Saturday, October 13, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 5: York

[Originally posted on]

We said goodbye to Blackpool North Station, a charming edifice described by Stuart Maconie as looking "less like a railway station than a decontamination plant" or like "a disused naval base in the Bering Straits", in the usual way: queuing with drunks.

The shaven-headed boy in line ahead of me at the newsagents, where I was buying my usual armload of newspapers and he was buying two more cans of Carling Super to supplement the two that were bulging out of his trackie pockets and the two that were already inside his belly (at ten AM), turned to me and asked "nyaaah girt burn aragh tomma chimma daht nyahh wyet geh lee gah an? (hic)" Sorry? I have to say, Liverpudlian is a piece of cake, Mancunian is rough but understandable, Yorkshire is easy, just really really broad, but Lancashire is completely unintelligible to me. I had him repeat it three times and finally had to beg off with "I'm sorry, I'm an American, I don't understand". He finally just pointed at the line and said "the train". I don't know if that meant "that's a train over there" or "what time does it leave?" or "if you get on that train I'm going to disembowel you and fry your gizzards in a pan" or "doesn't that queue seem awfully long for a Sunday, old bean?" "Yes" I replied.

The woman at the counter was just as difficult to understand, but I did make out both a "love" and a "pet", and the amount I owed was displayed on a screen, so I knew I could handle the situation.

One of my newspapers was the heretofore unseen "Non League Football", which I was very excited to read, but somehow lost in the cramped quarters on board and never saw again. It's a shame, because I was getting tired of reading about Chelsea and Manchester United every day and looking forward to some news from Bedlington Terriers and Shepshed Dynamo for a change. Not to be.

The train was packed to the windows. My wife and I both got a seat, but far from each other, and the entire length of the aisle was packed full. Two carriages home from a holiday site on a summer Sunday? Oh dear. I was on the window, and miraculously didn't have to get up to pee once on the way to York.

Out the window of a train was Lancashire: the mostly hidden flats of the Fylde, followed by backdoor views of Preston and Blackburn. The excitement built within me as we approached the Pennines; if you want an idea of just how sad and dweeby an anorak I am, I was hugely sorry I could not stop and take in the majesty of the Preston Bus Station, a concrete neo-brutalist landmark from 1969 threatened with demolition. Blackburn is lovelier, with glimpses of some fine mills and terraces. I did not see any of the famous holes. Someday I hope to return and make this journey more slowly, along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

After Blackburn the charming town of Accrington, and more fine industrial glimpses, the landscape is changing. Burney is our last stop in Lancashire, and Hebden Bridge our first in Yorkshire. The stone-walled fields climbing up the convoluted hills of the Pennines are beautiful. Really, whipping through this country on a train is unfair to it, but we've booked a city trip this time. Unfortunately Leeds did not make the final cut, and the brief flashes we catch from the train window tell us nothing about this great city. We will return, hopefully by the time Leeds United return to the Premiership!

York Station is one of the prettiest in the world. When it was built in 1877 it was the world's largest, somewhat out of proportion to the importance of York as a city these days. From the outside, it's nice enough, somewhat confusing, and rather typical station architecture; but inside, on the platform where you arrive, you see one of the most remarkable curved platform train sheds in the world. This building is not like a cathedral; it is a cathedral of industrial might and the majesty of motive power.

York is very different than Blackpool, that's for sure! Our cabbie clued us in, with his wrinkled-nose incomprehension at our having come from there. You could see the difference immediately: no garbage in the streets! No boarded-up buildings! No half-naked drunks falling into the road! Just neat streets and well-kept, reserved Georgian fronts.

Our hotel was in the Bootham area, a mixed Georgian and Victorian area just north of Bootham Bar. Our hotel was lovely, and our room was enormous, and featured the longest bathtub I have ever seen -- a six-footer could lie at full length. I'm a hand short of six feet, so I was able to indulge my second-favorite pastime (after wine-drinking; OK, make that third-favorite), and soak with both my head and my knees submerged simultaneously for once. The hotel was called Alhambra Court, on a quiet cul-de-sac leading into the Museum Gardens, and I recommend it not only for the location and the rooms but for the utterly delightful Yorkshire brogue of the woman on the desk. I'm no connoisseur, so I can't tell you exactly which square foot of which Riding she was from, but to an American those long, long a's and e's sound like they're never going to end. I wanted to hand her a book and have her read me a few chapters, just for the sound of it, but my wife saved me the embarrassment and dragged me up the slowest elevator in the world.

I don't have a lot to say about York itself. It's very old. It's very beautiful. If you want details on which ancient half-timbered buildings are how old, exactly, or what ghosts supposedly live on in which pubs (actually, all talk of ghosts makes my blood boil and fists clench, but it's all in good cheesy commercial fun, then, isn't it?) It's a fascinating place, but not what this report is about.

We did spend five hours in the National Railway Museum, my suffering wife's greatest indulgence. Even she was impressed with the open warehouse facility, where the Museum has opened up some of its vast storehouse of items, from the spectacular to the mundane, for somewhat chaotic viewing. Old station doorknobs, railway signs from every company and every station, marble busts of Huskisson and Brunel, thousands and thousands of models in every scale imaginable, including some unique to that individual modeler; the conference table of the Great Western Railway next to a 1980s cash register and a 1940s ticket printer; hundreds of doors, light fixtures, signal bars, brass steam levers, sections of rail; models of proposed new stations built and unbuilt; racks and racks of paintings and prints; drawers full of 170 years' worth of ticket stubs, pamphlets, conductors' cap badges, keys; really anything you can imagine and more, all tagged and racked and cataloged in binders you can paw through.

