3.5 miles (5.6 kilometres) easy walk around the back streets of York, 6.5 if you include the York walls. December, although I’ve done this walk all year round, mostly with family and friends and there’s no better time to do it than Christmas.
When I was growing up my folks had a book on the shelf called A Walk around the SNICKELWAYS of YORK by Mark W. Jones. I was always fascinated by it, for a start the whole book is in handwritten script with hand drawn maps. And like Weetabix, it is landscape whereas all the other books were portrait, so it didn’t fit in, like me.
When we went in to York we used to walk down many of the snickelways by accident or design and I’ve always loved that York is absolutely rammed with them, you might call then ginnels or alleyways, or some other word for those narrow backstreets. The book will tell you the beautiful and subtle differences between words such as ginnel and snicket (footsteps echo in a ginnel but not a snicket). Many, many years later when I had my own kids I bought a copy of it, then in its 9th edition so I could walk the snickelways again. I’ve done it many times since then, particularly my favourite parts, and often at Christmas when York is magical.
It’s becoming harder to get the book now as it goes in and out of print, although you can still find it second hand, not too expensive yet, and the full map is available on the Snickelways website. The point of the walk is to visit them all and never cross your own path or double back. One continuous route of snickets. It’s awesome.
The walk begins and ends at Bootham Bar. There’s a couple of great pubs near here, the Lamb & Lion (recently renamed the Fat Badger) and down the road the Guy Fawkes. I’ve eaten and stayed in both and can throughly recommend them. Almost immediately you disappear into the gap by the Hole in the Wall and you’re far from the crowds, hidden away, lost in time. You’ll get an excellent view of the Minster near the end of this passage. At Christmas it chimes carols for hours.
There’s just not time or space here to take you on the full route, to explore every alley. If you follow the full route you’ll be visiting 48 of them. The book will tell you about some of the thousands of years of York’s past as you walk through its Roman, Viking and medieval places. If you’re a believer in ghosts there are plenty to be hunted for in York, most of the old pubs claim to have one, the Hole in the Wall, the Lamb and Lion, the Golden Fleece and the Snickleway Inn (sic) all claim to have one or several.
There’s also a ghostly Roman legion and excellent scones at the Treasurer’s House. You’ll pass through the Shambles, one of the best medieval shopping streets in Europe; you’ll walk over underground viking streets at Coppergate; you’ll walk by Cliffords Tower, the site of a medieval antisemitic massacre. Then there’s my favourite section around Stonegate where you pass by a medieval merchant’s house, Barley Hall, that you can pay to visit. Not so well known is Lady Peckett’s yard, a splendid medieval street running to Fossgate (where there’s a great vintage shop and independent businesses, a short walk but a long way from the Shambles’ wizarding emporiums).
I know of a fabulous place to rent just off Stonegate, you travel back in time to the 1970s complete with chopper bike, atari games and copies of Jackie magazine, and when you step back out of your front door you’re in the ruins of York’s oldest building, the Norman House. Incidentally to reach it you have to go down your own private passage between 50 and 52 Stonegate. Perhaps that’s another reason why I like it so much. This isn’t on the route because it doesn’t technically lead anywhere, but if the gateway door is unlocked open take a look and bag yourself an extra one.
If you find yourself on the sections by the river at dusk, either by the Ouse (round St Martins church, or Kings Staith) or the sections by the Foss, keep an eye out for bats. York has lots of them, although of course you won’t see them in winter.
For extreme snickophiles there’s a section on shopsnickets. These are additional snickleways which run through buildings. Many of the original shops have gone, but some shopsnickets live on in new stores, like Urban Outfitters on Coppergate, so discover your own. The old BHS store used to be an excellent one but I haven’t tried since it became a mix of sports shops.
The other optional extra is the York walls which you should do if you have time. It’s well marked, even the sections where the wall has gone. The walls give you an alternative view of the city often feeling like you’re snooping where you shouldn’t be. There’s obviously no obligation to do everything in one go. Sadly both the walls and shopsnickets are not dog friendly so I no longer do them. The book also has information on wheeling through the snickelways, when the book was last updated just 8 were inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair so alternatives routes are included.
If it should need saying, there’s no need to do all 48 in one go, if you’re pressed for time or are easily distracted like me.
Many of the streetnames have changed over the centuries but York does a reasonable job remembering the old ways. But not Grape Lane. When you see a streetname like that you can be sure it has nothing to do with fruit. Sadly there’s no sign here saying ‘Formerly Grapcunt Lane’, grap being the Old English word for grope, as this was once a street you could pay a sex worker. The lane has been thoroughly bowdlerised. More’s the pity in my opinion.
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In the spirit of the book there is no GPX for this walk, you will need to buy the book (try Amazon, AbeBooks, Alibris, WoB, Ebay etc.) The Snickelways website does not appear to be maintained but the basic MAP is still there, although you won’t have any of the instructions, information or drawings which bring the walk to life.
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