York City Walls

A short stroll, 2 miles (3.4 kilometres), 4 miles with the walls view walk, can be combined with the Snickelways. November, cloudy.

In 71CE Roman general Cerealis and the ninth legion built a fortress by the river Ouse which they called Eboracum after the yews which grew there. They built a wall around it and several watch towers to defend the camp. 800 years later the vikings turned up and demolished all but one of the towers to build other fun stuff, buried the now ruined walls under a massive embankment and put wooden stakes there instead. The Danes, then as now, were very into timber and recycling.

Then came the troublesome Normans who dammed the Foss and made a moat, and in the 13th century the medieval wall was built, much of which is what you can see today. Several times the walls were patched up over the centuries, at least until 1800 when the Corporation of York decided to stick its beak in. In an act of astonishing hubris, the moany Corporation sought an Act of Parliament to get rid of them entirely as the gateways were too narrow and the walls were in the way of their grand plans for expansion. They partly succeeded. All the barbicans save 1 (fortified gateways), 3 postern gates (concealed secondary gates), 5 of the towers and almost 300 metres of actual wall were demolished before the angry townspeople managed to put a stop to the Corporation’s wilful vandalism.

The Victorian era saw the (remaining) walls restored, parapets and walkways added and widened and the crenellations, or merlons added. Finally they celebrated by building a new tower, known romantically if somewhat abstractedly as the Robin Hood Tower. And that is your potted history of the walls (with thanks to the Museums Trust and of course Wikipedia)

Off I went, not for the first time, to walk the walls (open 8am until dusk, closed when icy, no dogs, don’t ask me why.) There are of course two walks, on the walls and off the walls and there is much to be recommended in both. The walk traditionally begins at Bootham Bar and runs clockwise, but don’t let anyone stop you doing it whichever way you like (unless you’re a dog or it’s after dusk or icy).

The ‘bars’ are gatehouses and there are 5 original ones left (plus a Victorian addition). Bootham has the oldest stonework and is on the site of the Roman gate. In 1501 there was a giant knocker on Bootham Bar gate, but sadly both are now gone, which is a shame as I’m a big fan of giant knockers. I walk up and through the bar to start the walk, feeling pleasingly safe on account of the railings. From here I get a great view of the minster and some extremely expensive gardens with minster beehives. This is a popular stretch, with people picnicking at Robin Hood Tower. I am 4 metres up, although it feels higher looking down into the defensive ditch.

This is not a long walk, although you will have to climb up and down several flights of steps to cross roads and I am soon at Monk Bar doing just that. Each of the gateways has a big history board and some kind of brass rubbing which is a bit odd. There’s also a beautiful verdegris plaque on this section commemorating the restoration but try not to lick it.

After Monk Bar there is a view of a Roman interval tower far below and it’s a good illustration of how the ground levels have changed, it is 3 metres above the Roman level at this spot. You can also see the medieval guildhall. A point of interest sign on the floor indicates the site of Jewbury, a Jewish cemetery which is now covered by Sainsbury’s car park. There’s a link at the bottom for a comprehensive website covering the history of the points of interest, and I can’t do justice to the work they have put into it and don’t need to reproduce it.

Soon the wall disappears at Layerthorpe where Kings Fishpool once was, William the Conqueror’s moat made by damming the river Foss which was considered sufficiently defensive to have no need of the wall. This part of the walk is therefore at ground level and brings back (bad) memories of the river Foss walk. Follow the brass nubbins set into the pavement which seemed to disappear at Travis Perkins but keep going to reach the Red Tower, built in brick to save money.)

There are no railings on the next bit, but you would have to try pretty hard to throw yourself off. What there is here is an overpowering smell of fabric conditioner coming from the washing line below. I don’t have a great sense of smell but this is wafting like a blanket from the sheets drying on the line. As I lean over I can see a section of the wall which looks like very old arches, just the tops of which can be seen above the mound. I wonder if this is roman or medieval, I’ve seen similar arches in, I think, the Rynek Underground in Krakow and they were market stall booths.

This is why walking off the walls can be as interesting as on them. There are also holes known as musket loops on this section. At Walmgate Bar you can see cannon ball and musket damage, and a 14th century extension, which now has a coffee shop in it. The next bar, Fishergate Bar, was set on fire in 1489 when tax payers stormed up to his walls and revolted against Henry VII’s tax increases. You can still see the scorch marks.

I leave the walls again to cross the Ouse via Clifford’s Tower, the site of a massacre which I’ve written about before. I rejoin at Baile Hill, a huge mound which is all that is left of the second of William the Conqueror’s castles, built after the rebellion. So angry was Bill that he committed genocide, the Harrying of the North, campaigns which wiped out 75% of the northern population, mostly Anglo Saxons and Danish. Many were brutally slaughtered and their homes and buildings destroyed, and a hundred thousand starved in the ensuing famine. This is how you completely take over a country and its governance (and still is today).

The sun finally comes out as I head towards Micklegate, old Norse for great gate, perhaps the best known of the bars. This was the main route in and once displayed the severed heads of ‘enemies’ like Harry Hotspur and Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland (see the Alnwick Castle post) and Richard of York. It now contains a museum.

The last section of walkable wall passes the railway with its huge hotels and the sun is shining on my head. There’s a great cafe at the end by the bridge, go down into the basement. As you come to the end of the walls consider walking back round again at ground level for an interesting perspective which is always overlooked (and you can bring the dog). I cross back over the Ouse at Lendal Bridge and look at one of my favourite buildings in York, Lendal Tower, which dates from 1300. It is a magnificent ancient beast, and I’m happy to say, if you fancy staying in a grade 1 listed medieval building and have bundles of cash, you can rent it for your stay in York. I’m very lucky, I stayed in it one Christmas and ideally I should get a massive kick back for recommending it here.

The oldest bits of the remaining Roman defences are now inside the Museum Gardens, particularly the 9 metre tall Multiangular Tower. The gardens is well worth exploring and there is usually ice cream, if not retrace to Lendal Tower and see if the ice cream boat is moored up on the quay. If neither is available I’m afraid you’re going to have to walk back to the start and go to the minster to see if the stall is open on the greenery. Failing that you’ll just have to have cake or a Yorkshire pudding sandwich with a side of coronary artery disease.

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Walk info

This is an easy walk to follow on account of the signage and fingerboards. The only place you may get lost is on the ground, particularly if you are easily distracted by pubs. The wall trail website is here and there is a ton of historical information, far more than I can provide. The city walls walk from the ground is here. Membership of the Friends of York Walls is free.

10 responses to “York City Walls”

  1. I’ve never walked round York’s walls so I enjoyed reading this. Great photos too and the next-to-last one looks really pretty 🙂

    I’ve walked round the walls at Chester a couple of times many years ago and last year walked the ones at Conwy – I didn’t feel very safe on some sections though as they are high, very narrow, and have open railings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never done those, thanks for the tip.


  2. you have a lovely, pleasant, easy way of describing the walk, and what can be seen as we move about. Haven’t been to York, but this inspires me to visit it and also as the town featured in the War of the Roses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for you very kind comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a great post, so full of history and great photos, thanks! ❤️🇬🇧

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful walk. Last sentence had me lol – quite the side dish recommendation.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s a long time since I enjoyed that walk.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. York must be a lovely place and the City Walls look realy impressive. Thanks for sharing and all the best for 2023 !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And a happy new year to you


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