Monday, June 1, 2009


Apart from our last week, which we will spend in Kent with our friends Sylvia and Ray Atkinson, this is our last English city for this trip, and I have to say that York has been a real highlight for us both, tired though we are at this point. The weather has been about as good as it gets here, in the upper 60s and even into the lower 70s. The sites have been fantastic and the food has been (mostly) superb.

We began, as we do, with a hop-on hop-off familiarisation tour on Friday. These tours can be uneven, depending on the guide, but the woman who toured us through York was most knowledgeable.

One of our goals was to walk the walls and so after the motor tour we did that both Friday and again Saturday (sometimes the easiest and quickest way to get somewhere in York is along the walls).

After that, we headed for York minster, one of Europe’s oldest, largest and most grand cathedrals. It is, of course, abustle with tourists, especially now that school is out, but I still managed to find a quiet place for meditation.

Afterwards, while rambling along Fossgate and not even looking for it, I came across a hitherto unfamiliar pen shop, Signatures, run by Mike and Andrea Lewandowski. I asked, and there in the corner were the vintage pens. A lapis Parker Streamline Duofold Senior set caught my eye and within a few moments we agreed on a price and the deal was done. After some further discussion, we decided to meet again Saturday when Mike would show me a few treasures from his own collection of Parker 51s, an area of mutual interest. I also, on Saturday, brought along my own 1948 (last year of production Nassau green 51 set, which he was surprised to see).

The rest of the afternoon was spent rambling the streets, many of which in the heart of the city are pedestrianised, and strolling along the river. We finished up the day with dinner which was pealla, which we happened to come across being cooked at the la Place Verte, a Belgian café located in the old toll house on the Skeldergate Bridge leading out of the city and to our B&B.

Saturday, we began with a tour of the River Ouse, which along with the Foss, is part of the lifeblood of this ancient city which predates even the Romans. From there we headed back to Fossgate, both for pens and for lunch. This weekend there was a racing meet in the city and bookings were hard to come by. Jenny Warren, our host at the B&B, had recommended Melton’s on Thursday and suggested even more enthusiastically JBaker’s. But we could not get a table there in the evening. However, they did have room at midday, so off we went. But first Mike and I played show and tell, and I have to admit to having been blown away by his new old stock Parker 51 sets from the 1950s, among them forest green and the rarest of all colours, plum. Yummy!

Jeff Baker is one of those chefs who, either through training or instinct, knows how to combine flavours that in other hands might not go together. Although we did not know or plan it, he was in the kitchen that day, and we could tell, even before we knew it, by the flair with which our dishes were prepared. At our request, we were guided by the front end manager, Lydia, who clearly knew the food and the cook well. She suggested that we begin with the “grazing plate” that was put together to accommodate Sharon’s avoidance of meat. The soup was a gazpacho with an almond cream base and there was a salmon paste and another dish that slips my mind. Regardless, by then we knew we were on to something. My main course was a skirt steak that was cooked using a technique I’ve heard of but never used that involves soaking the meat in cold water before cooking briefly at very high heat. It came with a duck’s egg that Jeff cooked in a similar manner. At this point, words escape me. Sharon had the cepe mushroon cakes, which were equally superb. Dessert was a chocolate ganache with a beetroot sauce and a star anise and fennel ice. Lydia assured me that all those flavours would work together in perfect harmony with the 70% guanja chocolate and they did! Sharon had the Seaside Special - Lemon curd ice cream with a jelly and biscuits.

From there, we managed to stagger over to tourist information looking for something to do in the evening and happened onto The Black Swan’s weekend folk festival. A quick hop up onto the wall brought us there, we could hear it before seeing it, and smack into the middle of a totally unanticipated scene. The pub was totally given over to the festival with musicians in one downstairs room and singers in another two rooms upstairs as well as a stage in the car park. We sampled the stage and then whilst getting our drinks heard Celtic music in front. For the next two hours we revelled in a real Irish house party (for reference, see the Dublin entry), in which a shifting group of musicians most of whom, but not all, seemed to know one another, just jammed. Most often someone would start a tune, others who either knew or sorted it out by ear, would then join in. There were fiddles, guitars, a banjo player, a couple of bodhrans, a penny flute, a mandolin. About what you would expect. A woman brought out Irish bagpipes but we never heard her. Most of the people in the room were musicians and families, but we were welcome to listen, of course. At one point, one of the fiddlers (there were three or four, depending on who was in the room or not) began a tune with such feeling that the room fell still, everyone intent on each note. When he finished there was quiet applause to mark a signal performance.

