by Sandra Hutchinson
Last fall I spent a magical week taking an adult education course at Oxford University, in Oxford, UK. Following the conclusion of my program, I headed to London and met up with my husband, who flew in from the States to meet me. After a couple of days that allowed him to acclimate to the time zone, we hopped on a train at Kings Cross Station and took the two-hour ride north to the city of York.
After spending a few days in York we rented a car and stayed on the grounds of Fountains Abbey, a World Heritage Site. During our stay, we explored the ruins of the Abbey and the adjacent Studley Royal Park. We spent a day taking a historic steam train through the Yorkshire Moors to Whitby, a coastal town known for its fish and chips, as well as being the location of a ruined abbey that was an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. We also explored some of the beautiful landscape in this part of Yorkshire, which is England’s largest county.
Platform 9 3/4
Before I get to York, I can’t continue without mentioning that as all Harry Potter fans will know, London’s Kings Cross Station is the home of the fictional (sorry) Platform 9 3/4, which is where students going to Hogwarts board the Hogwarts Express. Yes, there is a sign on the wall that identifies the location, and a long line for Potter fans wishing to take a picture in front of the sign, which has a luggage trolley and half a bird cage (for an owl, I presume) embedded in the wall. The woman below is pointing a magic wand at the sign.
Middlethorpe Hall, York
Once we arrived in York, we stayed at the lovely Middlethorpe Hall, which is one of three historic country house hotels operated by the National Trust UK. Click here for a link to my earlier post about our experience at Middlethorpe Hall.
The city of York is a tremendous destination, offering something for almost everybody. There are far more attractions and places to visit than we had time for in just a couple of days there. Our highlights included York Minster, the glorious cathedral, walking through York’s medieval lanes, checking out the National Railway Museum, and enjoying afternoon tea and lunch at two of the local Betty’s locations. (Later in our trip, we enjoyed breakfast at the Betty’s in Harrogate.)
York Minster is the popular name for the magnificent cathedral in York, which is the seat of the Archbishop of York. The cathedral is one of the largest in northern Europe. The Archbishop of York is third in line of importance in the Church of England, after the Monarch and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Completed in the 15th century, the cathedral contains the world’s largest stained glass window created before the modern era, known as the Great East Window, completed in 1408.
For details on visiting, click on the cathedral’s home page, here. We joined an informative walking tour inside the cathedral, which we recommend. There is a lot to see within the cathedral, including the Undercroft, which describes the Roman and Viking history of the site.
For several years beginning in 2015, a major restoration was carried out on the cathedral’s Great East Window, which depicts both the creation of the world from the book of Genesis, and the book of Revelations, with the return of Christ and the end of the world.
The 5,403 pipes of the Minster’s Grand Organ were removed in 2018 and the instrument is being refurbished, due to return to use in 2021. These decorated pipes were part of a set on the outside of the organ’s case. They could not be restored and are being replaced by new pipes, and were offered for auction to raise funds for the organ refurbishment project.
Highly decorated ceiling of York Minster’s Chapter House, completed in the 13th century. The Chapter House includes many sculptured heads of people and representations of animals. Some of the figures are called “grotesques.”
The neighborhood around the Minster is packed with shops and cafes. and dates back to the Middle Ages. The most famous street is called The Shambles, with half-timbered buildings overhanging the street. Enterprising shopkeepers have made good use of the atmosphere, for example, by setting up a Harry Potter-themed shop (“The Shop That Must Not Be Named”) where you can park your broomstick outside.
There are a number of commercial ghost tours you can book, that lead you through the medieval lanes. We took one, and the best part was when the actor leading the tour — gaunt, tall, wearing a long dark coat and top hat, and ringing a bell, came walking up the street to greet us in the drizzle. I’ve posted a video below.
We loved Betty’s
Betty’s is a famous Yorkshire business that has several locations. Founded in 1919 by a Swiss immigrant, you can visit the various locations for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, and enjoy Betty’s own lines of baked goods and teas. We enjoyed a classic afternoon tea at the cozy Betty’s Cafe Tea Rooms near the York Minster, and lunch at the main York location.
Being very fond of hedgehogs, I was delighted to find these quintessentially English-themed treats in the cases at Betty’s.
While in York, we stopped for a pint at The Blue Bell, a tiny pub which is said to be one of the oldest in the city. No credit cards accepted!
National Railway Museum
The highlight of this museum is seeing train cars and locomotives from many periods, all under cover. These include the sleek Mallard, the world’s fastest steam engine, a Japanese bullet train from 1976, and trains that carried British royalty like Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II.
This train was used by the royal family during World War II to travel around the country to keep morale high. When it stopped for the night, it would stay inside a tunnel for protection.
And I loved this poster, although I suspect this Scottish Terrier is better behaved than our two Wheaten Terriers!
Staying in Fountains Hall, on the grounds of Fountains Abbey
After leaving the city of York with our rented car, our base while visiting north Yorkshire was an apartment in the gorgeous late 16th/early 17th century Fountains Hall, on the grounds of Fountains Abbey, operated by the UK National Trust. Fountains Hall was built using stones taken from the neighboring Abbey, which has been in ruins for centuries.
