13-15 Nov: York and Durham, England

We traveled back into England to go to York. More photos on the York and Durham page.


Catching our train out of Edinburgh was straightforward, and we settled into our seats to watch the east coast of Great Britain go by. It wasn't difficult to just sit there and stare at the passing scenery.

The streets of York were crowded on Saturday

The streets of York were crowded on Saturday

We dropped our luggage off at the hostel and went off to explore a bit. The streets were crazy busy, making it hard to make our way through, but we managed. When we arrived at the tourist information center, there was a guy dressed up in medieval garb handing out fliers for something or other. Inside, there was a guy dressed up as a Viking (for a while York was occupied by Vikings). We grabbed the maps we wanted and went on our way.

The first stop was the Castle Museum, which was huge. The museum specializes in the everyday life of people in various ages, whether it be the Victorian era or the 1960's. They also have exhibits covering dollhouses, kitchens, fashions, and one on the site of an 18th century prison.

Our next stop was the Fairfax House, which is similar to the Georgian House in Edinburgh we had visited the day before. After that, it was off to find dinner (great fish & chips from a small store) and dessert (crêpes from a cart) and head back to the hostel. When we got there, the place was hopping with young adults, it being a Saturday night. Since the hostel had laundry facilities, we took the opportunity to get everything washed, then on the way back up found a bunch of girls curling their hair in the hallway. Guess their night was just starting.


Apparently everyone's night did start early, because we even heard people chatting in the halls at 4:30am. At breakfast (which only goes until 9am) the dining area was crowded, to the tune of some people having to wait for a seat. We had timed things just right, because we had no problems finding a place to sit, then we headed out to tour the city a bit.

We did a little walking around before the city's guided tour started, and ended up doing a lot of the paths our guide did at first. She did go into more detail than we had seen, and then took us further around the city. When 11am came during our walk, we paused for a minute of silence (the Sunday nearest Armistice Day is also a rememberance day) then continued our tour, which took us out to the York Minster, down the Shambles (a very narrow street which used to be used by meat vendors), and other places we would touch later. We even went through some snickelways, small passages between buildings (in Edinburgh they were called closes; the closest counterpart we would have are alleys).

After the tour we were ready for a bite to eat (the weather hadn't started out too bad, but it became quite cold as the tour went on), and at a the café next to St. William's College, close to the Minster. After that it was back to where we started the morning to take a look at the Yorkshire Museum.

Basement of the Yorkshire Museum showing ruins of St. Mary's Abbey

Basement of the Yorkshire Museum showing ruins of St. Mary's Abbey

The Yorkshire Museum was closed for rennovations but just re-opened this summer. They seem to have added a lot of interactive exhibits, as well as a huge area where kids can learn about this history of York. The most interesting part is in the basement, where you can see part of the original walls and columns of St. Mary's Abbey rising out of the floor. You can see more of the Abbey outside the window, and can even walk right up to those walls.

After the museum we headed to Bootham Bar (in York the name "bar" means gate, and things named "gate" are streets) to walk on the town walls. These are very walkable, and offer great views. In some parts of the city where new arches were put into the wall to accomodate traffic, the wall path rises and falls as it goes over each arch.

One thing we noticed was the streets were nearly deserted, it being a Sunday afternoon with many of the stores closed. We therefore found it easier to tkae our time navigating the streets, and made it to the Holy Trinity Church, which is quite small, especially sitting in the shadow of the York Minster. The inside was had enclosed booths with the pews around the booth walls, rather than the traditional rows of pews.

York Minster

York Minster

The next item to see I've hinted at before, the York Minster. To say the building is huge is an understatement. It's over 540 feet long and you can pack 4,000 worshipers during special services. In addition to the normal layout of a Gothic church, there's an octagonal addition called the Chapter House, the meeting place of the governing body of the Minster. We also wandered through the Minster undercroft, which did a great job of showing how the original Roman fortress, the older, smaller Norman church, and the current Minster all relate to each other in location as well as function.

After we finished with the undercroft, we stayed to observe the night's Choral Evensong, the evening service of the Anglican church. People were seated all around the choir, and as you can imagine the choir was very good. Interestingly enough, it consisted of adult men and young girls. We were wondering how many choir members there are in total, since there are four services every day.

When we got back to the hostel after dinner, the place was dead quiet, the complete opposite of the night before. It seemed people had checked out and gone back to their homes and schools.


We guessed that breakfast would be much quieter since there seemed to be many fewer people in the hostel, but we weren't prepared to see only 4 or 5 other people wandering in and out, unless people had eaten really early (but looking at the food supply and cleanliness of things, that most likely wasn't the case). Afterwards we headed to the train station to go up to Durham for the morning. On arrival, we wandered around the town a bit (including looking around at the indoor market), then made it up to the castle and cathedral, both of which are on a hill in a natural hairpin turn of the River Wear (it used to be used as a natural moat).

Since there wouldn't be tours until the afternoon, we didn't have a chance to look inside the castle, but we did take a glance in the courtyard. We could see that many sections were added to the original castle, and each bore the coat of arms of the king who had that section built. We then headed over to Durham Cathedral, which while not quite as large as the York Minster, was still very big. We also went down into the treasury in the crypt, which contained many relics including a large collection of seals from clergy and royalty.

Hard to make out but the dark arc is the River Wear wrapping around the hill

Hard to make out but the dark arc is the River Wear wrapping around the hill

I chose to also go up to the top of the bell tower (over 200 feet, all with stairs) and was rewarded with great views of Durham, although the sun was quite low so it was hard to see well in the direction where the River Wear wraps around the main part of the city.

After we took the train back to York we went to the National Railway Museum, which was not far from the train station. One would expect a museum housing many actual train engines and cars to be large, but we didn't expect the sheer size of the exhibits. One large barn held a few dozen engines and cars, showing examples of not only first but also second and third class accomodations, and a large section was dedicated to royal trains. It seemed intresting that just a few days earlier we were on the royal yacht which showed lots of photos of the Queen with the yacht, but at this museum you only saw the Queen with trains. Odd, but true.

Demonstration of the turntable at the National Railway Museum

Demonstration of the turntable at the National Railway Museum

The other large barn held some interesting artifacts, including a Japanese bullet train, a Pullman car, and a working steam engine that had the side cut away so you could see how it works. But the centerpiece (literally) of the second barn was the turntable, which is still operational. In fact, you can see that the turntable was how most of the trains in that exhibit were put into place.

We were bushed, so we dropped by a grocery store to get dinners to heat up. Took them back to the hostel and had a quiet night.