In the Great Hall, where the working turntable is still used to move the collection, are the locomotives. There are two replicas of the Rocket, which won the Rainhill Trials for George Stephenson, on his Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world's first, and there's a Shinkansen bullet train you can walk through and sit on the seats of. There's Mallard, the streamlined beauty Pacific class express engine that set the still-standing steam speed record of 126 mph, set in 1938 (though probably surpassed many times, illegally, by American trains who wished to avoid the publicity of a record).

There's at least a hundred other locomotives on the premises, mostly steam, including the Flying Scotsman, a work in progress in the restoration shed. Seeing the workshop with its tools and locomotive parts spread out is almost more interesting than the restored machines in the Great Hall, as this is where the continuing tradition of steam engineering is kept alive.

There's a ton of other good stuff to see at the museum, including some working stationary engines. Sadly these are not working in steam, but are powered "backwards" from electric rollers turning their great flywheels and working the pistons. We didn't get to see anything actually in steam. Fifteen years ago I watched the great Watt engine in the Kew Bridge Steam Museum in London; nothing that exciting happened here. But I have no complaints. Five hours could very easily have been fifteen, or five hundred. I think it's better than the Louvre, or the British Museum, or the Met.

But then, I would.

We also visited York Minster, one of the the great cathedrals of Europe, easily in a class with Chartres or Notre Dame or Canterbury. It was built primarily in the 13th through the 16th centuries, in Early English, Perpendicular Gothic, and Decorated Gothic style. The best features are the many gorgeous windows, nearly as impressive a display of stained glass as Ste. Chappelle in Paris. The East Window is the largest medieval window in the world, but for me the real glory is the "Heart of Yorkshire", the 14th-century Great West Window with its delicate stone tracery around the upper part of the glass. It was fascinating to see the restoration work in progress, with several of the original window sections in glass cases at ground level so you could see the construction, the painting, leading, and restoration work, itself quite old in places. There's some technical reason the green pieces have largely been replaced that I didn't get; my copy of the Minster guidebook is in a box somewhere in the North Atlantic, alas.

As always, I found the evidences of the Minster as a living church as interesting as the old historical junk. I am not a believer, but I'm fascinated by memorials from the two World Wars and more recent decorative works, and the way this ancient building is still used by regular families with their names on the pews. The Minster is not a relic; it is a modern building too.

In the undercroft there's loads of old silver we barely glanced at and some fascinating Roman and Norman building remains. Every foot of this ground not only has a past but three or four pasts, and the multiple buildings that have stood on this site were all oriented differently and used for different purposes. There has been an important church here for almost 1400 years, though, and bits of stone from hundreds of years before that are visible.

In the central city I bought some books and some silly animal figurines made of Yorkshire coal, the sad last remnants of that once-great industry which powered the industrial might of Britain and blackened her walls and lungs. Now the blackened lungs are all in China, and the last British coal is carved into badgers.

We ate a surprisingly excellent meal in 50s throwback and tourist magnet Betty's Cafe Tea Rooms, behind a beautiful round picture window in the heart of St. Helens Square. A lot of English people have seemingly forgotten how to make a decent cup of tea, but not in Betty's. The food here is, uh, "Yorkshire-Swiss", and my rösti was outstanding. I was not expecting much, but I got it. Their chocolate, at least the 70% single-estate bar, is, according to the very picky expert I married, ace as well.

The gardens, the walls, the narrow streets, the shops, the cobblestones, the half-timbering: it's all good. It made for an extreme contrast with Blackpool, in almost every way imaginable; York has no neon, no animatronic amusements, no strip clubs with barkers outside, no rides, no garbage or distasteful displays of any kind. well, we didn't go in the Yorvik Centre; maybe all that stuff is in there.

By this time in our trip my feet were starting to bark pretty severely, but fortunately York has lots and lots of great pubs, where one can enjoy more of the spectacular Yorkshire drawl. Really, this makes Texans and Mississippians sound tight and clipped in comparison! We watched Liverpool stumble again to a lucky draw against Porto in the rather uncharismatic but very friendly Bootham Tavern just outside the Bar.

And the beer was excellent. "Get yourself a mate called Smith", they used to say, and I recommend that you do -- John (the one with the slogan) is great, Samuel's even better. Both have been brewed for centuries in Tadcaster, about halfway between Leeds and York. Partisans of American craft ales will disagree, but I don't think there's any American microbrew that comes within a mile of even middling English cask ale, and Yorkshire ales are among the very best.

The nice thing about Samuel Smiths is that all of their tied houses are music-free, which means no Amy Winehouse groaning at top volume out of the jukebox. Maybe there's a TV, but mostly you just hear yourself and your neighbors talking. Which is the way it should be. No other British institution is more desperately needed in America than the real public house, not as a place to get wasted in and vomit outside the door of, but as a quiet neighborhood place to enjoy a glass or two, some conversation, and a sit. We have fake varieties here, but the beer is terrible and the jukebox loud and smelly dogs are peeing on your shoe and fraternity boys are shouting and punching each other on the arm -- not the same thing at all. You don't see nice looking older people sitting and reading the paper of an evening in Seattle bars; bars here are exclusively for the young or the chronically alcoholic.

My favorite pubs are in Liverpool, as we shall see, but you could do worse than to spend an evening in the York Arms, a Samuel Smith house, with tiny rooms, comfortable furniture, and fantastic, cheap beer -- the bitter was I think £1.30, the cheapest I saw on our trip. They don't do mild much in Yorkshire, I guess, but I'll settle for this stuff any day.

Next: Scarborough

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