The Magic of York, UK: Snickelways, Shambles, and Beaucoup History
Settled by Romans, later by Vikings, and with a mostly standing — and walkable — city wall, York is a dream for history buff or those of us that are simply into visiting old places and things.
In addition to that, York seems like it’s a great place to have a pub crawl.
I planned this visit to York more around the historic than the gastronomical and the libational. Next time I’ll bring my husband and focus more on the pub scene than I did this time around.
Covered in this post: walking the snickelways of York, walking the York walls, the York Cat Trail. Other things to do in York, and some travel tips if you’re visiting York for the first time. Included is a map of York hotels followed by a map of places mentioned in this post.
There’s also a resource list in the sidebar (or at the end of the post if you’re on mobile). It includes links to places to visit, related reading, York in fiction, and more.
This article contains some affiliate links. That means if you click on a link that is an affiliate link, and then make a subsequent purchase, I get a small commission which helps me support this blog (and justify it to the powers-that-be).
When I announced I was going to travel to York alone, one of my French classmates asked, “Pourquoi? Why York?” She had been to York and said it was nice but shrugged in a way that said “meh.” Her perplexity likely came from the fact that faced with some time to travel solo, and a world full of possibilities, my first stop was York.
“Beaucoup l’histoire…trés interessant…” my answer in broken French was a half-truth. Yes, York has “lots of history” and is very interesting, but if I had to sum up in one word what attracted me to York, it would be “snickelways.”
What the heck is a snickelway?
What’s a snickelway? York has a series of spaces between buildings that (Yorkians?) in the know could use as shortcuts to navigate the city. When I was a kid, I loved playing and hiding in the alleyway behind my house – I imagine all the mischief I could have managed had I grown up in York.
“Snickelways” sounds like it could be a charming Old English word and some have names that tickled my sense of humor (Nether Hornpot Lane). So I was a little disappointed to find that (at least according to the venerable Wikipedia) that author Mark W. Jones coined the word in 1983.
Jones’ book A Walk Around the Snickelways of York (which seems to be out of print but is readily available on Thriftbooks.com or Amazon), is the definitive guide to snickeling. In it, he explains that snickelways is a portmanteau word combining “snicket” (any relation to Lemony?), ginnel, and alleyway, all words used to describe different types of passageways.
Self-Touring York Via Snickelways or walls or…cats.
Jones gives a walkthrough of the snickelways which also turns out to be a great way to self-tour York.
My original intention was to bring out my routing app and record my walk, but this turned out to be a fail because: 1) I found myself off course a few times and 2) I found everything along the way to be way too distracting. The complete walk described in the book is only approximately 3.5 miles long, but my walk turned into a daylong adventure.
Your snickelways journey
starts at the hole in the wall just past Bootham Bar (in York the gates are bars and the streets end with -gate) and takes you past many (but not all) of the places I’m listing in this post.
Being that I love playing around with tech and routing apps, I’ve posted an online route around the snickelways below. This is a close approximation to the way described in the book, and the path I walked. However, there are a few places (like the in and outs in the Shambles) that were difficult to achieve in a plotting app.
If you want to walk the snickelways, just get the book. It’s your best reference and includes handwritten print and delightful black and white sketches.
Above: Sketches from The Snickelways of York by Mark W. Jones match the view walking to York Minster from Precentor’s Court.
Walking the Walls
York is one of the best examples of a medieval walled city. London, had walls, of course, but only fragments remain.
A large portion of York’s walls are still standing, and you can walk on them. My AirBNB in York was near one of the walkable stretches of wall, and I used them frequently as part of my walk into the central part of town.
In some places, the wall ends. Despite the signs around the route with handy QR codes I got confused in spots and had to search for the next walkable portion of the wall. For the best experience, you might want to bring a guide. The Friends of York Walls website has maps and a handy guide for a thorough wall walk.
There’s also a written Walking Guide to York City Walls available on Kindle or as a paperback.
