Recently my general bonecrafting has had to take a backseat to something more immediately pressing – fixing my mailshirt. As part of improving my entire kit, my fairly generic (and totally wrong) mailshirt needed a complete overhaul (probably about 70% rebuilt) and the gambeson to go with it needed similar attention, as we result his has eaten up most of the time that I would have been in the shed (especially as “a pin a day” is over). However, more on that little project later when it is finished. This post is about the other major event recently – my “honeymoon”. My wife and I have been married for nearly 12 years, but due to children have never actually had even a proper short break away that was just ourselves, so this year I decided that for her birthday we would scoot off on the train and have a couple of days in York just for us, hence also referring to it as our “honeymoon”.
Thankfully the weather stayed pleasant (if a little hot for my liking), and as we were able to move at our own pace, we managed to cram a lot into just under 48 hours – The Jorvik Centre (haven’t been since I was a kid), Barley Hall, Dig, Richard III Experience, The Minster, The Yorkshire Museum, The Merchant Adventurers Hall (one of my favourite places ever) and the Railway Museum (not very Viking I know, but I like trains and it is next to the station).
The Jorvik Centre
Personally I was really looking forward to visiting the Jorvik Centre, and I have to say I was very disappointed with it. The main two things that really got to me were the lack of accuracy in the depictions and the horrendous lighting conditions of the artefacts.
Even as we walked up to the doors, the posters advertising the Centre show images that are “classic” made up Viking with some silly kit combinations, wolf skin wearing warriors and various other niggles. The staff costumes also had quite a few things that were either “wrong” or firmly of the side of “it’s possible” rather than “there is evidence for it”. Going into the start of the museum itself it just got worse – the lighting in display cases was so bad you could hardly see anything. I am well aware of conservation needs and such, but some of these objects were so badly lit you could barely see what it was.
Getting into the ride around the Jorvik reconstruction just brought more gnashing. The first of the new robotic displays is of a bone worker. On the whole most of his display was ok, except for the large amount of fallow deer antler strewn around (fallow deer were not present in Britain at the time and the evidence for artefacts made from their antler is minuscule), obviously someone had just collected a bunch from a deer park down south rather than actually sourcing the correct antler. Continuing around the ride, there were plenty of costume faults (hangeroc with twin trefoils instead of oval brooches, very modern cape made of sewn together skins etc) and more issues with equipment – the loom was incorrect as were some of the baskets.
After exiting the ride and getting into the museum proper it continued in the same vein as the initial museum part – pretty artefacts that you could barely see coupled with more photographs of people is not very good kit.
Now you may well think that I am deliberately nit picking here and that on the whole the Jorvik centre isn’t bad and educates the majority of people, and you would be half right. I do think the Jorvik Centre teaches something to most people, and yes, on the whole, it is a worthwhile experience that gives most of it’s visitors a glimpse into the Early Medieval that previously they may have only got from Hollywood. However, as a re-enactor/living historian or whatever the current terminology is, part of role is to educate (in fact it is one of the aims of the society I belong to) and places like the Jorvik Centre help undermine that goal.
Broadly speaking, visitors to both re-enactment events and Jorvik will fall into one of three categories. Firstly there are those who know their knowledge of the period is scant but are interested and will go have a look. Secondly are the people who do know a lot, and who have done the research and can look at the displays while knowing what is and is not accurate. The third group is the problem group – these are the people who have done some research, or watched a lot of Discovery Channels programmes etc and think they know more than they do i.e. enough to pick up on anomalies but not enough to know they are incorrect.
It is this third group that actually needs the education most as they are the most troublesome, the ones who believe that because the majority of it looks “right” to them and it is a museum then the rest must be correct as well. So you have members of the public in this category arguing at shows over things they have seen and that the re-enactor in front of them is wrong because the museums obviously know more, likewise re-enactors spying unusual items and then trying to justify their use because it was in a museum. Unfortunately what this third group often forgets, doesn’t know and just ignores is that places like Jorvik are NOT museums first and foremost, they are visitor attractions and thus do not necessarily strive for the same standards a true museum would.
