Aye, so all of you do exist in your physical form,” said ?the portly gentleman, seemingly dressed for a funeral. “It seems they have taken the day off today!”
He had made the 23 of us form a semicircle around him and gone around tapping each one on the shoulder. It seemed like some cult ritual, an idea encouraged by translucent clouds, a full moon and the medieval skyline of York in the distance. To add to the illusion of unreality, he added conversationally, “On previous evenings, my hand has gone right through a shoulder or two.”
While our curator considered it a compliment that the subjects of his Original Ghost Tour of York occasionally joined the late evening walk, the spooky drama had successfully vanquished our sense of safety in numbers. It was a crowd of people wary of each other and of their own shadows that set off on the walk in what is reputed to be the most haunted city in all of the United Kingdom.
It hadn’t always been like this. We had started our journey across northern England from Cumbria in the north-west, spent tranquil and sunny days in the Lake District, walked across Hadrian’s Wall (a medieval wall the Romans built to protect Britannia from the Celtic tribes) and partied in Newcastle, with just the odd shower reminding us we were in the UK. But, as we drove to North Yorkshire, the heavens opened up. Quite unlike the e-brochure depictions of green dales criss-crossed with happy brooks reflecting blue skies and wispy clouds, we encountered a flat grey.
Which is why at Eppleby—a little village on the B6274 motorway—it was hard to resist the warm glow emanating from the Cross Keys Inn. Nursing their evening tipple inside were the locals, country folk with rough exteriors and warm and friendly dispositions. They invited us in while Janice, the part-time bartender, immediately brought out a pot of tea. Richard, downing his beer at the bar, bought us drinks and a few others gathered around. The cheery banter started off with cricket (of course) and touched the Ganga, George Harrison and Pandit Ravi Shankar. For these men who rarely ventured out of their country, we were obviously a happy deviation from the standard evening.
They also gave us precise directions to our B&B (bed and breakfast) in Hawse, 25 miles (around 40km) away. It was still pouring when we got there an hour later but the Old Dairy Farm—rustic village house on the outside and all-luxury home stay inside—lifted our dampened spirits. Paul and Pam Cajiao, our hosts, treated us to a dinner of superb pure-bred Yorkshire lamb shanks and it seemed only fitting the next morning that the sun would send the clouds flitting away ahead of our plan for the day: a spot of cycling in the Dales.
Bicycles, in fact, are the perfect way to get a feel of Yorkshire Dales, a network of hills and river valleys, interspersed with cows and cattle stiles and picture-postcard farmhouses. Plus, there are the little villages scattered across the countryside, each with its local beers, one-street markets and ancient abbeys. So, we borrowed two Trek 10 bicycles rigged with helmet, saddlebag, water bottle, lock from Off the Rails, a cycling outfit, and set off, armed with an informative map and an emergency backup number.
The idea was to cycle 23 miles from Garsdale Head railway station (about 5 miles from the Old Dairy Farm) to Appleby, return the cycles and catch a train back to Garsdale. The route was unbelievably pretty, with little market towns such as Kirkby Stephen, landmarks such as the Pendragon Castle (the legendary birthplace of King Arthur) and grand viaducts. But the uphill slogs were sheer hardship for those of us getting back on to the saddle after 10 years or so.
You don’t need to read a guidebook to realize that York is steeped in history—its rough-hewn city walls, cobbled streets and ancient castles give it away. The Romans were here (in fact, some of them were reluctant to leave, but more on that later) in 69 AD, since the confluence of the Ouse and Foss rivers made this spot the perfect administrative capital after the ninth legion captured the city from the Brigantes, a tribe that was then spread over what is now Scotland.
The Vikings took York in the ninth century, rowing across in their longboats from Scandinavia. Under their rule, the city became a major river port, part of the extensive Viking trading routes throughout northern Europe. The Jorvik Viking Centre has a reconstruction of the way York would have been circa 875 AD, when the Vikings landed. Then came the Scots, led by William Wallace, who sacked York after the battle of Stirling and sent back to London, in a basket, the head of the English nobleman in command.
The millennia merge seamlessly in York today. Boutiques sporting the latest fashions are housed in buildings where mistresses wore the first whalebone corsets. The bank of the Ouse river, below the second Ouse bridge, is lined with rollicking public houses serving traditional ales and international beers.
But, the structure that stands out as a must-see in the city centre is the York Minster, a medieval high-rise. My sun hat fell off when I lifted my head to take in the summit of its 200ft-high central tower. The Minster, the most visited cathedral in Britain, took more than 250 years to complete. Just outside is a Roman column that was recovered from the foundations and dates back to the first century.
Down the way from the Roman column lies the Treasurer’s House, “an elegant townhouse dating from medieval times”. That, however, was not why we were keen to see it: During our Ghost Tour, the curator had told us the strange story of Harry Martindale, apprentice plumber. In 1953, the young man was installing a new heating system in the cellar of the house when he saw an entire Roman legion—carthorse, short swords, plumed helmets et al—walk in through one wall and out through the other. They all looked battle-weary, as if they had just had an encounter with Asterix and Obelix.
Over the decades, there have been subsequent sightings and the Roman legion is now one of York’s most endearing ghosts. We peered in through the cellar door, but heard and saw nothing. Which, frankly, was a relief. I can live without my hand going through someone’s shoulder.
How to go:
Visas: Apply at the UK embassies in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. Visas cost Rs5,700.
Flights: British Airways and Jet Airways connect Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore with London, daily. Log on to www.ba.com or www.jetairways.com. Return fares start from around Rs40,000, including taxes. York and North Yorkshire are a 4-hour drive from London. Take the M1 to head north. Detailed routes and driving directions are available on The Automobile Association website www.theaa.com.
Where to stay:
The Old Dairy Farm is absolute luxury in the countryside, with very cozy rooms and lavish bathrooms. Visit www.olddairyfarm.co.uk. Rooms cost upwards of £100 (around Rs8,000) for a night. The Mount Royale Hotel in York is a good place to stay, with friendly staff well versed in local attractions and happenings in York. See www.mountroyale.co.uk. Double rooms available for £99 and above for a night.
What to do:
Spend at least three days in York, there is so much to see and do. A smart thing to do is to invest in a York Pass (www.yorkpass.com), which allows free entry to 28 top tourist attractions over one, two or three days, and comes with a free guidebook. Apart from the places mentioned above, there are museums, a Viking Centre and plenty of stuff for children, too. Adult passes cost upwards of £21; family passes come for upwards of £58.
For a day out cycling, look no further than Off The Rails (www.offtherails.org.uk)
The Original Ghost Walk of York starts every night from The King’s Arms Pub, Ouse bridge, at 8pm, no matter what the weather. It costs £4 for adults, £3 for students and £2.5 for kids (www.theoriginalghostwalkofyork.co.uk).
Where to eat:
Do have one meal, preferably brunch or afternoon tea, at Betty’s Café (there are two “Tea Rooms” in York), which was established in 1919. The ambience, the service and the crockery all drip Englishness, and the cucumber sandwiches and hot buttered scones are bound to take you back to your Enid Blyton days (www.bettys.co.uk).
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