Some parts of the wall have a safety fence on one side, a few sections have a drop off with no barrier. Where I live, there would be fences and signs all around to prevent
lawsuits injuries. But it seems York (fortunately) trusts in the common-sense of the visitor.
The York Cat Trail
The original cat statues of York were intended to scare away mice and rats, according to the York Lucky Cat Trail website. The old medieval figures have long been removed, but there have been statues of cats on York buildings going on two centuries.
I learned about the cat trail through a brochure left in my AirBNB and was more interested in walking walls and snickelways than finding cats…but I’m a fan of things that get us to look UP — and I’m sure there are things I missed by not actively cat-hunting.
The cat trail starts at the Shambles at York Glass and leads you on a 22-cat-finding mission. You can get a pdf map by clicking here:
Things to do in York
Here are some things to do in York besides snickeling, walking the walls or finding cats! To make it easier to navigate (in case you don’t want to wade through to read the whole post) here’s a list. You can also bypass all this stuff and go right to some York travel tips if you want.
- York Minster Cathedral
- The Shambles
- Clifford’s Tower and York Castle Museum
- Barley Hall
- Ghost Tours
- Have Tea at Betty’s
- Visit some pubs and visit some Roman ruins in a pub basement
- Go Viking at the Jorvik Viking Centre
- The Railway Museum
- Visit some other churches
- Go to market
- Visit the Treasurer’s House
- Take a Ride on the River
- Visit the York Museum and York Art Gallery
I lied (just a little). Snickelways were not the only thing drawing me to York. York Minster Cathedral (full name “Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St. Peter in York” but locally mostly just called “The Minster”) was one of the big things drawing me to this city.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is vigorously promoted in York, primarily due to the Shambles — the street said to have been an inspiration for Diagon Alley. However, one of my favorite fantasy novels, the stunning Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, begins right here in York.
Magic at the Minster
One of the most remarkable early scenes in the book is set at the Minster. Visiting the cathedral, especially the chapter house, it’s easy to see how the plethora of stone carvings and whimsical heads would have inspired the author. Imagine the stories the stones would tell, if only they could speak. One of Portia Rosenberg’s delightful black and white illustrations from the book features the kings of the choir screen.
No fewer than THREE Harry Potter themed shops grace the Shambles. There is, however, no Friends of Engish Magic shop and, sadly, nary a Learned Society of York Magicians t-shirt to be found. But, relax, Strangeites and Norrellites, there is a board game based on the book around the corner, a very cool raven t-shirt, some signed editions and a small selection of handmade items to be found online.
But enough Strangeite fangirl stuff! Let’s get on with…
Visiting the Minster
Near the minster, I was playing “get-in-the-way” with a couple also trying to take photos. Embarrassing his wife or girlfriend by trying to sound English, he suddenly exclaimed in a very American accent, “THIS is a CATHEDRAL!!! We have churches in Atlanta, but…THIS. It’s a CATHEDRAL!”
While we do have some impressive cathedrals in the states, they are newer cathedrals and don’t match the medieval glory of old cathedrals like York Minster. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.
The present-day Minster, which started construction around 1080 (click here for a timeline on the York Minster website), stands on the remains of an older stone church that stood on the remains of a wooden church that stood on the remains of a Roman fortress.
Getting in: Tickets and Tours
As running a cathedral takes a significant amount of money, visiting the Minster is not free, unless you’re a child under 16. They sell advance online tickets, or you can try to purchase tickets at the door. The York Pass also includes admission to the Minster. Check the calendar in advance — some days the cathedral is reserved for worship services. However, I attended evensong without an entry fee or ticket check.
If you want more information on the cathedral than a self-tour, you can sign up for a walking tour of York that includes the Minster, but I’d recommend signing up for the hidden minster tour that includes the chapter house roof.
