things we wanted to get done while there. We stopped in some souvenir shops, where I found a patch and a coaster, plus a souvenir for Jessie, before going back to the main camp for a beard contest.

The beard contest literally consisted of a bunch of men with beards standing on a stage and an announcer having the crowd cheer for the most impressive beards. It was hilarious. Kourtni mentioned that these guys probably grow their beards out all year in anticipation of this contest, and to be honest, I think she’s right. Eventually, an old man who looked like Santa Clause won (go figure), and we headed off to find dinner.

Alex had picked up a York guide from the train station, so I looked through it and found a few options for dinner. We ended up at a place called The Golden Fleece, which advertises itself as one of the oldest and most haunted places in York. We found it easily and went in to get a table. The waitress who helped us told us that we were lucky we’d come so early since we didn’t have a reservation. We ended up getting another group’s reserved table since they wouldn’t arrive for 2 hours. Just another fortunate thing to add to the list of lucky happenstance.

The pub was really creepy; they set up a skeleton at one end of the bar, and all of the pictures either followed us with their eyes or changed from a normal photo to a scary face. On top of that, the entire staircase and upstairs dining room was slanted–we could hardly walk up the stairs stone. We set a ball on the table and it rolled straight off, and the entire meal I felt like my chair was going to fall over, but it added to the atmosphere.

I tried to get traditional English fare, and went with Grant and Alex to order my cottage pie at the bar, along with a cup of mulled wine (in honor of the Viking Fest). Grant ordered some mead as well and we all had a taste of both. Mulled wine is a hot, spiced beverage; I couldn’t take more than three sips before giving it away. The cottage pie was delicious though, and reminded me of a casserole that I’d have at home. It had beef, mashed potatoes, beets, peas, and carrots all smothered in gravy.

We got to the train station and had an hour to kill, so we sat around a played a game of table topics, which was a good way to end the day. When we got back, Haley, Kourtni, and I made pizzas and had cookies before I fell asleep, exhausted.

Overall, York has been one of my favorite days yet. We all needed a day out of Leeds, and our ability to just travel on a whim was part of what made it so incredible. I’ve never traveled like that before out of sheer terror of getting lost in an unknown place, but by simply talking to people, noticing our surroundings, and taking some risks, we made some really great memories.

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Meghan Battest is a student at North Dakota State University and a guest API Student Blogger. Meghan is studying abroad with API in Leeds, England.

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