York: The River Foss Walk

5.7 miles (9 kilometres) linear walk from York to Haxby, 11.4 miles (18 kilometres) there and back. November, warm, cloudy but dry

A thousand years ago I lived within spitting distance of the Foss. I would come across it accidentally on nights out drinking, cross it to go to badly paid jobs on the outskirts of York, and generally disregard it in favour of York’s more impressive river, the big floody Ouse, into which it eventually flows. I certainly never walked along it deliberately so I decided to come back to see exactly what I had been missing. I was also desperate for a walk, having been ill with flu for 10 days, I had very high hopes.

Foss has an uncertain etymology, some say it comes from the Latin for a ditch, some say it comes from the Old Norse for waterfall. It has been dammed so it’s just possible, but it isn’t very wide on its way to join the Ouse at Blue Bridge and notwithstanding they both contain water, it looks considerably more like a ditch to me. When you imagine a waterfall, I expect you are picturing blue white cascades, with tiny rainbows and the dramatic crashing of water on rock, possibly with nymphs bathing in tranquil pools at the foot. The Foss moves more like a massive slug and the colour is somewhere between field drab and army green. It’s hard to find it on a colour chart, presumably no one wants to reproduce it.

Clifford’s Tower

The Foss is canalised in the environs of York, even William the Conqueror had a go at damming it to make a moat around his castle. Please don’t come to York looking for the castle, it was bulldozed to make space for a debtors prison in the 18th century, only Cliffords Tower remains and this is not a fun place for kids to wield foam swords, it’s the site of an anti-semitic massacre and we’d do well to remember that.

Anyway, back to the walk which begins near the Tower. I join the river proper by sneaking up Straker’s Passage, one of York’s snickelways (about which more later) and past the old BT tower. On each occasion I’ve been to the river here recently, this is where I find homeless people sleeping under the trees and on benches. You’ll also find rubbish, bottles and cans. Why the council has them sleeping here instead of in houses is a whole other subject but today an idyllic riverside spot it is not. We are a three minute walk from one of the most expensive rents in the UK, the Shambles, coincidentally most of which is owned by the council.

There is some excellent industrial history here, not least Navigation Warehouse which was once used by Rowntree’s chocolate factory to unload cocoa and sugar from boats, but is now private flats. I cross over the bridge to it and follow the wooden walkway, caution slippery when wet, and I realise with grim inevitability I have forgotten the duck food again. What in dog’s name would it take to remember it?

I am soon passing the site of a massive incinerator and power station, both long gone. All that is left to show the industrial age is the giant tower by Morrison’s supermarket at Foss Islands and the blue bridge which once led to the power station. Foss islands was formed when the dammed moat silted up and by all accounts the area was foul and polluted. Nice. I begin to wonder if there is some psychogeography going on because I’m not enjoying myself.

For a while I’m following a busy main road, later on the Huntington Road I pass the York workhouse. After the initial excitement of industry I find this path hugely depressing. There are three dirty cygnets in the river basin by a roundabout, looking like the feckless teenagers they presumably are. By another giant supermarket a flotilla of upturned beer cans comes slowly bobbing past. There is no mention of this on the beautifully designed pdf I found for the walk. There are ‘things to spot’ but I haven’t found any of them so I decide to do my own which will be more achievable: discarded pie dish, submerged shoe, random clothing in a bush, sandwich boxes.

I pass lots of men fishing in the green murk, none of them look very happy. Perhaps the discarded boots aren’t biting today. All they seem to be catching are weeds. The path is getting very muddy now and I try hard not to fall in the river. At some point near the hospital my 4G signal disappears and I can’t use my voice activated notes. Grumpy looking clouds are gathering in the leaden sky, stealing all of my Gs and I think the only thing missing from this landscape is a corpse. Then it strikes me I might be the missing corpse.

There’s an extremely unlikely sign painted on the bridge opposite advertising the Foss Fairy Trail. I wonder if these fairies have spray cans and are responsible for some of the graffiti. As there’s no usable bridge I’ve no intention of coming back down the other side any more.

And as I trudge down the riverbank like a melancholic Ratty, a much happier thought occurs to me, that I don’t have to actually do this walk. It’s at this point I decide I’m not walking to Haxby after all. I’m going to go do something fun instead like kick a bin over. This is two hours of my life I will never get back and at my age these things start to become more salient.

Don’t get me wrong, the council’s leaflet doesn’t lie, not with words. It doesn’t even lie with pictures. It lies to me with dreams and promises of willow warblers and shoals of gudgeon. I don’t get as far as Earswick, maybe that’s where they keep the good stuff, they certainly seem to have a giant water vole there according to the map. I feel compelled to tell the truth that I found this walk awful. Websites and blogs never seem to do that, truth is illusory. No one ever posts on Instagram about the horrible hike they did up the hill, we are all about the achievement of balancing on top of the trig point. Then another wave of sadness laps at my feet as I think I could have been in the York’s Chocolate Story experience instead, I’ve never been there either. Maybe the leaflet didn’t contain promises, but rather it was I who contained hope. And without the depressing weight of expectation pressing down on me, suddenly the ducks seem happy again even though I haven’t fed them anything. They seem to forgive me for not bringing them anything worthwhile, and I hope that you will forgive me too.

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Walk info

There’s a pdf online which you can download here if you feel like giving it a go, although I would start at the other end and hope for the best.

6 responses to “York: The River Foss Walk”

  1. John Bainbridge Avatar
    John Bainbridge

    One of our favourite cities, but you are always aware that there are two sides to this city. Fascinating blog, and pleasing to see the later York being mentioned, rather than just Vikings etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I keep meaning to read up on psychogeography, I had always assumed it was a pseudoscience but walking here gave me another perspective. By the way your blog is costing me a small fortune in second hand books, to say nothing of another trip to Dartmoor!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. John Bainbridge Avatar
        John Bainbridge

        It’s very much in my thoughts as I’m writing the new novel.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed this walk because of your sense of humor about what was, and wasn’t present…like the duck food, of course. I do find the ducks in your part of the world very forgiving indeed. The industrial age has “gone away” in some parts of our area also, but I find it interesting to see photos of structures which at one time were far from abandoned, and wonder what it looked like when they were active.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s very interesting (to me anyway!) that it appears this area has been used as a rubbish dump for hundreds of years, but to be honest we can say that about many rivers, as documented in Roman & medieval works. I’m a licensed mudlark, one man’s rubbish chucked in the Thames is another man’s history and a pleasure to find. Shame about the walk though.

      Liked by 1 person

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