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With its narrow cobblestone streets and pre-1066 churches, York is known as “the most haunted city in the world”—thronged with the ghosts of Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans, the last of whom maintained the city as a military stronghold and built Yorkminster Cathedral. With so much ambiance and so much violence, York remains one of England’s most popular destinations. Tourists come to walk the city walls, tour the Minster, take tea in one of the many cafes, or drink away the evening at a riverside pub. It may be haunted by the dead, but York is still as alive as ever.
York’s streets are winding, short, rarely labeled, and prone to name changes. Fortunately, most attractions lie within the city walls, and the towers of the Minster, visible from nearly everywhere, provide easy orientation. The River Ouse (rhymes with “muse”) cuts through the city, curving west to south. The city center lies between the Ouse and the Minster. Coney Street, Parliament Street, and Stonegate are the main thoroughfares. The Shambles, York’s quasi-medieval shopping district, lies between Parliament St. and Colliergate.
York still holds on to its ancient Roman roots. The best introduction to York is a walk along its medieval walls, especially the northeast section and behind the 13th-century Gothic cathedral, York Minster.
With so much to see, even the most determined sightseer probably can’t see it all, but we challenge you to try! There are some sights though that just can’t be missed. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Historically, England has been derided for its awful fare. But do not fear the bland, boiled, fried, and gravy-laden traditional nosh; Britain’s cuisine might leave something to be desired, but food in Britain can be excellent. All visitors to Britain should try the famed, cholesterol-filled full English breakfast, which generally includes fried eggs, bacon, baked beans, sautéed mushrooms, grilled tomato, and black pudding (sausage made with pork blood), smothered in HP sauce (a vinegar base mixed with fruit and spices). The full brekky is served in B&Bs, pubs, and cafes across the country. Toast smothered in jam or Marmite (the most acquired of tastes—a salty, brown spread made from yeast) is a breakfast staple. The best dishes for lunch or dinner are roasts—beef, lamb, and Wiltshire hams—and Yorkshire pudding, a type of popover drizzled with meat juices. Bangers and mash and bubble and squeak, despite their intriguing names, are simply sausages and potatoes and cabbage and potatoes, respectively. Vegetables, often boiled into a flavorless mush, are typically the weakest part of a meal. Beware the British salad, which is often just a plate of lettuce and sweetened mayonnaise called “salad cream.” Be careful, too, of sandwiches with hidden mayonnaise (frequently called “club sauce”) and butter. Brits make their desserts(“puddings” or “afters”) exceedingly sweet and gloopy. Sponges, trifles, tarts, and the unfortunately named spotted dick (spongy currant cake) will satiate the sweetest tooth.
Ethnic cuisine has rapidly spread from the cities to the smallest of towns, so that most any village with a pub (and you’d be hard-pressed to find one without) will have an Indian takeaway, an Asian noodle shop, or a late-night shawarma stand to feed stumbling patrons late into the night. Vegetarianism and organic foods are also popular in Britain. Even the most traditional pubs and local markets, not to mention the trendy cafe-bars, offer at least one meatless option.
Pub grub is fast, filling, and a fine option for budget travelers. Try savory pies like Cornish pasties (PASS-tees), shepherd’s pie, and steak and kidney pie. For those on a serious budget, the ploughman’s lunch (bread, cheese, and pickles) is a staple in country pubs and can be divine. The local “chippy,” or chip shop, sells deep-fried fish and chips dripping with grease, salt, and vinegar in a paper cone. Seek out outdoor markets for fresh bread and dairy—try Stilton cheese with baps (bread rolls). Chain stores Boots, Benjys, Marks & Spencer, and Pret A Manger sell an impressive array of ready-made sandwiches. Crisps, or potato chips, come in astonishing variety, with flavors like prawn cocktail. Try Chinese, Turkish, Lebanese, and especially Indian cuisines—Britain offers some of the best tandoori and curry outside India. Recently hailed as “a true British national dish” by Britain’s foreign secretary, chicken tikka masala was found in a survey by the Food Intelligence Service to be the most popular plate in Britain.