At the Minster
The purpose of this post isn’t to offer a walkthrough of the cathedral, but to offer some resources to help you make the most of your trip. How in-depth you get and how much time you allot to spend here, of course, depends on your interests. For me, I’d love to go back and could likely spend days here roaming with my camera.
While I’m glad I packed lightly for this trip, my only regret doing so is that I was traveling with a (good) pocket camera and didn’t have a long lens with me. Way up in the ceiling I could see tiny figures peering out from some nooks and would love to have been able to capture them.
The Chapter House and Hidden Minster Tours
The chapter house which dates from 1260 is, by far, my favorite part of the cathedral. It’s a circular, freestanding space, with a magnificent ceiling and ringed with (why I love it) quite expressive carved heads.
There are animals, everyday people, people pulling faces. Ordinary people like the merchant and his wife peer out from the pillars. One happy man smirks with a surprised lion atop his head. Another is having his eye pecked out by an eagle. One article suggests that the figures represent virtues and vices. I like to think that many of these figures are people that the stone carvers knew and loved (or didn’t.)
When the opportunity to climb up in a cathedral presents itself, I take it. The only way to climb here is to take the hidden Minster tour that includes the chapter house roof (there’s also a new hidden minster tour for the crypt which, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take.)
The roof of the chapter house is a pitched timber roof, so with York Minster’s history of fires, you can be sure they’re always on guard for fire hazard here. The beams here are impressive — it’s hard to take a picture that does it justice due to its scale and low lighting.
The tour also includes a visit to the stonemason’s loft and tracing floor, where the stonemasons would trace their designs to display to clients. The loft also includes a collection of old cutting patterns.
A Visit with Kings: The York Minster King’s Screen
Fifteen expressive stone kings from William the Conqueror to Henry VI decorate the screen separating the choir from the Nave. The screen dates from the fifteenth century. However, the current figure of Henry VI is a replacement, circa 1810, as the original was destroyed and, for a while, replaced with James I.
York Minster is home to the oldest intact stained glass and the largest expanse of stained glass (the recently restored Great East Window) in the UK.
The Great West and East windows are magnificent, but stained glass abounds throughout the cathedral from the five sisters window (not pictured) to the windows surrounding the circular chapter house.
I wish I could have spent more time examining individual windows at the cathedral. However, there are plenty of reading resources about the stained glass of York Minster. The Great East Window which depicts scenes from Genesis through the Apocalypse has inspired the most study.
Even if, like me, you’re not a churchgoer, you might find yourself moved by attending Evensong. After a long journey to York, sitting quietly and listening to the choir in the evening offered a space for quiet contemplation.
Below is a sample of music from York Minster Evensong from Soundcloud (I was a good girl and, as they asked, did not record the service myself while I was there), but the Choir of York Minster offers plenty of their recordings on CD.
There is no charge to enter the minister to attend an evensong service.
The Kings Book of York Heroes and the York Gospels
If you love beautifully bound books or medieval manuscripts, these are a must-see. The undercroft museum at the Minster houses these as well as other artifacts including a carved Viking horn and more.
The Kings Book of York Heroes is a memorial to those fallen in the Great War (WWI). Only the exterior was on display, but it says that 1441 names, biographies, and photos are recorded in this vast tome, beautifully bound in carved oak.
My notes failed here, but I believe this is a photo of the York Gospels, housed at York Minster, a 1000-year-old, leatherbound, illuminated manuscript.
As you might surmise, I am fascinated with this cathedral, and there is more to see including numerous burials and memorials. At some point, I’ll post an album of all the other photos I took there…but there are a bunch of other things to do in York, so let’s move on…
Visit the Shambles
The Shambles is one of the best-preserved medieval streets with overhanging timber-framed buildings…but among some (who shall not be named) its claim to fame is as the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter.
As I mentioned previously, there are now no fewer than THREE Harry Potter themed shops cashing in on that claim to fame on this little street. (And, again, no lLearned Society of York Magicians t-shirt to be found).
