We had chosen York as our primary stop in Northern England because we believed that it would be the location of the most important archives. After all, the Archbishop of York was second only to the Archbishop of Canterbury and was the ecclesiastical head of the Church in Northern England. It's true enough, and indeed the Borthwick Institute in York has a number of important earlier records, and a goodly collection of wills. But York was actually more of a theological center than a pocket of Anglican power. And to make matters worse, from a genealogical point of view, England decided, somehow, in 1974, that Yorkshire was entirely too big to be a single county. So Yorkshire was carved up, but the London crowd ran into a buzz-saw of a backlash, and instead of the nice new County names like Humberside, the people changed the names back to North Yorkshire and East Yorkshire and West Yorkshire.
Instead of having all the archives centralized in one place, then, they were spread out, in Northallerton and Beverley and Leeds, as well as York. All of which meant Bob and Elsa rode the trains more than they had anticipated! This was, in most ways, beneficial for us. We increased our train competence. We got to know more English towns. We took the time to visit the Dales. And we lived much as "regular" residents of York live -- taking the shortcut to the train station, relying on a small number of known stores, and avoiding downtown with its crowds of tourists as much as possible. We had a large room with a tiny kitchenette; misnamed "apartment" it was, nevertheless, comfortable and located within minutes of most of the places we visited frequently. During our stay, our fellow visitors included a large and boisterous group of Norwegians, several school groups, and numerous private families. It wasn't until we checked out that we learned that this establishment was actually three-fold: The hotel is owned and managed by the son, the hotel annex by the mother, and the apartments by the father. Since the family members don't speak to each other, the clerks have to remember three sets of rules!
While in York we visited the Museum and the Minster, the most important tourist attractions (other than the city walls, and the excellent Railroad Roman statue Museum which we've covered earlier). The museum had a special travelling BBC exhibit on dinosaurs, which actually looked rather neat for kids, but we hurried through to get to the Yorkshire history. In comparison with the Royal Institute in Truro, the Yorkshire museum was impressive. It built upon archaeological discoveries and showed how York has been an important city for over 2000 years. Roman emperors, including the father of Constantine the Great, spent lots of time in York. The Romans brought a level of civilization that was unheard of among the Britons. York was the northernmost city in the Empire, and was filled with citizens - lawgivers, engineers, military experts. The great Roman legions had excellent civil as well as military capabilities due to the highly educated officer corps. And the legionnaires were magnificently trained. So York was fortified and civilized.
The archaeologists have been able to identify and preserve some dazzling Roman artifacts. There are busts, stone carvings and amazingly complete articles of clothing -- little shoes and sandals with laces and mesh-like leggings.
The Roman story of York is just the beginning: it was followed by a Dark Ages story, a monastic story, an Anglo-Saxon story, a Viking Story, a Danelaw story, and a Norman Story. Each successive conqueror kept York as the key military, religious and civil outpost in the North. And each successive conqueror left new artifacts, such as a magnificent jeweled 15th century religious piece with a large round sapphire set on an exquisitely engraved large diamond-shaped piece of gold. This had been headed out of England but was purchased for the York Museum by a combination of public and private donations.
We regretted that the museum didn't keep bringing the history forward, through the War of the Roses and the Scottish Border Wars and the Civil War to the Nineteenth Century, when York became rather insignificant in relation to the burgeoning manufacturing centers of the midlands, and it took much civic effort just to keep the city from falling into utter ruin! But of course it takes lots of civic self-confidence to willingly discuss the unlovely parts of one's history.
The York Minster is one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Europe, but we found that its huge size and exterior decoration were not matched by an equally impressive interior. Moreover our visit to the cathedral failed to acquaint us with much of historical importance. Too bad that York's greatest monk, Alcuin, was so brilliant that his church career took him to the continent.
The city of York is tourist friendly, and we'd recommend a few days here for anyone touring England. But it's not a breathtaking adventure, and because York is basically a small town, we think it would soon be pretty boring to spend a longer time there.