Stone and Stonework
Flowers of the Walls and Ramparts
Information boards & markers
Refreshments, Seats & Toilets
The Walls are open [and free] to walk on daily from about 8.00 to dusk, except when snow or ice is believed to make them dangerous; they are not usually scary for people with a medium fear of heights.
Sadly, no section on top of the Walls is suitable for use in a wheel chair [there are steps to go up, then frequent steps and it’s too narrow for safe passing]; pushchairs create problems but occasionally people try to use them; dogs [other than guide dogs and assistance dogs] are banned. If you do wish to follow York’s City Walls Trail from ground level then see the map HERE . There are many sections where there are no railings on one side of the walk. Young children should be supervised at all times.
For information on short term closures, like those for ice, the phone number is now 01904 551551, from 8.30 -5.30 Monday to Friday. This takes you to an operator at “Smarter York” who should have had an email informing them of any closures; these should also be posted on the City of York Council twitter and facebook accounts, there are links to these on the main City Walls page.
This guide is to help you enjoy a self-guided tour.
A very similar text to these web pages, with a detailed index, and black and white versions of many of the pictures used in these web pages are available in book form as “A Walking Guide to York’s City Walls” by Simon Mattam ISBN 978-0-9929002-0-5
Copies of a 1974 booklet “The Bars and Walls of York” by R.M.Butler may still be available from the publishers, Yorkshire Architectural and York Archaeological Society.
The free tours led by members of the Association of Voluntary Guides for York usually include what is labelled in this guide as sections 1-3 and the later part of section13. They set off from their A-board in the square opposite Bootham Bar at 10.15 and 1.15 everyday except Christmas Day, their website gives details [www.avgyork.co.uk]. These tours are genuinely free, their guides don’t ask for tips and only accept them [on behalf of the Association] if refusal seems rude. White Rose tours cover similar sections of the Walls as part of a longer tour; they advertise their daily tours as free but guides explain that they hope to earn a living from voluntary tips. Their website gives details [www.whiteroseyork.com].
You can book private tours of the Walls from several organisations: Friends of York Walls’ website tells you how to arrange tours with our trained guides in exchange for a donation. Yorkwalk offer a Walls tour with their professional guides, their website gives details. Tripadvisor currently seem to mix information on the City Walls themselves with information on private tours of the Walls offered by ‘York City Walls’.
Open top double-decker bus tours go round the outside of about half the Walls [currently not in mid-winter], they often wait by Bootham Bar, spoiling the view for those not on the bus. Their website gives details [https://city-sightseeing.com/en/115/york/264/hop-on-hop-off-york]
Several audio tours of the Walls are probably available, mainly as apps for mobile phones, but these and Youtube ‘tours’ seem to appear and disappear. We’d be happy to hear of any you know of and any comments about them. You may be able to link to some through the FOYW website, in particular to an app and a simple speeded up video walk round the Walls created for the 2019 festival of the Walls.
Stone and Stonework
The Walls are built almost entirely of magnesian limestone from near Tadcaster about 10 miles south-west of York. This is a very variable stone but it often looks warmer, with variable shades of light brown-yellow than other, uniformly white-grey, limestones. This variable colour is partly because of the metal salts it contains, its salts include the salts of magnesium that give the stone its name [other limestones are nearly all calcium carbonate] but it is probably when it contains iron salts that it has a warmer colour and it seems to be the warmer coloured stone which turns red-pink when it is scorched by fire [a little like rust: iron oxide].
The stone was laid down at the bottom of a shallow, very salty bit of sea where few creatures lived so it has few fossils. While it was turning into rock it was unevenly soaked in chemicals, this brought in the magnesium and iron, dissolved some shell fossils and made some bits of the rock very vulnerable to acid rain. Blocks made of this vulnerable rock have weathered fast since Victorian times [smoke and engine fumes made the rain acid]. The stone flakes off or turns to powder when water soaks in rather than just washing over the surface. Carvings and even the edges of arrow slits on the Walls are most likely to get soaked and start “weathering” in this way.
When shell fossils have been dissolved even newly cut stone will have small holes in it. When there are small patches of vulnerable stone in a big block, these will become holes when the block weathers. These are two of the ways nature produces hollows in the stone of the Walls, these hollows can be mistaken for the scars of bullets and cannon balls –but most people think there are real scars to be seen too.
