Tourist Information, De Grey Rooms, Exhibition Square, York, YOl 2HB. 0904 21756.

(posted Nov 2011): York (0904 59790).

The beauty of York takes the traveller’s breath away – every medieval alleyway and gracious street breathes Britain’s story, from Roman times to the present day. The Romans chose this site for their northern headquarters and built a wooden-walled fort on the site of the present day Minster. Later the Danes captured the city and gave it the name Jorvik, from which York is derived. Jorvik was the Vikings’ capital in England, and their way of life has been recreated in the magnificent Jorvik Viking Centre built on an archaeologists’ Viking dig. They were followed by the Normans, who burned the city and built it anew.

The town became a centre for merchants in the Middle Ages, which turned York into England’s second city. Henry I gave the city its first charter. Guy Fawkes was born in a house in Petergate or Stonegate, and Dick Turpin lived in the city and was hanged at York Tyburn in 1739; his tombstone can still be seen in St George’s Churchyard. In the last century George Hudson, Lord Mayor three times, made York a crossroads for railroads in the north.

York is still an important railway centre, a crossroads on the East Coast main line between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh and Aberdeen. York Railway Station is a cathedral of travel – it is built on a curve which gives a fan effect to the great domed glass roof, and has been carefully and lovingly restored. It is worth a visit even by those who arrive by road – but sensible visitors from London come by the fast and frequent trains and perhaps rent a car here. York itself, though, is a city which is best enjoyed on foot and the best start is to walk round the ancient walls from the arch at Lendal Bridge to the Minster. From the commanding height of the walls, the Minster, churches and houses can be appreciated. Mickelgate Bar, a lovely Norman archway crossing the street was once the main entrance to the city. Here the heads of executed traitors were displayed, and Walmgate Bar is the only town gate in the country to retain its barbican, original gate and portcullis.

Sometimes it is necessary to leave the walls and follow the road, but after the Red Tower the ramparts vanish completely for here was a swamp in the Middle Ages which made battlements unnecessary. The walk follows Fosse Island Road, recrosses the Fosse river, and the walls begin again. From here it is easy to be transported back into ancient times, while walking past Monk Bar, with the remains of an old Roman corner tower. Along this stretch, which follows the line of the original Roman wall, the eye ranges over the glorious mixture of medieval, classical Georgian, Victorian and modern building styles that make up the face of York. And all is dominated by the magnificent North Face of the great Minster. From the walls the size and scale of the building, the beauty of its stonework and the dedication of its builders, take the breath away. The walk round York’s walls ends at Bootham Bar, the most magnificent of all the city gates, with its early Norman archway and portcullis.

Within the walls the city is a maze of lanes and narrow streets, which even today preserve their medieval atmosphere. It is only a brief walk down Petergate from Bootham Bar to the Shambles, where butchers had their shops in the Middle Ages, but now there is a range of lovely little shops to tempt the tourist. Close by is Stonegate, a pedestrian precinct with beautiful half-timbered and gabled houses.

Free conducted tours of the city, led by York’s team of volunteer guides are organised from Easter to October, while for those with less time or energy, York City Buses run coach tours. There are also special tours of York by night, Haunted York, and boat trips on the river Ouse. The York Story is a magnificent introduction to the city’s history. It is set in the fine medieval Church of St Mary’s, Castlegate and you can buy a joint ticket for it and the Castle Museum. It traces the story of the city with models, reconstructed scenes and audio visual displays which really bring the past to life.