The Trail: Section 9. Fishergate Postern to the river Ouse
Map 5 – the South Corner, Walmgate Bar to Micklegate Bar
The Trail 9: South Corner, part2: basics
The Trail 9: South Corner, part2: details
The Trail 9: South Corner, part2: views
The Trail 9: South Corner, part2: off-trail extras: 1. Masons’ Marks
The Trail 9: South Corner, part2: off-trail extras: 2. Pub
The Trail 9: South Corner, part2: off-trail extras: 3. Clifford’s Tower
The Trail 9: South Corner, part2: off-trail extras: 4. Museum plus
The Trail 9: South Corner, part2: off-trail extras: 5. Tower and toilet
The Trail 9: South Corner, part2: stories: 1. The Saddest Story
The Trail 9: South Corner, part2: stories: 2. The Stone Stealer
The Trail 9: South Corner, part 2: basics [see map 5]
This part of the trail is off the Walls, it crosses the River Foss and then the River Ouse, and runs beside the castle which was built between the two rivers. Go through the small arch by Fishergate Postern Tower and carefully cross the road that’s immediately in front of you [trail markers suggest you go a few metres left along the pavement to use the island in the road]. Then go along the right hand pavement of the busy dual carriageway road, you are soon on the bridge over the Foss. There’s a good view behind you of the Walls and its towers and soon there will be an interesting view slightly to your right; this is of the south wall of the castle; in front of a bit of it which looks newer there’s what’s left of the drawbridge pit.
Continue along the pavement till a quiet road crosses your path, at this point, slightly to your right is Clifford’s Tower on the top of its steep man-made hill, this was the castle’s keep and look-out post. The man-made hill dates from 1068 when William the Conqueror came to York and realised it needed a castle [and the 500 soldiers in it] to keep it conquered. When his wood castle was destroyed within the year [inspite of its hill and moat], he revisited, rebuilt and realised that it would need two castles to keep York conquered. The stone castle and its keep were built about the same time as the Walls of the city and are part of the defences that ring the city.
Cross the quiet road in front of you [it leads to the steps up to Clifford’s Tower and to the Castle Museum with its cafe] and then use the pelican crossing to cross the road to your left. Carry on walking in the same direction, through the gardens to the banks of the Ouse –unless the river is in flood [in which case, or if you want a short-cut, go left and stay on the pavement going over the bridge]. Once you are in the gardens the Walls start on your right – but look strangely low as the ground here has been raised to lessen flooding. The trail goes straight on to the banks of the Ouse where Davy Tower has been made into a house. The trail then turns left along the bank of the Ouse and then left to steps going up to the near side of the road which crosses the Ouse. These gardens have long been common land, once used for archery practice, washing and drying clothes and starting processions.
Go across the bridge – this is Skeldergate Bridge [opened 1881]; Hull and the sea are 50 miles downstream, and this route made York an important naval trading city till sea-going boats got bigger at the end of the Middle Ages. Across the bridge the trail markers lead you straight on [across a relatively quiet road] to where the Walls start again and part3 of this corner starts.
The Trail 9: South Corner, part 2: details
Most details about this part of the east corner are best dealt with as views and stories, but it is worth suggesting you pause immediately after crossing the road at the start of this part of the trail.
After crossing go to a tree on your right and look back at Fishergate Postern Tower, you can see its main outer wall with a single slit window and battlements that have been converted into a row of three windows under its roof. You can also see the plinth at the bottom of this wall get lower in steps as it goes left, the ground level probably dropped away there and the River Foss came up against this left corner of the tower. You can just see a medieval toilet sticking out from the left of the tower, so waste from it could drop straight into the river.
Much later, when you have turned away from Clifford’s Tower, as soon as you have crossed the pelican crossing, and while you are still on the pavement, look for a gate a few metres to your right, it leads to a little lane with the street sign “Tower Place”. If you look down this lane you see the inside of the Walls and a narrow stone ledge to defend them from, but the trail goes into the gardens on the outside of the Walls where there was once a ditch [as well as a generally lower ground level]. There is an information board at this point and some flood levels are marked.
