A walk in York: Roman walls, battlements, turrets and the most glorious cathedral façade in Britain

Fiona Reynolds swapped the countryside for the city as she walked York's magnificent city walls.

Although I think of myself as a country walker, I do just as much in cities. Cambridge, obviously, where my early-morning walk is a fixture, but I often choose to walk in London rather than battle with the Tube. You can get a long way, usually much more pleasantly, in an hour on foot from King’s Cross.

An invitation to York gave me a fabulous chance to take my city-walking north, to the ancient city walls. York was the capital of the Roman province Britannia Inferior and is still capital of the northern ecclesiastical province of the Church of England – ever wondered why there is an Archbishop of York as well as of Canterbury? – and its walls, although much altered, date from Roman times. In fact, they’re the most intact city walls in England, despite repeated attempts to knock them down.

Steps with no people – York city walls

Today’s wall-walk results from a compromise 200 years ago, when arches were punched through to enable access and the remaining ‘ring’ around the medieval city made into a footpath to be enjoyed by all citizens.

My day in York went beautifully, except that it was the wettest and wildest in weeks. My friend and I abandoned attempts to keep dry and walked the walls soaked and heads up, relishing cloud-drenched views and multiple sights of the glorious Minster.

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We started in the north, at Bootham Bar (as the great gateways are called), which dates from AD71 and encloses the Minster on two sides, and walked between Victorian ‘battlements’ with splendid turrets.

Turning south-east, we passed a string of beautiful houses and gardens, among them the National Trust’s Treasurers’ House. At Monk Bar, there’s a charming museum dedicated to Richard III, who was king when the Bar was completed.

From this point on, our route was not contained: on our left hand was the Victorian-rebuilt top of the wall and, on our right, a steep drop to the banks on which the walls stand – what joy that there are no ‘be careful’ signs!

We walked until we reached a full stop at Layerthorpe Bridge, crossing the River Foss. There was never a wall here, because for 700 years the eastern side of the city was defended by the huge, dammed King’s Fishpool. Today, however, it’s a busy road, so we walked quickly to the Red Tower, a 15th-century watchtower, to pick up our wall-walk.

Soon we were at Walmgate Bar, the only Bar to maintain its barbican and portcullis, and which also houses, in an elegant Elizabethan extension, a warm, welcoming cafe where we sheltered from the rain.

York city walls

Emerging thankfully into better weather, we paced to Fishergate Bar before descending to cross the Foss again, followed closely by the River Ouse, the banks of which enclose York Castle and its keep, Clifford’s Tower. We picked up the walls again by Baile Hill, the remains of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle that was built in the 11th century to defend the south-west approach to the city. The wall-walk climbs to a wide platform on which we saw the whole southern end of the old city, accommodating neat rows of Victorian houses.

Our next staging post was Micklegate Bar, the grandest medieval entrance to the city (now a museum telling Henry VII’s story) and renowned for the ghoulish tradition of displaying the severed heads of executed traitors and rebels. We swung north, with perfect views of the Minster ahead, the railway station to our left and green banks soon to be rich with daffodils on either side. We had just one more dog-leg to do, re-crossing the River Ouse, before we picked up the last remnants of the wall on our return to Bootham Bar.

As the sun set, unexpectedly flaming red after this stormy day, it was fitting that we concluded our walk at the West End of York Minster, one of the most glorious façades in England.

York Minster, the cathedral of the city of York, floodlit at twilight.

Fiona’s book ‘The Fight for Beauty’ is published by Oneworld. Follow her on Twitter: @fionacreynolds