So to anyone reading this (assuming you have made it this far 🙂 ), go look at Jorvik, it is certainly worth a visit, but do not take anything as 100% accurate beyond the artefacts in the cases (assuming you can see them). The bad lighting is also the reason we have no photographs from Jorvik – our good camera broke and the one we borrowed couldn’t cope with the light levels 😦
The next place on our trail was The Barley Hall, and it was absolutely amazing! In a nutshell, it is a medieval house that started life in the second half of the 14th century. Over the years bits were added and removed as happens, until it was buried under a brick facade and forgotten about. In the 1980s it was going to be demolished until someone realised what was underneath. Since then it has been restored to approximately how it was, using as much of the original woodwork as possible. The result is stunning.
Upstairs there are a few displays, mostly about health and medicine. There are an assortment of plants and such used by apothecaries, assorted tools of the barber-surgeons, and some absolutely cracking x-rays of various bone deformities alongside the original bones themselves.
It wasn’t however all death and bones, there were a few cabinets of everyday items as well.
All in all an excellent place to visit, the staff were great and the site as a whole was just wonderful.
The “Jorvik DIG” as it is now called is the same building as the ARC used to be, and from what I remember of the ARC is similarly themed with much more kid centric. There were trays of pottery and various bones out to handle (the smallest would have had a field day with all the bones she could play with!), a rather nifty little holographic/3D model journey through the history of a few places in York, a section where kids can “dig” through Roman, Viking, Medieval etc areas and find various artefacts, and finally a gallery showing various finds from the Hungate excavations.
While DIG as a whole is very clearly aimed at children, the Hungate gallery was quite interesting and had some wonderful Roman artefacts and Medieval pottery (camera was flat though, so no photos :/)
Richard III Experience
Given all the recent hype around the discovery of Richard III it is no surprise that York has put some effort into a pair of exhibitions covering Richard and his immediate successor Henry VII. Each of these “experiences” is situated in a different bar of the city walls (for those not in the know, a “bar” is a gateway, not a pub 🙂 ). Richard III Experience can be found in Monk Bar and Henry at Micklegate Bar.
We only had a look at the Richard III Experience because we happened to be next to it, and as it was covered by the Pastport we had bought for Jorvik, Barley Hall and DIG, it was technically free to enter. The exhibition itself was not terribly large and featured a replica set of jewellery based on that seen in a portrait of the King, a suit of armour and a few information boards. I personally found the portcullis mechanism for the gatehouse to be the most interesting thing in there! However, I am not known for my love of 15th century Kings and their doings, so I accept that it may be more interesting to other people.
The Minster at York is a rather amazing building. It originally started off as a wooden building in the early 7th C but the building seen today is the result of much later work over the course of a few hundred years before it was finished in 1472.
Unlike many similar buildings, the Minster has had extensive excavations carried out underneath it due to various structural issues with the main tower i.e. it was about to fall down. The area under and around the tower was excavated in advance of supporting the foundations with concrete and steel rods. This excavation found part of the Roman principia as well as remains of the earlier Norman cathedral. The open area created by these excavations is now the Undercroft museum and you can actually walk around under the Minster looking at some of the excavated remains in situ (such as a small section of Roman street) while others are on display around the museum. What is most impressive is the sheer amount of concrete moulded around the base of the central tower and then held together with large rods. Due to the continuing shrinkage of the concrete as it cures, apparently someone has to come along every 3 months and tighten the nuts of the rods to accommodate this shrinkage.
Unfortunately, as with Jorvik the light levels meant that the camera was not very good instead the museum 😦
The Yorkshire Museum
I have always liked the Yorkshire Museum. Set in it’s own grounds just outside the city walls, with the Multangular and Anglian towers nearby, it is always a excellent place to visit.
The focus of the museum is Yorkshire history and natural history and currently there is an exhibition running called “Capital of the North” that showcases some of the best objects from York’s past. As soon as you enter the the museum though, there is a case off to one side with a pile of dirty metal – a few pieces of the Bedale Hoard that are on display there to raise money to have the rest of the hoard conserved.
