Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 10, 2009

York: Where the Yew Trees Grow


Some destinations are known for their intense sense of place. While this quality is indeed pre-eminent in York, it is however a sense of presence that permeates this 2000-year old English city. Implicit in it is a kind of collective equanimity that has resulted from centuries of forbearance — and experience.

Strategically located in the heartland of England, York is literally and figuratively a multi-layered city; and it is these layers of human civilization that you encounter in this very traveller-friendly city. York is British and European.

There is considerable evidence of prehistoric (Mesolithic) people living in the area; in 2001 archaeologists discovered a hill fort dating back to 400BCE on the moors of North York. York’s great catalytic moment came in 71 AD when the Romans established one of the two capitals in Roman Britain here at the confluence of the Ouse and Foss. But first the legendary Roman Ninth Legion (established by Julius Caesar) had to subdue the The Brigantes, the Celtic tribe that controlled much of the area. For the next 30 years the Romans also struggled to tame the “wild barbarians” from the north. However, having been present on Pub night (Friday night) in York, it was clear to me that a free and easy spirit in York is still very much part of the city’s personality.


As I have suggested above, an historical timeline for York reads like a short history of Europe, and the guest list is daunting:

Hadrian (the great wall-builder); Emperor Septimus Severus (born southeast of Carthage in what today is Tunisia; died in York); Constantine I (he also died here) and his son Constantine the Great (proclaimed “Augustus” here in 306); Edwin I (crowned King of the Angles and Northumbria in 616); William the Conqueror (he was not kind to York); King Richard I (Cœur de Lion); King John (of Magna Carta fame); the (canonized) William Fitzherbert, twice Archbishop of York; King Athelstan (he claimed the title “King of All Britain”); Eric Bloodaxe (the last Viking king); the (invading) Norwegian King Harold; King Swein of Denmark (who sailed to England with a huge fleet); Prior Richard (of Fountains Abbey … more on that shortly); Henry II (a frequent visitor); Edward I (and his entire parliament); Edward II (who fought the Battle of Boroughbridge against rebel leader Robert de Clifford); Edward III (who married the lovely Philippa of Haingault in the Minster); a grim reaper in guise of the Black Death; Henry V and his Queen (Catherine of Valois, daughter of the King of France); Henry VI and Edward IV (principal adversaries in the War of the Roses); Henry VII and Elizabeth of York (don’t miss the red and white roses in the great Rose Window of the Minster); Henry VIII (House of Tudor); the body of James IV of Scotland (on its way to London); Robert Aske (he led the uprising against Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monastery); Guy Fawkes (born in York, hanged, drawn and quartered at age 35 in Westminster); Margaret Clitheroe, “the Pearl of York” (she hid Catholic priests in her home and was eventually canonized); King James I (son of Mary, Queen of Scots); Charles I (and his entire court, shortly before his big break with Parliament); Prince Rupert (soldier, inventor and amateur artist; as well as Count Palatine of the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria); Lord Fairfax (he fought for the Protestant cause in the Netherlands, and marched with King Charles I commanding a troop of Yorkshire dragoons); Oliver Cromwell (Republican and “Lord Protector” of England); Dick Turpin (horse thief); the Marquis of Rockingham (the only British prime minister to be buried in the Minster); George Hudson (the great railway builder, and Lord Mayor three times); Luftwaffe bombs (in part as a retaliatory move for the bombing of Dresden); the Duke of Kent (who married Miss Katherine Worsley at the Minster, the first royal marriage there since Edward and Philippa); a disastrous fire in the Minster (started by lightening); and the Rowntree Company (of cocoa and chocolate fame).

And that’s just a partial list.

As you can see from the above list of individuals, York has been a witness to significant historical time periods including: Roman; Anglo-Saxon; Viking; Norman; later Middle Ages; Elizabethan times; the Protestant Reformation; and the Industrial Revolution — to mention some of the principal ones.


Let me return briefly to Emperor Constantine (the Great). Constantine’s big statement was “In hoc signo vinces” (In this sign shalt thou conquer). He also said, “Under God’s watch, we shall conquer and never fall!”

Now that might sound a wee bit over the top, but he was, after all, Roman and emperor. And even though there is some irony in his second statement — the Romanization of this part of Britannia was not a forever and ever thing — what the Romans achieved here may well have been the template for succeeding “empires.” And while the people of York today are well aware of what great events lie within their reach or just beneath the surface of their city, they also have learned their historical lessons. This is a city with of impressive civic confidence, but not imperial arrogance. Furthermore, this is a fun town. And if your sense of fun includes the rush of being surrounded by momentous human history, York is your destination of choice.