British “tea” refers to both a drink and a social custom. The ritual refreshment, accompanying almost every meal, is served strong with milk. The standard tea, colloquially known as a cuppa,is PG Tips or Tetley. More refined cups specify particular blends such as Earl Grey and Darjeeling. Afternoon high tea includes cooked meats, salad, sandwiches, and pastries. Cream tea, a specialty of Cornwall and Devon, includes toast, shortbread, crumpets, scones, and jam, accompanied by clotted cream (a cross between whipped cream and butter). The summer teatime potion Pimm’s is a sangria-esque punch of fruit juices and gin (the recipe is a well-guarded secret). On the softer side, super-sweet fizzy drinks Lilt and Tango as well as the popular juice Ribena keep whistles wet.
Sir William Harcourt believed that English history was made in pubs as much as in the Houses of Parliament. Brits rapidly develop loyalty for neighborhood establishments, which in turn tend to cater to their regulars and develop a particular character. Pubs are everywhere—even the smallest village can support a decent pub crawl. The drinking age is an inconsistently enforced 18, and to enter a pub you need only be 14.
Bitter, named for its sharp, hoppy aftertaste, is a standard pub drink. It should be hand-pumped or pulled from the tap at cellar temperature into government-stamped pint glasses (20 oz.) or the more modest half-pint glass. Real ale retains a diehard cult of connoisseurs in the shadow of giant corporate breweries. Brown, pale, and India pale ales—less common varieties—all have a heavy flavor with noticeable hop. Stout, the distinctive subspecies of ale, is rich, dark, and creamy. Try Irish Guinness, with its silky foam head. Most draft ales and stouts are served at room temperature, but if you can’t stand the heat, try a lager, a precursor of American beer typically served cold. Cider is a fermented apple juice served sweet or dry. Variations on the standard pint include black velvet, which is stout mixed with champagne; black and tan, layers of stout and ale; and snakebite, lager and cider with black currant syrup or Ribena.
Britain is undeniably the birthplace of much of the world’s best literature. A strong oral tradition informed most of the earliest poetry in English, little of which survives. The best-known piece of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) poetry is Beowulf (c. 700-1000), a tale of an egoistic prince, his heroic deeds, and his ultimate defeat in a battle with a dragon. English literature flourished under the reign of Elizabeth I (1559-1603). Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequences and Edmund Spenser’s moral allegories like The Faerie Queene earned favor at court, while John Donne and George Herbert crafted metaphysical poetry. Britain’s civil and religious turmoil in the late 16th and early 17th centuries spurred a huge volume of brilliant literature with theological concerns, like John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost (1667) and John Bunyan’s allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). In the 18th century, John Dryden penned neoclassical poetry, Alexander Pope satires, and Dr. Samuel Johnsonhis idiosyncratic dictionary. Partly in reaction to the rationalism of the preceding century, the Romantic movement generated turbulent verse that celebrated the transcendent beauty of nature, the power of imagination, and the profound influence of childhood experiences. Fascism and the horrors of WWII motivated musings on the nature of evil; George Orwell’s dystopic 1984 (1949) strove to strip the world of memory and words of meaning. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) imagines the violence and anarchy of a not-so-distant future. The end of empire, rising affluence, and the growing gap between classes splintered British literature. More recently, England is known for such classics as JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1934) and Lord of the Rings (1954-56) and JK Rolwing’s, Harry Potter series, earning herself a fortune greater than that of the queen.
Early English architects often borrowed styles from mainland Europe, although some are particular to Britain. The Normans introduced Romanesque architecture (round arches and thick walls) in the 11th century, and the British adopted the same fashion in the imposing Durham cathedral. The Gothic style, originating in France (12th-15th centuries), ushered in intricate, haunting buildings like the cathedral of Salisbury. By the 14th century, the English had developed the unique perpendicular style of window tracery, apparent at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. Sadly, the Suppression of Monasteries in 1536 under Henry VIII spurred the wanton smashing of stained glass and even of entire churches, leaving picturesque ruins scattered along the countryside. After the Renaissance, architects used new engineering methods, evident in Christopher Wren’s fantastic dome on Saint Paul’s Cathedral, built in 1666.