The Roman and Prehistoric sections of the museum were very interesting and had some lovely objects on display, but the main attraction for me was the Capital exhibition. Unfortunately the museum does fall foul of a problem that many seem to have these days – lots of goodies and few labels. So as we entered the exhibition, there was a case with some rather nice combs;
and then there was this……thing, no label, no find spot, nothing
I mean, where is the harm is giving us some ideas, even a place where it found.
Still, the rest of the exhibition was full of all sorts of exciting things that were so obvious no labelling was required.
In addition to all the Early MEdieval finds, there were also some later objects such as an assortment of rather nice pottery (the Barley Hall had a replica of the stag bowl on the bottom).
Upstairs there were various other galleries showing some other very early prehistoric artefacts such as this Mesolithic antler harpoon.
Just off to one side from the main upstairs gallery was a small room that had a short history of the archaeology in York from the antiquarian days of gentlemen in suits up to more recent “proper” archaeology. In one of the cases I found a (probably) Late Saxon bone and horn composite comb.
After a good look around the rest of the museum, it was time for an ice cream and a stroll in the gardens. On the way to the Multangular tower we went through the small fern garden, which was thankfully a lot cooler than out in the open!
Once through the little fern garden, we were right next to the city walls (the cause of the white glare in the above photo^^) and right there was the Multangular tower! I may seem a little obsessed with this tower (and I slightly am), but with good reason. As well as being such an impressive piece of masonry (the lower levels are Roman that was later expanded during the Medieval) it also has a family connection as my parents worked in York when all the big excavations were starting, and while my mum was in the environmental lab, my Father was a digger and I always remember being taken around York as a kid and him pointing out the tower and saying “I excavated that”. Obviously as a small child, to me this meant he had single handedly uncovered it from top to bottom with nothing more than a trowel and despite knowing better now, that attachment to this tower has always stayed with me. Also might be influenced by the fact that it was another Constantine far in the past who was possibly responsible for it’s construction 🙂
A short walk along the inside of the wall brought us to the Anglian tower, which I have to say is a rather poor and far far smaller relative of, well, virtually any other tower in York. However, behind it is a series of cut away mounds showing how the ground level altered from the Roman period onwards.
Merchant Adventurers Hall
Another little gem in York’s buildings is the Merchant Adventurers Hall. Originally founded in 1357 the hall is the meeting place of “The Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York” who originally started out, as their name implies, as merchant adventurers across Europe.
Over the years the hall has been added to and altered and the inside is a mixture of different styles and furniture, but it is a wonderful place.
The inside of the hall is just as impressive. Apparently they could not find any timber in England big enough the span the whole width. so it is covered by two roofs.
Below the main hall is another, similar, hall where the painted banners of various guilds are displayed. they are not original banners but were made for a procession in the early 20th century. They are still impressive though.
The last of our planned visits was to the railway museum next to the station. While my wife is less of a trains fan than I am, we both appreciate the engineering skill that went into old steam trains.
Due to the various rules governing construction, this engine is built to a larger scale than those in the UK, so even though it uses the same tracks it is quite a bit bigger than British engines. The drive wheels were nearly the same height as me.
It isn’t possibly to visit the Railway Museum without looking at LNER A4 4468 “Mallard”. Built in 1938 and designed by Sir Nigel Gresley (for whom another, very similar, A4 was named), the Mallard holds the record for the fastest steam locomotive in teh world with a top speed of 125.88mph.
Other sights around York
As well as the planned visits, we also did a lot of general walking and even took in a evening river cruise to see York from the Ouse. Some of the interesting other sights are;
One of the old towers from the walls, Lendal Bridge Tower used to be used to raise and lower chains to prevent access upriver and is now a private house. One day………
While Clifford’s Tower is now just a shell, it is still an impressive fortification atop a rather substantial motte. However, the most important point in it’s history was probably March 16th 1190 when 150 Jews committed suicide or were burnt alive in the wooden predecessor of the tower, following a night of rioting and persecution.
Finally, some cure fuzziness 🙂 As we were waiting for the river cruise, we spotted a bundle of cygnets snuggling up for the evening.
So that is a brief rundown of my (very late) honeymoon in York, even with the disappointing visit to Jorvik Centre, everything was worth seeing and as always I can’t wait to go back.