Five fun (and thrifty) historical activities to do in York.

We've put together a blog, featuring five fun historical activities which would make for a great day out with an elderly friend or loved one.

Take a friend, family member or loved one into York and enjoy a change of scene and some intellectual stimulation for next to nothing.

You can splash a lot of cash in pursuit of the history of York. Learn about the Vikings at the Jorvik Viking Centre. Visit the Undercroft at York Minster to see what archaeologists have found out about the ancient origins of the city. Discover the influence of the chocolate manufacturers on the development of the city at York’s Chocolate Story.  All these venues offer fabulously creative state-of-the-art displays and, of course, that comes at a price. However, there is plenty of historical fun to be had for free, or at low cost if that’s your preference.

York City Walls

If you have the energy and some good walking shoes, a tour around the York city walls gives you an excellent introduction to the history of the city. This is a York local, favourite free activity and is always a go-to suggestion for those visiting York for the first time.

The ‘bar walls’, as locals call them, were built in the 13th Century on top of earlier earth mounds. In early Spring the mounds are covered in daffodils, which is a spectacular sight. The walls are not accessible to wheelchairs but it is possible to travel the route of the walls at ground level, following small brass way-markers inset in the pavement. At various points along the route there are information boards which detail the significance of that section of the wall. From your elevated vantage point you get a glimpse into the private gardens and courtyards overlooked by the walls.

You can access the walls at various points and complete the walk briskly in two hours, or take your time and visit points of interest along the way. A map is available here.

The York Cat Trail

Since the Middle Ages, the people of York have put images of cats outside their homes and businesses to ward off rats and mice. The original medieval statues have not stood the test of time, but the tradition continued and York is still home to at least 22 cat statues, some dating back to the early 1900s. Like real cats, some disappear periodically and may or may not reappear, so an accurate count is never possible. Each cat is individual, many having been put in place by Tom Adams, a renowned York architect who put a signature cat on the buildings he worked on. Others have been put in place by businesses or city residents. These enigmatic cats are featured in a walking trail around the city.

The trail takes about an hour to complete and takes you past some of the most historically interesting parts of York; the Shambles, Cliffords Tower, Museum Gardens and York Minster. A shorter ‘kitten trail’ is also suggested for anyone who wants a less energetic walk.

The Snickelways of York

We can guarantee that some of the most longstanding residents of York will be unfamiliar with the term ‘snickelways’, but they would easily recognise their names and locations. The term was invented by Mark W Jones in his 1983 book ‘The Snickelways of York’. Who defines a snickelway as ‘…a narrow place to walk along, leading from somewhere to somewhere else…’. It’s an alleyway, a snicket, a cut-through, or a ginnel. Despite the word being coined in the 1980s, it has been used in documentation by York City Council. Snickelways are a thing!  Some have fascinating names: Mad Alice Lane, Popes Head Alley, Hole in the Wall.

Jones devised a trail taking in the snickelways. Follow the trail and see some of the iconic historical sites of York; the Shambles, York Minster, York Castle and more.

York Railway Museum

This may surprise a few readers, but we’ve checked this several times because we couldn’t quite believe it at first! York Railway Museum is a fabulous place for railway enthusiasts, history buffs and anyone who enjoys getting touchy-feely with heavy engineering and entry is absolutely free!

Permanently on display is the Mallard, the fastest ever steam locomotive, George and Robert Stevenson’s original Rocket engine, and much, much more.  There are additional rides and experiences that you can choose to purchase. A return ticket on a road train from York Minster to the museum and back costs £3.50 per adult, and a simulated ride on the footplate of the Mallard is £3.00 per person. You are encouraged to book tickets in advance to avoid queues.

The museum is fully committed to providing a great experience for everyone and is accessible to wheelchair users, people with sensory disabilities and people with hidden disabilities. Plus, we have it on good authority that the café does an excellent bacon sandwich!

York Museum Gardens

The Museum Gardens were set up in the 1830s by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society and are now owned by the York Museums Trust. During the week they are a peaceful place for meandering and contemplation. At the weekend and during the summer months they are a bustling hub for students and tourists. They are also home to the Yorkshire Museum, the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, the Multangular Tower, Roman in origin, York Observatory the oldest working observatory in Yorkshire and the Hospitium a medieval guest house for visiting merchants. The ruins of St Leonards Hospital are also accessible from the Gardens.

Wander among the beautifully tended flower beds and trees. Sit on a bench with an ice cream and watch the world go by. Explore the ruins and take in a visit to the Yorkshire Museum. There’s easily a couple of hours’ worth of free activity to be had here. Tickets to the Yorkshire Museum cost £8.75 per adult but are valid for the whole year. People on means tested benefits and holders of the York Pass are admitted free of charge. The Museum has a lift for wheelchair users and staff are keen to assist anyone requiring help with access. The Gardens themselves have gently sloping paths and plenty of places to sit and rest.

An afternoon or day out does anyone the power of good. Exercise, fresh air and a change of scene are all uplifting.  Adding a bit of education into the mix is even better. History doesn’t need to be dry or dull. Walking amongst medieval ruins or following a trail along lesser-known York city streets brings the history to life and when the cost is very low you can make it a regular event rather than an occasional treat.

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