Our apartment was on what the British call the “third” floor, which to Americans, means the fourth floor. Once we had lugged our bags up the stairs, we were pleased to find a comfortable sitting room, a nice galley kitchen, a large bedroom, and a lovely view out the casement windows that kept changing with the weather. The apartment, named “Proctor” after the original builder of the Hall, is decorated in what was described as a Rennie Mackintosh (Scottish arts and crafts style, basically) theme. The Hall is said to be haunted, but we neither saw nor felt any apparitions during our three-night stay.
[If you’re interested in booking lodging through the National Trust, check out the “holiday” portion of the Trust’s Web site, here. We have previously stayed in a 17th century brew house on the grounds of the Jacobean manor house owned by the Trust, called Chastleton, in the Cotswolds. It was a memorable stay for us and our then-young boys, who will never forget the “giant spider” that dropped down from the massive oak beam above one of the beds! Chastleton is also known as being the birthplace of croquet. The manor house was used in the filming of the TV series Wolf Hall.]
Fountains Hall itself has a somewhat sombre history, at least during the 20th century. The Vyner family were the last private owners of the hall and their two children, a son who was a Royal Naval pilot, and a daughter who was a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, both died during World War II. The daughter was only 18 years old, and the son, 19. There is a moving memorial to them within the main entry foyer to the building. The Hall fell into disrepair following World War II before being purchased by the local government. In 1983 it was transferred to the National Trust.
The exterior of Fountains Hall was used to portray portions of the exterior of Misselthwaite in the 1993 film Secret Garden.
Just a short walk beyond Fountains Hall are the stunning grounds of Fountains Abbey. The Abbey was founded in 1132 by 13 Benedictine monks who came from York and lived as Cistercian monks alongside lay brothers. They were engaged in many pursuits, including farming, wood production, mining, cattle and horse rearing and stone quarrying. The abbey was dissolved in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries ordered by Henry VIII.
One of the benefits of staying at a National Trust property is that you generally have the opportunity to be on the grounds of the historic site during times when it is closed to the general public. Thus it was that we could wander the Abbey grounds at dusk, which was highly atmospheric as the sun was setting.
One evening, we ventured out and had a nice pub dinner somewhere in the countryside near the Hall. But the roads in rural Yorkshire are winding and narrow, and not well-marked, and when we tried to find our way back in the dark after dinner we did not have the proper GPS coordinates to get us home. We spent close to an hour driving around, sometimes circling back past landmarks we had already seen, in our own sort of “Blair Witch” moment (in that horror movie, the characters can’t find their way out of the haunted woods and keep ending up back at the same place). Increasingly frantic that we would never find the wooden gate that led into the Hall, we finally flagged down one of the few passing vehicles on the road and asked if the driver knew how to return to Fountains Hall. Happily, he did, and gave us directions in a thick Yorkshire dialect. Since we thought we might end up sleeping in our car that night, we were very grateful to the gentleman.
Studley Royal Park
Adjacent to Fountains Abbey is Studley Royal Park (technically, the Abbey is on the Park’s grounds). The most famous feature of the Park is the Georgian Water Garden, created in the early 18th century, It includes ornamental lakes, canals, and follies. One can walk from the water garden to the Abbey ruins, or the other way around, depending on which entrance to the property you use. The water features were considered great feats of engineering in the 1700s.
North Yorkshire Moors Railway
We spent a day taking a memorable trip on a vintage steam train, from the village of Pickering, to the seaside town of Whitby. I studied the Web site before our trip, found here, and purchased tickets ahead of time. The route takes you through much of the North York Moors National Park. This is our steam engine arriving in Pickering, before we boarded it for the trip to the coast.
There were so many great things about this day! First, we happened to sit in a compartment with two British couples, and by the time we got to Whitby, we felt like we were old friends. They were delightful. We exchanged email addresses, and continued to correspond with one of the gentlemen, Glyn, throughout the fall and winter. We sensed that he might be having health challenges, and sadly, we learned around the holidays from his brother, that he had passed away. It makes our memories of that day all the more poignant.
This image is taken from the North Yorkshire Moors Railway Web site.
A treat for us was passing through the Goathland train station along our journey. This quaint country station served as the Hogwarts train station in the Harry Potter movies.
I’ve posted a video below of part of our journey on the steam train.
Our terminus for the first leg of our train journey was Whitby, on the North Sea. High on the cliffs overlooking the seaside town, which is at the junction of the River Esk and the sea, are the ruins of Whitby Abbey, which inspired Bram Stoker to set part of his novel Dracula, there.
Our main task during the couple of hours we had in Whitby, before catching the return train to Pickering, was to find a great place to have fish & chips. We ended up at a family-owned spot overlooking the quay, where a chalkboard told us which fishing boat had brought in that day’s catch.
Biking competition made driving difficult
During much of our time in Yorkshire, the UCI Road World Bicyling Championships were going on in the county, and many roads were blocked off, depending on the race routes on the particular day. This made navigating with the GPS in our rental car very challenging, as it did not always provide alternate routes for us to reach our destinations.
One day, we headed to the quaint town of Pateley Bridge, where the banners were strung across the road to welcome the bikers and hearty meat pies were displayed in a butcher’s shop commemorating the road race.
Here are some other photos taken in the Yorkshire countryside:
There were so many places we couldn’t get to during our Yorkshire break. We are hoping to return, but given the Covid-19 pandemic, we may have to happy looking at our photos for quite a while.