The Romans used regular sized blocks a bit larger than a modern brick but the medieval masons used much larger, squared blocks of varied sizes. They both used lime mortar to cement the blocks together –and used rubble and mortar as a thick filling sandwiched between two walls of shaped blocks. The medieval masons did not tie the two walls of shaped blocks together so they tend to move apart –modern repairs use hidden metal ties. The Romans sometimes seemed to have used a through layer of red tiles as a tie.
The wall-walk paving is mainly what is now called “York stone”. It is a brownish, fine-grained sandstone from the Bradford area about 30 miles south-west of York. It splits well into paving stones and probably got its name because it was so widely used in York’s streets. On the wall-walk it was mainly laid in Victorian times. Unlike limestone it is particularly impervious to water so puddles form quickly on it and stay there. These puddles can become icy, which leads to the Walls being closed because the use of salted grit to melt the ice would increase the weathering of the limestone.
The Romans in York also used an orange-brown, coarse grained sandstone known as “millstone grit”. They don’t seem to have used it on the exposed bits of their fort walls but archaeologists say later builders sometimes re-used Roman millstone grit. This is most obvious in the main old arch of Micklegate Bar. Millstone grit also seems to have been used by the Victorians to build some of their arches through the Walls. It comes from the edges of the Pennines, there are outcrops about 30 miles west of York.
Masons have sometimes left smaller scale signs of their work than the Walls themselves and the shapes and size of the blocks they cut and laid. Deep, drilled or chisel-cut holes 2-3 centimetres across were used for a lewis to grip in; a lewis is a metal device used since Roman times to raise stones, it is attached to the end of a rope or chain instead of using a sling to hold the stone. These holes are rarely on a visible surface.
Where stones are not badly weathered, chisel marks, especially those showing the use of a “claw chisel” with a notched blade, are sometimes visible. More interesting and varied are “masons’ marks”. These are usually straight-line designs, some as simple as a triangle or arrow, knife-cut or chiselled fairly lightly into stone blocks. They label a block as being made by a particular mason, they are his signature in stone. It is thought stones were labelled for quality control, not so masons could be paid by output. At the time of the first building of the Walls there was a lot of building going on in York –the castle and the Walls were being built for fear of a war with Scotland, and the walls of St Mary’s Abbey just outside the city were being built for fear of the Scots and fear of the people of York [jealous of the monastery’s wealth], the present Minster had been started a few years earlier and was still actively being built. So at this time there was lots of work for masons in York so lots of wandering masons probably came to York for work –they would be strangers to the master mason in charge of the building so how was he to know their work was good enough to make them worth employing? –The answer is that each mason would have his own mark and he would sign his stones, or at least the stones he shaped first, with his mark so that the master mason could see the quality of his work. It is extraordinary that we can still see some of these marks after 750 years -because the mason who cut them only needed them to be visible for a few days. Several marks you can see are mentioned in the trail guide e.g. Monk Bar [section3 details] and the foot passages at Fishergate Bar [section8 off-trail extra].
Flowers of the Walls and Ramparts
The plants here are mainly the usual ones for an English road-side and rough wall.
A few plants grow in cracks in the Walls. One of the commonest and prettiest is the delicate ivy-leaved toadflax with small, lipped flowers of yellow and purple. It is also called “mother of thousands” because it can spread so well by seed. The seed heads move away from light so the seeds often go into cracks in the wall. It is from Italy, it probably started escaping from English gardens in the 17th century. The yellow corydalis is a more showy, later garden escape. It has masses of strange, tube-shaped flowers and is native to the Southern Alps.
Plants like these probably do little harm, though any plant that roots in the walls can start to push stones apart and plants that build up wood year to year like Buddleia, have to be seen as beautiful enemies of the Walls.
In a few places ivy is growing on the Walls and opinion is divided on the harm or good it does. Recent research suggests that it does good as long as its proper roots are not in the wall [its aerial roots that just grip onto stone, seem to do no harm] –but it was cut back from the Walls east of Micklegate Bar in 2013.
Many daffodils have been planted on the ramparts so they make a fine show in March, lingering later in shady areas. Some people time their visits to York so that they come when the daffodils are in flower; it is said that the Romans brought daffodils to England, some add that Roman soldiers carried daffodil bulbs to ease and speed their death if they were badly wounded [others say it was to stick cuts together!]. The most obvious wild flowers on the ramparts are the tall, lacy white heads of cow parsley that flowers immediately after the daffodils, their white and green is usually varied by a speckling of yellow, mainly from buttercups and dandelions. In the Minster grounds the Walls look down on typical English woodland flowers like bluebells [in May].