You can visit The Shop that Must Not Be Named, The World of Wizardry or The Boy Wizard for the usual assortment of wand holders, robes, and Hogsmeade sweets you can find at any other Harry Potter-themed store with, perhaps, a few more unique items thrown in.
Margaret Clitherow’s House
Amid the pubs, sweet shops, gift shops and Harry Potter, look for some history. The shrine of Margaret Clitherow (sorry about the blurry image) is located here, where she used to live. Martyred for her Catholic faith (harboring priests) she was pressed to death on the Ouse bridge for sheltering priests. You can hear a bit more about the horrible aspects of her story in the ghost tour clip later in this post.
If you want to photograph the Shambles sans-crowds, the best time is early in the morning before the shops open.
Visit Clifford’s Tower/York Castle
Clifford’s Tower now stands solo, the lonely remaining part of what was York Castle. It stands on the site of a former tower which burned (along with many Jewish people who had fled to the tower during an anti-semitic riot) in an 1190 massacre. The present-day tower was built 60 years later.
The tower is worth a visit — you can buy tickets from English Heritage (click here to check opening times) at the door; I didn’t have any difficulty getting in. There were few visitors on a rainy afternoon, and I enjoyed the solitude and views from the top.
Before or after your trip to Clifford’s Tower (be sure to save time…it was closing by the time I tried to visit) take a trip to the York Castle Museum. It’s housed inside an 18th-century prison and includes an exhibit on era prisons.
Visit Barley Hall
Barley Hall is not large and visiting doesn’t take long — visit if you enjoy visiting old timber-framed homes and learning more about how people in York lived in the past.
Take a Ghost Tour
Ghost tours are popular in a couple towns near where I live, but ghost stories here date from no earlier than the Victorian era. York has some old ghosts. Many pubs here seem to vie for the title of “most haunted”, stories of a group of spectral Roman soldiers walking through buried ruins, only their torsos visible above ground…if you believe in ghosts or if this is your thing or you just want some nighttime fun, you might want to take a ghost tour.
While you can register for some tours in advance (like the private ghost tours or the ghost tours by vintage bus), you can just show up for most of the ghost tours in York. You’ll see guys dressed in costume roaming the street, handing out leaflets and promoting their tour…but it’s OK to just show up at the posted ghost tour plaque outside the King’s Arms pub right by the river at the designated time. It’s more fun to tour with a lively group…but it can get crowded, especially on a busy weekend — Here’s a sample (more about Margaret Clitherow):
If you’re into ghosts, you might also be interested in visiting the York Dungeons to get more in-depth on the darker history of York. I didn’t do this one, but it’s there if that’s your kind of thing.
Have Tea at Betty’s
Betty’s has been a tradition since the 1920s. Sipping tea and eating clotted cream and scones (and other, perhaps healthier, tea sandwiches) was a great way to spend a cold, rainy afternoon in York. Unfortunately, now I’ll always want my tea served with a raspberry gin cocktail.
While you can just drop into their shop or tearoom, I found that lines on a busy weekend were around the block. If you make reservations you skip the lines and get to have afternoon tea in a quiet tea room with a pianist and plenty of time to enjoy your treats.
Betty’s original location is at St. Helen’s Square, but they are now also booking afternoon tea at their Harrogate location.
Have a Pint at a Pub
Even for someone like me who isn’t a beer lover, it can be fun to visit old pubs. But, traveling solo, my focus wasn’t really on pubs. In fact, over a busy holiday weekend, it was hard to find a seat at many of them. York is a place I want to return to with my husband — this time focused more on food and drink (his thing).
While The Olde Starre Inn claims the title of the oldest licensed pub in York, with the Old White Swan possibly running a second, I didn’t visit either of them– I’ll put them on my list for next time.