And in 2007 it was chosen European Tourism City of the Year!

The Yew in York

What’s in a name? The Celts called it Eborakon, which most sources seem to suggest means “the place of yew trees.” To the Anglo-Saxons it was Eoforwic, which meant “wild boar town” — it was an etymological misunderstanding. This process is known as folk etymology by which a word changes or is reshaped because the people just don’t get it, and prefer to use the same word more or less but have it refer to something within their experience. The Romans subsequently called it Eboracum. The Vikings also resorted to folk etymology and renamed it Jórvík which was Norse for “horse bay.” Go figure. Somewhere around 1000 AD it became known as York.

I’m rather fond of tree metaphors, and it seems to me that the yew is quite appropriate in this case. To the ancient Celts, the yew was a sacred tree of great importance. This may be, in part, because the tree is toxic! (In his commentaries, Julius Caesar makes reference to Catuvolcus, chief of the Eburones, who poisoned himself with yew because he could not bring himself to submit to Rome.)

But the yew is also a great tree in another sense, as you will come to understand when you visit Fountains Abbey not far from York. The yew is one of the longest-living trees known to humans and can have a trunk diameter as much as four metres. The legendary European yew trees, a special area of study in itself, are of prodigious size and often of a convoluted and twisted shape, much like the history of York. And the yew in Britain was the wood of choice for the longbow, that human invention that has been used for thousands of years in cultures around the world. The great yews of Britain were sacred sites in themselves, and when Christian churches came along, they often were built next to them borrowing on their already sacred appeal.

Images and imagery of York and vicinity


To watch a slideshow of York, click here.

York favourites

For complete information on all there is to do in York and surrounding area, consult the Official York Tourism site below. However, here were some of my favourites.

(a) York Minster

A minster is a large and important church, often a cathedral. The word is derived from Old English, Latin, and Greek meaning monastery as there was often one attached. As the second-largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, York Minister is stunning in its beauty, its architecture, and its artistry. When you see it from a distance, it is as if it is floating (like a great ship of state) above the city. It is one of those magnificent buildings that manages to be both rooted in historical reality and ethereal. What is particularly amazing is the human scale that this very grand, monumental “parish church” manages to maintain. The Minster is also the place where you will get a sense of the layers of history in York, especially in the crypt.

(b) The Jorvik Viking Centre

The people of York take their archaeology seriously even though they do not take themselves too seriously. The Jorvik Viking Centre manages to be both. It is very entertaining but also will rekindle your interest in all things Viking. And by the way, if there is a theatrical agent out there looking for a new comedy duo, I may have found them. They are the Viking Lads Valgard and Bork.  At the Centre they will help you experience a typical day in York 975 AD.

headphonesymbol50You can hear me chatting with them by clicking here.

(c) The National Railway Museum

Although I like trains, I would not call myself a “train buff”. However, I do appreciate the history, greenness, and design of trains. (See No More Choo Choo Mr. Nice Guy.) This museum is also an historical treasure.

headphonesymbol50Be sure to listen to my chat with the Brothers Jones and the role of imagination (throughout history and in contemporary times) in the world of trains.

(d) The York Castle Museum

Be sure to set aside lots of time (at least half a day) for this multifaceted museum. I especially recommend the Kirkgate Victorian Street, one of the best experiential social history exhibits I have ever seen.

(e) The Treasurer’s House

Just behind York Minster, the Treasurer’s House was built in 1419 and today has a wonderful collection of medieval furnishings as well as 17th and 18th-century furniture.

(f) The medieval walls of York

Walking the walls of York may actually be the first thing you should do in order to get a proper sense of the place.

(g) St. Mary’s Church

This small church has wonderful contemporary art exhibits that also contribute a profound sense of presence to York.

York as a day tripper’s hub

York is a wonderful self-catering holiday destination; and as a point of departure for exploring Yorkshire, it is someplace you will enjoy coming home to.

The day trip possibilities from York are many, but you must not miss the following:

(a) Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden

Simply serene, this is a great destination-within-a-destination in terms of the history, the gardens, and the natural beauty. Come prepared to meander quietly throughout the extensive grounds.

(b) Castle Howard

Hands up all those who read the book and watched the award-winning series Brideshead Revisited. Now hands up all those who read it or saw it twice … or more. Well, Castle Howard is where the series was filmed. As you stroll throughout the extensive grounds, think of Sebastien, Charles, Julia, and all the other members and hangers-on of the Flyte family. (Hang in there fans; the 2008 feature length film is coming!)

Additional York resources

(a) The Official York Tourism website

(b) York History

(c) The York Pass

(d) The York Pub guide


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