During the Renaissance, the wealthy built sumptuous Tudor homes, like Henry VIII’s Hampton Court. In the 18th century, both the heady Baroque style of Castle Howard and the severe Palladian symmetry of Houghton Hall were in vogue. Stately homes like Howard and Houghton were furnished with Chippendale furniture and surrounded by equally stately grounds and gardens. The Victorians built in the ornate Neo-Gothic revival and neoclassical styles. Today, hotshots (and colleagues) Richard Rogers and Norman Foster vie for bragging rights as England’s most influential architects, littering London with avant-garde additions like the Lloyd’s Building, City Hall, and a whole host of Millennium constructions.
Britain’s early religious art, including illuminated manuscripts, gave way to secular patronage and the institution of court painters. Renaissance art in England was largely dominated by foreign portraitists such as Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) and Flemish masters Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Vanity, and thus portraiture, continued to flourish into the 18th century, with the satirical London scenes of William Hogarth(1697-1764), classically inspired poses of Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), and provincial backdrops of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). Encouraged by a nationwide interest in gardening, landscape painting peaked during the 19th century. Beyond the literary realm, Romanticism inspired the vibrant rustic scenes of John Constable and the violent sense of the sublime depicted in JMW Turner’s stunning seascapes. The Victorian fascination with reviving old art forms sparked movements like the Italian-inspired, damsel-laden Pre-Raphaelite school, propagated by John Everett Millais (1829-96) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82). Victorians also dabbled in new art forms like photography and took advantage of early mass media with engravings and cartoons. Modernist trends from the continent such as Cubism and Expressionism were picked up by Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) and sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986). WWII broke art wide open yielding experimental, edgy works by Francis Bacon (1909-92) and Lucian Freud, whose controversial portrait of the queen was unveiled in 2002. David Hockney (b. 1937) and Bridget Riley (b. 1931) gave American pop art a dose of British wit. The monolithic, market-controlling collector Charles Saatchi, the success of the new Tate Modern, the infamy of the Turner Prize, and the rise of the conceptual and sensationalist Young British Artists (YBAs) have invigorated Britain’s contemporary art scene. The multimedia artists Damien Hirst (b. 1965) and Tracey Emin (b. 1963) have become the media-savvy enfants terribles of modern art. Art galleries in London are among the world’s best. Beyond the museums, Bristol-based graffiti artist Banksy creates phenomenal and thought-provoking masterpieces for the public with the simple tools of a street artist.
Buoyed by a booming economy, British bands achieved popularity on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to the advent of MTV. Dire Straits introduced the first computer-animated music video, while Duran Duran, the Eurythmics, Tears for Fears, and the Police enjoyed top-10 hits. Britpop resurged in the 1990s: Blur and Oasis left trashed hotel rooms and screaming fans in their wake. The tremendous popularity of American grunge rock spread to the UK, where Radiohead has become arguably the most influential British rock band since The Beatles. The UK also produced some brilliant, awful pop, including Robbie Williams (survivor of the bubblegummy Take That) and the Spice Girls.
These days, socially conscious Coldplay is one of the UK’s bestselling rock exports (thanks in large part to soccer moms and dentist offices). Modern post-punk and New Wave bands like Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand enjoy indie cred and impressive fan bases. A product of instant Internet success, Lily Allen has established herself as a major player in the world of commercial pop, winning audiences with an upbeat sound and sassy attitude. Meanwhile, Amy Winehouse smooths over her rough-and-tumble personality with deep, soulful R&B vocals. Formed in 2005, |The Kooks have exploded out of Brighton to climb the charts with catchy pop rock tunes, and postmodern hipsters The Rakes and The Pigeon Detectives are drawing attention from young fans of guitar rock revival.
Stumble into any nightclub in Britain and feel the two-step sub-bass bypass your ears and get straight to shaking your body. After the mid-90s, a mix of drum and bass and jungle music became UK Garage (UKG)—electronica produced in basements and bedrooms around South London and made popular through repeated play on pirate radio stations. Characterized by island rhythms and dark-sounding bass lines that skip every other beat, UKG eventually split into two sub genres: dubstep (slow and minimalist) and grime (sounding like sped-up reggae instrumentals with rap-like vocals). Skream and Benga are exemplars of dubstep, and the popularity of Wiley and Mike Skinner’s The Streets stands testament to grime’s relative accessibility.