The greatest variety of wild flowers is usually found on the outer side of the rampart just east of Micklegate Bar. This is also where you can see [near the three lowest of a group of trees] the most historically intriguing plant of the ramparts: alexanders. This was probably introduced to Britain by the Romans and it was noted under the Walls in the 1780s. It was introduced as a spring vegetable and general tonic -all of it is edible: its umbels of pale yellow flowers, its metre-tall celery-like stems, its glossy, dark green leaves and its black seeds. It is not common in Britain away from the coast so it is tempting to think that it is here because Romans planted this “parsley of Alexandria” here.
On the outer ramparts west of Micklegate Bar and the inner ramparts east of the bar and near the railway station hundreds of wild flowers were planted in 2012 to try to increase the variety of flowers. Look out for tansy, oxeye daisies, greater burnet, cowslip, knapweed, agrimony, clover and ladies bedstraw.
The main fortified gateways have been called bars [or barram or barre] since at least 1315 but in early times “lith” was used. To add a little confusion, a mid 12th century document refers to “Micklelith” [assumed to be Micklegate Bar] while having the word porta [Latin for gate] and barram in the same sentence. They barred the way –and may even have had a bar over which the murage tax was paid on goods being brought into the city for sale in its markets. Bootham Bar is a reference to the market booths outside it –where presumably traders didn’t have to pay murage but had to pay something to the city as it became an official city market [though originally linked to St Mary’s Abbey], the street there is called Bootham. Walmgate Bar and Micklegate Bar are named after the city streets leading to them –“gate” is the name for street inherited from the Vikings, it is commonly used for old streets in north-east England. “Mickle” means big –a word probably shared by the Vikings and those they conquered here [so if you remember “many a mickle maks a muckle” as a proverb pointing out how little things accumulate, you should really correct this to “many a pickle maks a mickle”].
Monk Bar is assumed to be named after some monks, perhaps some associated with the nearby Minster but the Minster was never part of a monastery and though York had many “religious houses” run by monks none seem to have been close to this bar. Amongst the lesser bars, Victoria Bar was opened at the time Queen Victoria came to the throne [and probably is on the site of “Lounelith”, the secluded bar] and Fishergate is just outside Fishergate Bar [and Fishergate Postern], one end of it seems to have been the dam that made the river Foss into “the King’s Fishpool” [the dam was created on the orders of William the Conqueror –or “the Great King” as he was sometimes known –though “William the Bastard” also referred to him].
The Royal Commission on Historic Monuments in the reference work “Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 2, the Defences” numbers the towers along The Walls in a clockwise direction starting with Tower No.1 at Baile Hill. Some towers also have names. (See map below)
In this guide starting at Bootham Bar and running clockwise around the trail, the towers you can see are [as labelled by the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments] in the north corner: 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, Robin Hood Tower , 28; in east corner: Harlot Hill , New Tower , 33, 34, Red Tower, 35, 36; in the south corner: 37,38,39, Fishergate Postern Tower, Clifford’s Tower, Davy Tower, 1, 2, Bitchdaughter Tower , 4, 5, 6, Sadler Tower , 8, 9, 10, 11; in the west corner: 12, Tofts Tower , 14, 15, 16, 17, Barker Tower, Lendal Tower, Multangular Tower, Anglian Tower .
The last of these was not really part of the defences of the city in medieval times. The same could be said of the precinct walls of St Mary’s Abbey but they are included as an off-trail extra in this guide; on an anti-clockwise walk round them starting at Bootham Bar, the towers are: Postern Tower, E, D, St Mary’s Tower, C, B, A, Water Tower
The underlined towers here are where the Walls change direction in a big way. The towers in italics are not interval towers –or do not look like interval towers at the moment –as they do not currently have the Walls on both sides of them.
We know earlier names for some of these towers but these seem of little interest except to specialist historians; the current names usually have an obvious meaning and origin or are a puzzle. An exception is Clifford’s Tower, this probably started as an unofficial name [its earliest official use was in Elizabethan times] referring to the time when Sir Roger Clifford was hanging from it, after being executed for taking part in an armed rebellion against Edward II in 1322 [though some say his execution was by slow hanging from the tower]. Other exceptions are Barker Tower [barkers used tree bark in the tanning of leather, they also used lots of water so were probably based near this tower on the River Ouse, an area called Tanner’s Moat is close by] and Lendal Tower [“Lendal” is a shortening distortion of “St Leonard’s Landing” or “St Leonard’s Landing Hill”, goods and people were landed from the Ouse beside the tower, St Leonard’s Hospital was close].
