York: Tradition Running Amuck


The winter of discontent? Try July in York.

“So this is where that miserable old hunchback seduced the widow over her murdered husband’s coffin?” I mused into the rainy morning.


“Huh?”  Andy muttered between her clattering teeth.


“I said, ‘So this is where—‘”


“I heard what you said,” she snapped, “but tell me said you said.”


Don’t judge my wife too harshly—the July morn had peaked at around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the prattles of rain kept us hunkered under ledges and within bus stops, and not many folks not having sat through semesters of Shakespeare classes for a literature degree would be so interested in seeing York—quaint old seat of quaint old Yorkshire—for the historic footnote that Richard III, the miserable hunchback of Shakespeare’s history, that infamous “son of York” who dragged a short-lived summer into yet another “winter of discontent,” had a castle or something somewhere around here.

Cruising on down that chilly river


“I sure don’t see any sort of summer about this place,” Andy rejoined from beneath her layers of scarves and raincoats, “so Richey can’t be that great.”


“Well, that’s where you’re wrong,” I put on my best professor tone, “because Richey 3 quickly became tradition: he’s one of the most-loved villains in all—”


That was enough for a groan and to get her back moving along the wind-swept, rain-drizzled streets of York.


The garden and the minster — and surely a tea or two in there somewhere…

For most, a visit to York is a visit to the soul of England’s lauded tradition.  For some, a visit here might require brushing up on the old wars between the houses of York and Lancaster – or however you spell that.  Fortunately for us, there’s no shortage of performances and plays and shows or something around that will probably explain them.  They practically stew out of the theaters and into the streets.  It’s hard not to see one.  Not for me, though—I was on a one-day mission with a handful of family more interested in not catching pneumonia than in reviewing Renaissance literature about Medieval warriors.


Fortunately for them, York has more than a few corner pubs and coffee shops to warm up in.


It seems to specialize in that sort of thing, really.


For this ancient city has somehow missed the Industrial Revolution that turned nearby Leeds into a busting, polluting metropolis, and jumped straight to the glorification of the small-time-micro-craft brewery and British pub—and its first cousin the designer coffee shop.


York holds no visible claim to industry, but bristles with more bars than inhabitants—at least as far as we could see in our July discontent.


The stonework has certainly withstood the centuries.

It’s a university town and a tourist town and an artist’s town and a lit-major’s town.  It’s got a castle tower dating back nearly a thousand years, ruins of an abbey done in by Henry VIII’s Dissolutioning ways that sought to crack the spine of the Catholic power in the land, a huge cathedral, an Old Town, a spot where Constantine was crowned emperor, and even a site of massacres of 150 Jews—in a Maccabean sort of self-slaughter while locked inside that ancient tower surrounded by rioting masses—and about a hundred and fifty thousand corner pubs.


Did I mention those already?


Half the fun of an English pub, by the way, is in the name.  Try out some of these good old titles: The Boar’s Head, The Stag’s Head, The Hind, Drysalters, The Ship.  The names ring true for hundreds of years, brew recipes passed down through generations of bearded, pot-bellied, red-faced tavern-keepers every bit as jolly as Chaucer’s Host of the Canterbury—.


But there I go with literary detours again.  Try a few more pub-names to get us back on track: The Gale and the Gull, the Fisherman’s Second Wife, Zizza’s Italian Pizzeria, Humpit Hummus and Pita, Ohm Indian Cuisine – the names speak of the great British traditions and the centuries of pub-going goodness that sets the island apart from all others.  Try a few more titles on for size: The Slug and Lettuce, the Armitage, The York Public Library, The Yorkshire Regency Tourism Board.  Admittedly, several of these illustrious establishments had too many fluorescent lights and cubicles for my taste, and some did seem a bit reluctant to serve me an ale, but who am I to argue with tradition?

Do Yorkers wait till five to hit the pubs?


If nothing else, each proved a warm spot to recover from a frigid July afternoon.