British film has endured an uneven history, alternating between relative independence from Hollywood and emigration of talent to America. Charlie Chaplin and Archibald Alec Leach (a.k.a. Cary Grant) were both British-born but made their names in US films. The Royal Shakespeare Company has seen heavyweight alumni Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Sir Ian McKellen, and Jeremy Irons make the transition to cinema. Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock snared audiences with films produced on both sides of the Atlantic, terrifying shower-takers everywhere. In a career spanning six decades, Hitchcock saw the transition from silent film to cinema in color. The 60s phenomenon of “swingin’ London” created new momentum for the film industry and jump-started international interest in British culture. American Richard Lester made The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night in 1963, and a year later Scottish Sean Connerydowned the first of many martinis as James Bond in Dr. No.
Recent British films have garnered a fair number of international awards; the working-class feel-goods The Full Monty (1997) and Billy Elliot (2000); Mike Leigh’s affecting Secrets and Lies (1996) and costume extravaganza Topsy-Turvy (1999) as well as the endearing comedies Bend it Like Beckham (2002) and Love, Actually (2003) have all taken home awards from sources like the Academy, Cannes, and the Golden Globes. Then, of course, there is the Harry Potter franchise, which kicked off in 2001 and continues to break box-office records. It has been filmed at gorgeous Alnwick Castle, Christ Church College, Oxford (p. 208), and in Fort William of the Scottish Highlands (p. 485).
It’s the “beautiful game,” the world’s most popular sport, and a British national obsession. Over half a million fans attend professional matches in Britain every matchday weekend from mid-August to May, and they spend the few barren weeks of summer waiting for the publication of the coming season’s fixtures (match schedules). It’s almost like worship at postmodern cathedrals—grand, storied stadiums full of painted faces and team colors, resounding with rowdy choruses of uncannily synchronized (usually rude) songs. Intracity rivalries (London’s Chelsea-Tottenham or Glasgow’s “Auld Firm”) have been known to divide families. Violence and vandalism used to dog the sport, but matches have become safer now that clubs offer seating-only tickets rather than standing spaces in the terraces, and clubs generally no longer allow drinking in the stands. Hooligans (“yobs” or “chavs”) are usually on their worst behavior when the England national team plays abroad, while home games are a bit tamer.
According to legend, rugby was born one glorious day in 1823 when William Webb Ellis, an inspired (or perhaps slightly confused) Rugby School student, picked up a soccer ball and ran it into the goal. Since then, rugby has evolved into a complex, subtle, and thoroughly lunatic game. The amateur Rugby Union and professional Rugby League, both 19th-century creations, have slightly different rules and different numbers of players (15 and 13). In Britain, the former is associated with Scotland, Wales, and the Midlands, and the latter with northwest England. With little stoppage of play, no non-injury substitutions, and scanty protective gear, rugby is a melee of blood, mud, and drinking songs. An oval-shaped ball is carried or passed backward until the team can touch the ball down past the goal line (a “try” and worth 5 points) or kick it through the uprights (3 points). Club season runs from September to May. The culmination of international rugby is the Rugby World Cup, to be hosted by Australia in the fall of 2009.
The Brits have a special affinity for their horses, demonstrated in the (now banned) tallyhooing of fox-killing excursions and Princess Anne’s competition inequestrian events during the 1976 Olympics. In late June, polo devotees flock to the Royal Windsor Cup. The Royal Gold Cup Meeting at Ascot has occurred in the second half of June every summer since 1711, although some see it as an excuse for Brits of all strata to indulge in drinking and gambling while wearing over-the-top hats. Top hats also distinguish the famed Derby (DAR-bee), which has been run since 1780 on Epsom Racecourse, Surrey, on the first Saturday of June.
There is little that a traveler can do that will inadvertently cause offense while traveling in England. However, the English do place weight on proper decorum, including politeness (“thanks” comes in many varieties, including “cheers”), queueing (that is, lining up—never disrupt the queue), and keeping a certain respectful distance. You’ll find, however, that the English sense of humor—dark, wry, explicit, even raunchy—is somewhat at odds with any notion you may have of English coldness or reserve. Still, no matter how much Monty Python may poke fun at the British, they won’t appreciate “upstart colonials” doing so—they don’t need to be reminded how awful British cuisine is.