Information boards & markers
There are several different types of information board on the City Walls Trail but the commonest and most informative are the 18 orange and purple boards. The 15 main boards include a map showing most of the trail and an estimate of how long it takes to walk to the next boards in both directions along the trail. Some information on these is outdated [e.g. phone number]. Each bar has its large orange and purple board [Micklegate Bar has 2!] and most of the rest are at the other places where you can go up to the wall-walk. These 15 main boards are where you will also find the QR reference cards giving scan links to these Walls Trail pages. Many of these 15 boards are accompanied by a section of a metal map you can take a rubbing of to build up a complete A4 map of the Walls and the old city inside them.
There is only one information board on the wall-walk but there are a few places where you walk over words and symbols set into the paving of the wall-walk or the ground level parts of the trail. These tell you of something special to look at there –but they can be a bit of a puzzle. They have narrow frames which have a “V” cut out of them pointing in the direction you should look.
The route of the City Walls Trail between the lengths of walkable wall-walk is marked on the ground with small brass pavement studs showing a tower with battlements. Following these studs can be fun but it’s more of a challenge than originally intended because a few have gone missing and 3 have even gone to the wrong side of a road [York City Council plan to get these three removed and additional studs added but city authorities act slowly in York –that’s partly why we still have the Walls to walk round!]. There seems to be no official map showing the whole studded route [with its two short diversions] but there’s a leaflet version available to print on the Friends of York Walls website –and there is this guide you are reading!
There is now an A3 version of the Walls Trail map with illustrations and notes added, It is on sale at York Explore [what was the York Central Library] at 50p.. Another version features a relatively wheelchair-friendly route around the Walls and can be found on the Friends of York Walls website; an A3 print of this is free at Visit York and at Shopmobility [Coppergate / Piccadilly] to those physically unable to use all the City Walls Trail.
Glass marbles set in the pavement are part of a separate [“Breadcrumbs”] trail.
The small mosaic in the path west of the Multangular Tower is surrounded by a frame labelled ‘Multangular Tower’ and is pointing to it. It is one of 9 pointing signs along the City Walls Trail, 3 are not up on the wall -walk, another points to Clifford’s Tower, and another to Davy Tower.
On at least some parts of the wall-walk you may notice small brass markers embedded every 25 metres along the middle of the wall-walk, the easiest to spot are domed and a centimetre across [every 100 metres]; others are smaller and flatter, circular or hexagonal –these are simply to help those involved in maintenance to map problems that need attention.
Refreshments, Seats & Toilets
These are mentioned, usually in more detail, usually as “off-trail extras” in the trail guide; the section featuring them is given in brackets at the end of each description here.
There are many cafés, restaurants and pubs close to the Walls trail, what follows are brief details of some you might not notice or which are so special that you might want to plan to visit them.
