The echoes of the past amplify the pleasures of modern York

Clay Kallam

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Castle Howard shows how much power York once wielded(Maggi Brown)

“The shoes of our predecessors are too big for our feet.”

So said the Mayor and Council of York in 1661 upon receiving Sir Thomas Widdington’s Analecta Eboracensia, a collection of historical notes that looked back on the long history of old York, a city 220 miles north of London.

The rejection notice, according to "The History of York," reflected the sad fact that the city, founded by the Romans and once the most powerful in the north of England, had faded from its former prestige into a kind of genteel irrelevance, at least when it came to turning the wheels of power. Today, it is a city of some 200,000, more noted as a tourist destination than the home of the largest cathedral – or minster – in all of England, or the seat of a duke who had a hand in the destiny of the Plantagenet dynasty.

But then again, even though neighboring Leeds, now a much larger city than York, has upgraded its image considerably in recent years, it lacks the historical charm and intimacy of 21st century York, according to various sources, which combines deep English roots and the pleasures of modern amenities.

Let’s begin with The Starr Inn The City, nestled between Lendal Bridge (built in 1853) and the River Ouse (pronounced “ooze,” in case you were wondering), home to a Michelin chef who delivered an absolutely superb meal to riverside tables on a long summer night. (York, by the way, is further north than Calgary.)

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Just one of many delicious options at The Star Inn The City(Maggi Brown)

But why York? Maggi’s one-time teaching partner at Dorris-Eaton School in San Ramon, who grew up near York and has since moved back, invited us to visit, and the chance to see something other than London with a local guide was an irresistible opportunity. She and her husband insisted on treating us at The Starr Inn The City (twist my arm), but that was only one of the highlights.

Our first stop was Castle Howard, familiar to viewers of “Brideshead Revisited,” and once the seat of the Duke of Norfolk, who married two female relatives to Henry VIII. That, however, was pretty much the last gasp of the political influence of York, according to most sources, though the palatial estate shows precisely how big those old shoes of York actually were.

The art-filled rooms and glorious architecture reflect the power and, yes, glory that once accrued to York, and a 2021 tour reveals pianos from 1700, paintings by Gainsborough and Poussin, and a way of life that the modern world is inexorably grinding away – unless, of course, you are Jeff Bezos or a Russian oligarch.

Our visit came on a gorgeous English day, with puffy clouds floating through a wind-washed blue sky, which served as a perfect setting for the lush green glory of rustic England. The fields and copses of trees frame landscapes that beg to become 19th century oil paintings, and paths lead to a walled garden teeming with blooming flowers and enormous bumblebees.

Even deeper in York’s history is its minster, which was begun by Archbishop Walter de Gray in 1215, according to the information supplied by the minster. De Gray’s motivation was to outshine Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury, as the north and south were battling for domination of the emerging English state. And though London’s preeminence seems preordained now, York had been the counterweight to what is now the capital since the first Romans landed.

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York Minster is full of medieval glories(Maggi Brown)

For a long time, though, it was the Viking capital of Northumbria, an era captured in surprisingly realistic style by the Jorvik Viking Centre – “Jorvik” was the second name for the city, which was descended from “Eboracum,” the Roman designation. The Viking Centre shows off recently discovered artifacts that were found when excavations began for a new downtown development, and does so with a surprisingly effective Disney-like ride and a museum exhibit that combines the virtues of the usual exhibits with an admirable economy.

Next came the Normans, who built a massive fort almost immediately after the Battle of Hastings, followed quickly by an even more massive church, or minster. York’s minster is really more impressive than Westminster Abbey. It is taller, bigger and really, more beautiful – though tourists admittedly go to these large churches more out of duty than pleasure. What they really want to do is eat, shop, drink and enjoy themselves, and York is a winner in all those categories.

And York offers all of these pleasures, including the minster and various forts – in a small area. We would walk from the minster through the streets, stopping at 400-year-old pubs, stepping into 21st century stores and sipping the local gin without the need to ride the tube, take a taxi or hike long distances.

So even though those old shoes, which walked through much of English history with a heavy tread, no longer fit, York is definitely worth a stop on anyone’s visit to the United Kingdom. Powerful dukes and English queens were great in their time, but a riverside gin and tonic sipped while enjoying perfectly cooked lamb – after a day strolling a pedestrian-friendly, oh-so-charming downtown – are a much more pleasurable 2022 alternative.

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to claykallam@gmail.com.

Walnut Creek, CA
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