When you reach the bank of the river there is a stone and steel sign set in the paving. The sign suggests that once the river was sealed off [eg. as a route of attack] by a chain that ran from Davy Tower, here, on this bank of the Ouse, to a tower [now gone] on the opposite bank. Oval metal plates mounted on low concrete pillars in and near the gardens tell you the area’s history more explicitly.
There is a small tower built into the bridge but with its base in Tower Gardens. This usually has a summer season as a café but originally housed the winding mechanism that allowed the near section of this bridge to be raised to let tall ships through. This is a mid-Victorian bridge, it could be raised for the first hundred years of its life.
The Trail 9: South Corner, part 2: views
From the bridge over the Foss and after: the basics of this are in “basics” but there’s more to be said about the south wall of the castle: the newer-looking stonework was the site of one of the two main gates of the castle but this gate was blocked by royalist forces in the Civil War when they strengthened York’s defences. In the right foreground of your view there’s a watermill, this can be a reminder that there were mills close to here using the water that flowed by the great dam –but this particular mill was moved here to be an exhibition in the Castle Museum [see off trail extra 4].
As you walk on and turn gently right you come close to a round tower in the castle walls, it has lost its battlements at the top of its walls but at their bottom the walls splay out; the splaying out is partly so rocks dropped from the walls would bounce or roll out at attackers, some other towers you’ll see also have this “batter”. Soon the castle walls stop and you see the back of York’s main criminal court. It was mainly built around 1770 and for the first half of the 19th century there were public hangings in front of where the castle walls meet the court [the castle walls here enclose York’s “Debtors’ Prison”, so called because only those imprisoned for debt stayed a long time in the prison, those convicted of crimes were mainly hanged or transported].
A few metres after crossing the quiet road by Clifford’s Tower, by the sign set in the paving pointing to the tower: the basics about the tower are in “basics” but you might be able to see cracks running down the walls [e.g. through a window which has been half closed-up by a repair] and how the walls of the gatehouse to the right seem to lean out. You should expect cracks and leaning out [or worse] if you put stone walls on a hill built for a wooden castle –and we know some of the cracks appeared and were mended soon after the stone tower was built –especially when floods weakened the hill. There is more about your view of the tower in the story “The Stone Stealer”. You are beside a main road, if you look up it you can see grand red-brick Victorian buildings, including the flamboyant, clock-towered, magistrates’ court. The council created this road in Victorian times to break through a set of “Water Lanes” leading down to the river –the lanes were thought to be a home to crime and disease.
From the banks of the Ouse: trees may obscure the views but somewhere in the gardens you can usually find good views of Clifford’s Tower. In the opposite direction, on the other side of the river you can usually see that there is another hill to match the one Clifford’s Tower is on, it has been tree covered since Georgian times. It is easier to see the bank opposite you and upstream where there are warehouses and mill buildings [mixed in with modern flats and a hotel], these are a reminder that York was an important trading centre, connected to the sea by the Ouse which was tidal till mid-Georgian times.
From the bridge over the Ouse: looking ahead and to your right there are the warehouse buildings mentioned as being in the last view, there are also quays, originally for the landing of goods on the side you are leaving.
The Trail 9: South Corner, part 2: off-trail extras: 1. Masons’ Marks
Turn left along the pavement at the very start of this part of the trail, before you cross the road. This takes you along the outside of the Walls in the part1 of this corner – or rather along a small part of them. This is one of the few bits of the Walls where most people can spot masons’ marks from the pavement. Several masons’ marks have been recorded here, the easiest to point out is on the first stone past the slight corner in the Walls, it is 2 metres up the wall [four courses above the plinth], it’s two linked V shapes pointing left, the marks seem to stop when you reach the rectangular corner tower [more about masons’ marks is towards the end of the “Stone and Stonework” section in the Appendix].
The Trail 9: South Corner, part 2: off-trail extras: 2. Pub
When you have just crossed the road at the very start of this part of the trail you are outside a recently built pub, “The Postern Gate”. It is run by Wetherspoons, so it has fairly cheap food and a good range of drinks. It has good wheelchair access to the pub and toilets etc. and a terrace looking out onto the River Foss and the castle walls. The best flat route to its terrace is through the passage immediately to the right of the pub.