Here are a few of the favorites that I did visit, or at least pass:
The House of the Trembling Madness
The trembling madness is an old name for delirium tremens (the “DTs”), and I knew I had to visit this pub when I heard the name. While I’m not a big fan of animal heads, I am a fan of funky, unusual places and rustic old spots. This fits both.
The House of the Trembling Madness is housed in an old timber-framed building, downstairs is a beer shop, and the seating areas seem like a cozy place to sit and have a pint — but it’s not huge, and there was minimal seating available when I was there.
Next time I go to York, I’ll plan farther in advance so I can stay in one of the two Trembling Madness apartments, which were already booked for part of my time there. The Haunted Chamber looks more old-style charming than haunted to me, and the Old Gallery is decked out with retro 60s/70s kitsch.
The Golden Fleece
The Kings Arms
The Kings Arms is a historic pub situated right by the river Ouse — and one if its claims to fame is being “the pub that floods” when the river rises. It’s also the meetup location for one of York’s ghost tours.
The Snickelway Inn
I’ll admit I like the Snickelway Inn for how they adopted the term “snickelway” even though, to my recollection, it wasn’t really on a snickelway,
This is another pub that claims to be one of the most haunted in York. This post describes one of the entities here as “a creature of great age and intelligence, surrounded by utter evil.” I like to think I was at the next table when they sensed this entity. Sounds like me on a bad day (kidding).
The Guy Fawkes Inn
The Roman Baths Inn
The Roman Baths Inn is included here both as a pub and on my things-to-do list. I wish I had actually eaten at the pub.
The reason I made a stop here was for what’s in the basement. Instead of going up the stairs to the pub, turn right and go down the stairs. Here you’ll find a desk and, possibly like I did, a lengthy private lecture on the history of the Roman baths if you pay the small entry fee.
When you think about Roman baths, you might think about the large tubs in Bath. Here the ruins don’t look that impressive (and I saw a few people peek their head in the door and leave) — until you start thinking about their age, imagining what life might have been like then and that they’re located under a pub.
Go Viking at Jorvik!
Poulsbo, WA, where I live, refers to itself as the “Viking City” due to its Norwegian heritage. York, however, had real Vikings (instead of possible ancestors of Vikings.)
From around 866 – 954, Danish vikings ruled the kingdom of Jorvik, and the Jorvik Viking Centre aims to educate its visitors about that history. If you’re really into Vikings, you can sign up for a private Viking tour (not through Jorvik).
The best part of the exhibit was the latter — there are real Viking artifacts on display at Jorvik — knives, cooking implements, and bones. But to get to them, you first need to go through a slow ride with animatronic Vikings. While the display’s purpose is to show how Vikings lived, and it may be fun for the kids, I wish they’d give the visitors who learn better by artifacts and reading the option to skip it. I’ve been on enough animatronic rides in my life to last me a lifetime.
Chocolate making is part of York history. York’s Chocolate Story celebrates this with chocolate making exhibits and more.
There’s also a Chocolate Festival in the spring, which was actually going on when I was there. Inexplicably, I didn’t go to it (it seemed to be a tented area but still…chocolate.) My sanity is in question.
If you’re really into chocolate, you can also take a York Chocolate Story Tour to learn more about the history of chocolate in York.
The Railway Museum
OK, the above is the NMYR train,..I think in Pickering as I didn’t actually visit the Railway Museum, to my regret.
During my stay, I opted to go outside York for a day and ride the rails on the North York Moors Railway from Pickering to Whitby. Which was something that could have been easier accomplished with this tour.However, I chose to make the journey via buses and trains on almost the most dismal day possible.
I would have been better off going to the museum. There I could have spent a mostly dry afternoon learning about some classic trains.
Visit Some Other Churches
When you think of churches in York, the Minster probably comes to mind, but there are so many other medieval churches in York (and ruins of old churches like St. Mary’s Abbey pictured above). If you have time and are interested in history and architecture, why not visit some?
Britain Express has more information about some of the other churches in York, like St. Michael LeBelfry, which has the claim to fame of being the church where Guy Fawkes was christened.