After a time, we wandered back out to the main stage and then upstairs to hear the singers. Finally, after 10:00, we made our way home, happy but tired.

We had a nice lie-in Sunday morning and then headed out for our day with the Vikings at the Jorvik Viking Centre. After the Romans, who had founded Eboracum, left in about 400CE, came the Vikings who invaded the settlement around 800. The Jorvik Centre visit begins with a trolley ride, not unlike Disney’s Small World, that takes you through time and introduces the work of archaeologists in York. From there you go through a more conventional museum setting and exhibits on York. Much of what is on display highlights the work of the archaeologists and we found the experience of sufficient interest to want to wander over to their Dig, an archeological museum that offers simulated digs and some innovative displays on the work done by the York Archeological Trust which owns and operates the Centre. In conversation, we were interested to learn that most of the employees of the Centre are students of archeology at York University, including the lovely young woman who made my cappuchino, not to mention guides at the centre and the dig. It is, as they claim it to be, a must see.

After that we agreed that we were museumed-out and that the day was too lovely, anyways, to spend indoors. We had a terrible lunch (think of English food as it used to be), and then a bit of a wander through the railway station and gardens, before heading off to an early dinner.

If JBaker’s offered the best meal we have had in England (and in a very long while), the Blue Bicycle gave us one of our top four or five during this journey. We started by sharing the curry cured salmon, a most innovative and delicious treatment of salmon. I had the baked cod, not a fish I usually go for, but we are on the North Sea, right? In truth, what also drew me to the dish was the Yorkshire ham lasagne, which was luscious. Sharon’s main course was the skate, which resembles steelhead trout. Once again, the food was imaginative, using the best provisions one could ask for, and fine preparation. Sharon was not up for dessert, but I was, and had the pistachio and olive oil cake with strawberries and a raspberry and pink peppercorn sorbet. It came close to being the highlight of the meal.

Part of the restaurant’s backstory is that, located along the River Foss, its undercroft (read basement) was at one point used as one of York’s most noted brothels. The lower rooms are used today as part of the restaurant but the alcoves, where now there are dining booths, are decorated with images of the women who “may have” been employed there. It was a fun end to the day to explore down there.

Our first look at the walls
The seemingly ubiquitous statues of 'defenders' who must have fooled no one?
One of the many gates to the city
The city's magnificent railway station from the walls
The minster. The walk along the walls provided another suerb overview (literally) of the city.

This one is for webmaster Gilly

More walls . . .

The minster, which was hard to capture even with a wide angle lens, from the street

The interior
Although not as elaborate or ornate as some of the later cathedrals in the south of England, the wealth and power of York cathedral is reflected in the carvings and shrines in the walls
A detail from the East End window, which is curently undergoing massive restoration

For (I assume) security reasons,we couyld not photograph in the undercroft, but I managed a quick shot into it from above.This would have to be the city's most famous street, The Shambles, one of my few clear recollections of the city from our first visit 37 years(!) ago

The unanticipated pen shop: Signatures. Definitely worth a visit when in York.

Mike, me and the lapis.Geese revel in this city. They are everywhere
One of the city's three main bridges

The merchant Adventurers Guild Hall, dating back to the mid 14th century and still owned, operated and maintained by them

This advertising figure of Napoleon was used to sell snuff.

A devil, perched

More walls.
The musicians in the front room of the Black Swan during the weekend folk festival
Singers outdoors
A chilling moment, this plaque commemorates the 1190 suicide of the city's Jews, who chose to take their own lives in Clifford's Tower rather than to face a mob demanding that they renounce their faith.

On Sunday, we visited the Vikings, note the equipment that carried us through the recreated village to start the visit. It may seem hokey, but led on to a thoroughly informative series of galleries.

From there we went to the Dig, which presented the work and methodologies of archaeologists. All the personnel were informed and effective.

Showcases used Potter's ghost figures to present the work and illustrate peoples' lives
We finished Sunday with a ramble through the Victorian train station, built in two parts in the 1840s and 1870s

And after dinner, a final ramble through the streets to our B&B

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