The Trail 9: South Corner, part 2: off-trail extras: 3. Clifford’s Tower
A fine, partly tactile information board and a time-line history of York set into the paving are at the bottom of the steps up to the tower. There is also a large commemorative plaque, its story is explained by ‘The Saddest Story’ at the end of this section.
The tower has a platform at the top with very extensive views, perhaps the best in York. The platform and gantries leading to it and to a remarkable, rainwater-flushed, medieval toilet were opened in 2022. Creative sound installations now hint at the history of the tower while elegant interpretation boards describe its history and the views. The boards largely ignore the actual fabric of the ruin and the new gantries make some feel a little uncomfortable but the 13th century spiral staircases can be used to get to the roof and in them you can spot masons’ marks for yourself.
English Heritage charge for entry [https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/cliffords-tower-york/ ] but are happy for you to climb the steps up its Norman hill without paying, they are very unhappy if people walk on the grass and earth of the hill. They sell an interesting and attractively presented guidebook to the tower in their shop. Even without going up the steps you can probably see that the roofed gatehouse at the top of the steps doesn’t match the main walls of the tower; looked at from above, it’s like a stubby stem to the four-leafed clover of the main tower. This gatehouse was mostly built in the 1640s to prepare for the Civil War and cannon fire from outside the city, the royal coat of arms [the top one], weathered but recently carefully cleaned, was also carved at this time.
The Trail 9: South Corner, part 2: off-trail extras: 4. Museum plus
This is a very attractive extra even if you don’t wish to go into the museum. The quiet road you cross before reaching Clifford’s Tower’s hill takes you the 60 metres to a flat green space known as “the Eye of York”. It was where non-secret voting took place to decide who should represent Yorkshire in parliament [in late Georgian times electing William Wilberforce who successfully led the anti-slavery movement]. Three buildings face the Eye, the one you have passed is still the highest criminal court in York [you can see a figure with scales of fairness and spear of power on its roof], it was built to be this almost 250 years ago. Opposite the crown court is its twin, built as a women’s prison. Between the twins is an earlier building, the Debtors’ Prison of 1705.
These last two buildings now house the Castle Museum [details, including charges, are at https://www.yorkcastlemuseum.org.uk/]. It is mainly a museum of everyday things from the past, but it also features bits of the prison and medieval castle. On entering [and before you have to pay for entry], on your right, are its café, bookshop and toilet.
The Trail 9: South Corner, part 2: off-trail extras: 5. Tower and toilet plus
This is a very interesting extra. When the trail turns away from Clifford’s Tower at the pelican crossing there are public toilets about 150 metres away –and it’s a very attractive walk. Leave the trail by walking clockwise around the tower, staying on the pavement [or on the grass]. When the pavement ends with car park entrances the toilets are 50 metres straight in front of you. An island between the entrances has a finger post and map, to your left here is Castlegate with a fine Georgian house, Fairfax House; beyond this is St. Mary’s, a spired medieval church –now used for art installations. Across the car park to your right is a side view of a Georgian prison for women and a front view of the older, more striking Debtor’s Prison [they now house the Castle Museum].
This route also allows you to see something of Clifford’s Tower’s medieval toilets: in the middle of your walk round the tower, look up at its lower walls for a vertical, rounded stone shoot between two, angled vertical supports for the “garde-robe” turret. This shoot took the waste from the first floor toilet of the tower down to the top of the hill –where it would be an added discouragement to anyone attacking the tower [unless they chose to try a sneak attack up the shoot, at least one medieval castle is said to have been successfully attacked this way!].
The car park itself has been described as the worst-sited car park in Europe, it probably survives because it earns money and seems less bad than various plans there have been to build on it.
The Trail 9: South Corner, part 2: stories: 1. The Saddest Story
More than 800 years ago, in 1190, something deeply sad happened on the hill where Clifford’s Tower now stands. It is difficult to be sure about the details because it happened so long ago and different writers from the time don’t agree on the details, but the truth is something like this:
There was a community of religious Jews living in York and some other cities but everyone else in country was officially Christian. The Christians were what we’d call today Roman Catholic Christian because they accepted the pope in Rome as the head of their Church. The pope had asked Christians to go on a military crusade to put Jerusalem under Christian control [to most of the Muslims who lived in and around Jerusalem, of course, this was a military invasion of their lands] –and the new king of England was getting ready to go on this crusade. A rumour started that the new crusader-king no longer wanted to protect the non-Christian Jews of England, some even said you didn’t have to go abroad to find enemies of Christianity to kill. There were a lot of anti-Jewish attacks at this time; Jews were injured, forced to convert to Christianity or killed –sometimes all three.