Go To The Market
Like many old English towns, York has a historic market situated right in the midst of town by the charming Shambles and Parliament street. The York Shambles Market is open every day — rain or shine. 70 food, crafts, flower vendors are here — and I found it was a great place to buy a warm wool hat and open-fingered mitts on a frigid, wet, windy day. I still wear my “York hat” all the time and the matching fingerless mitts have been a winner for cold-weather photography.
Visit the Treasurer’s House
Check their website for opening times — they close for a while for winter conservation, for instance. If you plan your trip right, though, you can go in the basement (more ghost stories — this time Roman centurions), or you can go up onto the roof where the servants used to live.
Take a Ride on the River
I’ve decided I’m a fan of night cruises. I love being on the water, anyway, and I love seeing a place light up at nighttime. Like most cities on a river, there are day and night boat cruises in York. Perhaps it was because it was so cold and rainy when I was there that I didn’t go…but it’s on my to-do list
if when I get back again.
Yorkshire Museum and the York Art Gallery
Some people find it questionable, but I’ve had a fascination with gravestones since I was a kid, even more so after we did gravestone rubbings at camp one year. When I travel to places with old graveyards, I usually try to visit. York’s cemetery is one of only two privately owned Victorian-era cemeteries in the UK but, somehow, I failed to go there. Next time.
However, walking through town, I was surprised to find (but shouldn’t have been) a little pre-Victorian cemetery in a courtyard right in the middle of the city (pictured above).
When to Visit York
Do you like crowds and partying? If so, go there on a bank holiday weekend. No? Go there another time.
A bartender in London commented that it was nice that I was able to visit London over a usually quiet weekend — but when I mentioned that I had been in York, he laughed and explained that everyone heads up to York over a bank holiday weekend.
York was filled with roving groups of drunk young women in party dresses who sometimes seemed to be having difficulty just getting down the stairs, many of the pubs were wall to wall full, and my first night it sounded like fifteen rowdy young men were making woofing noises outside my AirBNB. It was lively.
The day I was set to leave? Quiet, the sun was out…I didn’t want to go.
What to Wear
Just a reminder that York is in northern England. You know, in case you forgot. But you won’t forget that if you don’t pack well.
Summers are mild and temperatures average around 70°F/53°C in July — but it’s cold in winter, and even in early Spring it was cold, windy and rainy.
Dress appropriately — assume it might rain whenever you go and bring some warm layers.
How Much Time Do You Need?
Allotting enough time and not trying to squeeze too much may be common sense, but I always need to remind myself to avoid the temptation. A man working at the Roman Baths Inn advised me that four days was good and lamented that he meets many people who come to York and try to see it in one day.
York isn’t that big, but there’s enough to do to keep me busy and interested for considerably more than four days.
Where to Stay
I preferred not to drive in York as I don’t like driving on the left and the parking seems to be sparse. The good news is that York is very walkable.
Like many English towns, York is on a river: the Ouse. I stayed on the other side of the river on Mickelgate. The plus side to this was that it encouraged me to walk frequently on the wall or across the bridge to get into town – something I loved but wouldn’t have done as often had I stayed close in. Another plus was that my AirBNB was a 5-minute walk from the train station – very convenient when you are coming or leaving toting luggage.
Of course, the downside is the longer walk into town. If you’re really into the Minster, the Dean Court is the closest hotel to the Minster and somewhere I’d be tempted to stay
if when I go back again.
But I think I’d go back to York just to stay in the Trembling Madness apartments (mentioned previously in this post) which were already booked at the time of my trip. You can find plenty of AirBNBs in charming old buildings like the one in which I stayed. What I’m drawn to are funky places, and the Trembling Madness apartments fit the bill. Choosing between the haunted chamber and the old gallery would be a difficult choice to make.
There are lovely (and sometimes haunted) chambers above some of the other pubs as well.