Back outside, we tried a hike around the Minster premises – a green-clad stone wall perched atop an embankment overlooking the vasty fields of urbanity below.  It nearly made me wish for a bow and some arrows and some charging cavaliers to make a little sport of.  A parapet and an offended target—now that’s what the glory days of York were all about.  An axe to wield and a kingdom for a horse and all that sort of glory.  Nowadays, offended Brits seem more keen to float ironic passive-aggressive comments than to don a suit of sable armor and come flying at a foe mounted atop a snorting stallion and waving a spiked war-club overhead.


Perhaps in this respect York has indeed lost a little something through the centuries.


One thing York hasn’t lost: the ancient tower.

But it sure hasn’t lost its taste for a good, old-fashioned, home-brewed cup of afternoon tea.


“You’ve got to go to Betty’s,” Andy’s sister told us.  “Betty’s is the big place for a British tea.”


So we tracked it down and dragged our shivering selves inside.  Well, we would have, if it weren’t for the ponderous line out the door waiting to be seated.  Afternoon tea, apparently, is quite the tradition, too.  Invented by some sort of spinster princess or another with too much time on her hands and too few excuses for sipping tea to while away her petty afternoons, afternoon tea was just the sort of “new tradition” that the rest of the island keen to join.  Previous traditions hit the manure pile: out with polishing the unabridged dictionary and shearing the cousin’s sheep and founding another brewery, there’s another tea to be sipped!  Yes, the rest of Britain proved in no wise reluctant to scrap their post-lunch plans and jump once more into the tea kettle frenzy.


Afternoon tea — yeah, that’s a real thing at Betty’s.

This was certainly apparent as we stepped into Betty’s and found the place full of Chinese.  Well, to be fair, some might have been Chinese-English.  Some may have been Taiwanese.  Some may even have been Taiwanese exchange students studying in Britain and hosting their families on a trip to visit them and Instagramming the tea and macaroons while they did so.  Yes, there was some diversity.  There was a school-trip there, too, also from Asia.  And then the table of Romanians.


The only locals were the ones serving the tea.


I don’t know exactly what I was expecting – pipes and three-piece suits for the men and hoop gowns with fascinator hats for the ladies?  Pinkies in the air and a hearty chorus of “splendid!” and giggles after every anecdote?  Black and white and Victorian-era everywhere?


I guess so.  Is that too much to ask, Betty?


The tea was exotic and overpriced—exactly what I would have expected—and accompanied by a range of fancy-pants desserts enjoyed by running-nosed foreigners in North Face hiking apparel and snapping selfies with the tea while live music played from the man in a fancy suit and bow-tie at the baby grand piano.


Go to Betty’s for a taste of Britain’s traditions.


Playing the door game in York’s Old Town.

Other York attractions include more stonework and castles, a “splendid!” little park next to the abbey’s ruins, and a bird show right there in the park.  We paused a few moments to see some good old British falconry on display.  Today’s generation has expanded that ancient pastime to include not merely falcons, but also owls.  That’s probably due to the undue influence of Harry Potter—that time-honored piece of traditional British Literature—on the newest generation of islanders.


Other than that, I deem the park was a pleasant spot to take a photo or two.


So yes, there was the pizza, and there was the tea, and there was walking throughout the town to catch the “feel” of it.  Andy and her sister got into taking pictures of each other in front of doors.  I guess it’s some sort of game I don’t get.  I took to trying to calculate roughly what percentage of the city’s economy is tied up in the coffee shop and corner pub industry.  That little project took hours of note-taking and ciphering through logarithms, but with plenty of doors around to keep the girls busy, I had the time.


Roughly 94 percent, I’d say.

You’ll find a pub or two on this little alley.


No, we didn’t make it to the Richard III show, or the dungeon-based live-action history play, or the Viking history play, or any other play for that matter.  We kept ourselves busy hiking up and down the winding twists and turns and staying warm with tea and more walking.


And taking pictures in front of doors and calculating the percentage of the economy based on pubs.


York is a place with plenty to keep you busy—even a hunch-backed old villain to contemplate while you watch actors re-create Viking pillages and sip silver-laden drop of tea with the tourists.  It’s a place that would actually make a nice spot to visit—provided that the winter of our discontent ever really would give way to a glorious sort of summer.


Thumbs up for the (chilly) trek through old York


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