The attack in York was a particularly bad one and the Jews of York went to the King’s Tower at the top of its hill for protection. They were let in and prepared to defend themselves but were surrounded by a large crowd of armed knights and ordinary people. After holding out against the crowd for a while most of them decided to choose their own death rather than fall into the hands of their attackers; they probably organised in families so that everyone who agreed had their throat slit and died quickly. Some probably didn’t agree to this, but it seems that any survivors of the mass suicide were killed by the attackers –and sometime during all this the wood tower on the hill was burnt down. Probably about 150 men, women and children were killed, the whole Jewish community in York.
This sounds like a story of bigoted Christians wanting to kill people who had a different religion but there’s a complication. At that time Jews were not allowed to join the trade guilds so one of the few ways they could earn money was by lending it and charging interest. Money lenders are seen as very useful when you want to borrow money from them –but as evil when they want their interest paid or their money back. It seems that the attack in York was started by people who owed money to local Jews and it also seems that as soon as the Jews were dead the mob ran to the Minster – not for a Christian service to celebrate the death of the unbelievers but so they could break into the Minster chests and burn the records of debts that were kept there.
There’s a post-script to this story: in late March, which is when the massacre happened, these slopes are covered with flowering daffodils and many of them were planted in the 1990s as a memorial to the Jews who died here. Daffodils are yellow with a ruff of 6 petals around the trumpet, these 6 petals look a little like the star of David, which is often used as a symbol of Judaism.
The Trail 9: South Corner, part 2: stories: 2. The Stone Stealer
Today Sociologists would call it a “white collar crime” [a crime committed mainly by the middle class]; I imagine this as a frilly white Elizabethan ruff crime. A gaoler decided to take advantage of the fact that he was in charge of York Castle –and he turned thief.
Towards the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s time, rather more than 400 years ago when the stone tower had been standing for 350 years, Clifford’s Tower was just the most striking part of York Castle. This castle had tall walls all round it, but they were getting dilapidated –literally dilapidated, the stones were getting loose and falling out. The main use of the castle was as a prison and an enterprising man called Robert Redhead was put in charge of it. This was a royal appointment, nothing to do with York’s Lord Mayor or corporation but we know from their records that citizens started to notice something strange about what they thought of as “their” Clifford’s Tower: it was shrinking! It seems that the gaoler was slowly dismantling it; some say he was burning the stone to make lime which could be sold, others that he was using the stone to build a cock-pit in town –a place where cockerels are brought to fight and where people can watch and bet on the outcome of the fight. The corporation complained to the Queen and eventually Redhead was stopped but not before the level of the wall-walk and the battlements above them had been lowered by half a metre or more.
There’s evidence you can see of this lowering. If you look at the tower from the place suggested in “views” then you can see, at the top of the tower on your left, a stone channel or spout sticking out, it is a very weathered gargoyle. Water drained off the wall-walk and came gurgling through the mouth of this gargoyle -but you may be able to see that this spout is now some way above the level of the stone wall-walk behind it –though the wood platform visitors now use is higher You can also see, on what was a tall parapet, the very bottom of slit windows to fire arrows through, but most of the stonework around the windows has gone. The clearest one of these slit window bottoms is on the right, it is just to the right of a dip in the parapet, it looks a little like the socket for a dove-tail joint.
LINKS TO TRAIL PAGES :-
Wall Trail: – map 1
Wall Trail: Introduction
Wall Trail: Overview
PREVIOUS SECTION = The Trail: Section 8. South Corner, part1
Wall Trail: – map 5
NEXT SECTION = The Trail: Section 10. South Corner, part3
Wall Trail: Appendix
Walls Trail: Glossary, Maps & Credits
Walls Trail: Contents & Links
RETURN TO WALL TRAIL HOME PAGE
Layout, text and all content is copyright to the Friends of York Walls.
Any comments, errors/corrections, etc. to firstname.lastname@example.org