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About A Week: A City For All Seasons

A sunny July day. The ancient city of York is awash with visitors. There are queues of vehicles waiting to get into the car parks, queues waiting to board the trip boats which cruise the River Ouse, queues waiting to get into the ancient Minster church...

But York is a city for all seasons. Peter Hinchliffe reports on a mid-winter visit.

In deep dark winter folk still come flocking from afar to gawp at York.

A coach from North Shields is just drawing in. Here's another from the south, and two from the continent . . .

For hundreds of years this place has attracted visitors, Romans, Vikings, Normans, some of them friendly, some not.

Today's arrivals are good-tempered. A couple are gazing into a jeweller's window, chatting longingly in Italian. In the unexpectedly long queue at the Jorvik Viking Centre, where the past is brought to iife with the smell of middens, two teenagers are teasing each other in Spanish.

A party of French school-children have halted amid the exclusive shops in narrow Stonegate. They are scribbling notes on clip-boards, dreading the essay which will have to be written when they return home.

"We visited York which is an ancient city with a big river and a wall and a lot of history. The streets are very narrow and you are not allowed to drive cars on many of them and there is this big church called the minster ..."

At the door of the minster are two Americans, man and wife, both vast, he with a camcorder of significant size, she with a shoulder bag big enough to hold a million in dollar bills.

"Oh my!" he exlaims in Mid-Western awe as he steps inside. "Just look at this! It's even bigger inside than it is out!"

Within the mighty nave, the biggest medieval hall in England, conversation shrivels to a whisper. We are in the presence of history. Epic events unfolded right here where we stand.
On this site there was a Roman garrison, headquarters of the ninth legion, then the sixth. Young Constantine, accompanying his father the emperor, came to serve here. When his father died, he was hailed as Caesar in York.

Edward I and Edward II used this place as a base for their wars against the Scots. Parliaments were summoned to meet in the minster's chapter house.

That chapter house is now a shop stocking books, CDs and a variety of artefacts, all with a Christian theme. We choose a CD of Russian church music to soothe us homewards.

Many of the thousands who now visit York Minster are not Christians. They go and stare, not really knowing why they are there, but only the stony emerge unaffected from that hallowed space.

It is "a serious house on serious earth", as Philip Larkin said in one of his best poems, Church Going. In that holy place "someone will forever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious."

Outside, all is throng and bustle. A crowd gathers to watch a bizarre street play. Even the buskers in this city are special. They give the impression of being professionals filling in time before being summoned to the boards of the Old Vic.

At frequent intervals posters are fixed to wall or lamppost advertising ghost walks. It's easy to see ghosts in these surroundings, to imagine the sound of Roman battle bugle or the cry of Viking marauder.

History drips from the walls. But York is a city of the present as much as the past, its shopping centre among the very best at tempting you to loiter, browse and buy.

On first visit, Sheffield's ultra-modern Meadowhall shopping centre impresses as a magic kingdom of consumerism, the ultimate in warmth, convenience and unlimited choice. This magic soon wears thin. At the fifth or sixth visit, it becomes tawdry, boringly familiar, oppressive.

Meadowhall is merely shops. You go there, you seek out what you want, then you escape from its claustrophobic atmosphere as quickly as possible. The same shops are to be found in York, your M and S, H Samuel's, W H Smith's, River Island, but because they are in a vibrant city-scape they seem to be more interesting and enticing.

At every visit there is something new to see in York. Councillors and town planners should be compelled to go there to observe, inquire and reflect. Schemes for all-under-one-roof shopping centres might then be scrapped.

On one of York's main shopping streets primary school pupils are stopping passers-by and questioning them, presumably engaged in a practical geography lesson.

"How did you travel to York? How far have you come? Do you come here often."

You bet we do! As often as possible. York is a city for all times and all seasons.


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