Grays Court has its own steps down from the Walls into its splendid garden below the north corner of the trail [100 metres north west of Monk Bar]. It is fairly expensive [fair for its location, varied menu and surroundings –garden and house], to check availability, especially of the steps, phone 01904 612614 or go to its website. [trail section2]
In contrast, Keystones at Monk Bar is an ordinary pub in the Scream chain but it has flat access from the pavement to an excellent, sheltered, open air eating and drinking space set against the outer ramparts and close by an old icehouse which is set into the ramparts. [trail section 3]
In even greater contrast to Grays Court is the café of Morrison’s supermarket [its toilet is next to the café]. This is about 400 metres south east of Monk Bar. It is close to the trail and easy to find as it’s at the base of a chimney that is huge by York’s standards –and handsome by mine. Leave the trail by a part-pelicon crossing [to your left when you are just past the closest point to the Victorian chimney], then go up a short path till you get to the chimney. [trail section 5]
Another contrast is the small, wonderful, church-run café inside Walmgate Bar [usually open 10.00 -6.00, not Sundays, phone 01904 464050, it’s “gatehousecoffee” on Facebook]. Three of the small wonders it is full of [the barbican, portcullis and toilet] are to the right as you enter, others are upstairs. [trail section7]
A fourth contrast is “The Postern Gate” [unsurprisingly next to Fishergate Postern Tower and beside the trail]. This pub is run by Wetherspoons, so it has cheap food. It has a terrace looking out onto the River Foss and castle walls; it is in a modern building I think fits in very well with its medieval neighbours. [trail section9]
The Bar Convent [café-restaurant and free museum] is on the south-east corner of the crossroads just outside Micklegate Bar. It is in a fine Georgian building which also houses the oldest Roman Catholic nunnery in England. [trail section11]
On the west corner of the trail, Barker Tower, on the south bank of the River Ouse [and occasionally surrounded by the Ouse], is about 20 metres of steps [down then up] from the trail. This medieval tower has a small, excellent but toilet-less café called the Perky Peacock; currently it may not open at weekends or late in the afternoon. [www.facebook.com/theperkypeacock may get you details] [trail section12]
King’s Manor university café is cheap, good and often quiet in a fascinating old building but it may not be open [usually not weekends or after 3.00], it usually has a board out at the Manor’s gilded gates in the square opposite Bootham Bar. [trail section13]
An attractive independent café was neatly inserted beside Bootham Bar in 2015. It has entrances either side of the steps going up to the bar. Bean and Gone has a glass window in its floor, through this you can see part of the Roman fortress wall, just where archaeologists found it during the refurbishments. If you just want to look – the owner-manager, very reasonably, would prefer you to avoid visiting at busy lunchtimes -unless you plan to be a customer and buy a drink or some food.
There are a few benches actually on the Walls -especially in the north corner, half of them in the tower at the angle of that corner. The Walls trail goes past several benches in the beautiful but sometimes crowded Museum Gardens [trail section13], in the smaller and quieter Tower Gardens [south corner], in the even smaller and quieter gardens by the Red Tower [trail section9] and in Exhibition Square [trail sections1 &13]. A lovely lawn-less garden with benches has recently been created just inside the Walls at Peaseholme Green. The entrance to this is 80 metres from the Walls trail. You find this easy-to-miss entrance on your right just before the Quilt Museum if you turn right [along the pavement] where the trail comes off the Walls 300 metres south-east of Monk Bar. [trail section5]
The Victorians built toilets for men at every bar, these have gone but both sexes now have toilets at Bootham Bar [trail section1]. Just outside the Walls, 100 metres from Micklegate Bar, are the Nunnery Lane car park toilets [turn left, staying on the pavement as you leave the city by the bar] [trail section11]. There are no public toilets near the other bars but when the trail turns away from Clifford’s Tower [in the middle of the south corner] you can leave the trail by walking clockwise around the Tower, staying on the pavement, when the pavement ends with a car park entrance there are toilets 30 metres in front of you [trail section9]. All these toilets were “upgraded” in 2014 and charge 40 pence –except to those using a special card to access the toilets for the disabled.
Two free public toilets for disabled and other people are part of a new restaurant in the Museum Gardens -leave the trail by going first left after entering the gardens, then go first left again, and the toilets are in the corner on your right about 30 metres ahead, currently they are labelled “sluice” and are having problems with misuse that may mean you have to ask at the restaurant to get access [trail section13]
The toilets of the public library are close to you just before you enter the Museum Gardens: to get to them continue along the pavement instead of going into the Gardens, the library is on your left after 30 metres [trail section13].
LINKS TO TRAIL PAGES :-
NEXT SECTION = History & Time Line
Introduction – York’s City Walls Trail
Overview – York’s City Walls Trail
Trail Section 1. Bootham Bar
Trail Section 2. Bootham Bar to Monk Bar
Trail Section 3. Monk Bar
Trail Section 4. Monk Bar to the river Foss
Trail Section 5. Along the River Foss to the Red Tower
Trail Section 6. Red Tower to Walmgate Bar
Trail Section 7. Walmgate Bar
Trail Section 8. Walmgate Bar to Fishergate Postern
Trail Section 9. Fishergate Postern to the river Ouse
Trail Section 10. River Ouse (Baile Hill) to Micklegate Bar
Trail Section 11. Micklegate Bar
Trail Section 12. Micklegate Bar to Barker Tower (the river Ouse)
Trail Section 13. River Ouse to Bootham Bar + Abbey Gardens
Appendix – stonework, plants, notices, names, cafes & pubs, etc..
History & Time Line
Glossary, Maps & Credits
Contents & Links
Wall Trail: – map 1
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