Discovering the hidden secrets of York city centre

A change of perspective breathes new life into the Guildhall and York’s lively riverside community

A change of perspective breathes new life into the Guildhall and York’s lively riverside community - Credit: Archant

York’s hidden gems are just waiting to be found. Tony Kelly acts as your guide

Don’t forget to look up or you might miss gems like this statue of Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom

Don’t forget to look up or you might miss gems like this statue of Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom and drama, on the corner of High Petergate - Credit: Archant

Say the word York and it immediately conjures images of the sky-reaching Minster, the cloud-calling Clifford’s Tower and the assurance of its encompassing city walls.

But the city is much more than its eminent monuments, and much more than its dazzling sights being routinely registered on a tourist tapestry of tick-boxes.

York rightly revels in its reputation as a domain of historical significance. But it thrives beyond that, richer for its lesser-known attractions and better for the life that goes on amid the fabric of centuries past.

Look beyond the bygone and you’ll discover that contemporary York is graced by smaller but no less important venues. Hidden gems, no less.

It’s the devilish little details that make York such an interesting city to live in and visit

It’s the devilish little details that make York such an interesting city to live in and visit - Credit: Jim Richardson

One asset worthy of such exalted status is Clements Hall in the Scarcroft area of York, just a few minutes from the nationally-feted and frenetically busy Bishopthorpe Road, where barely a day goes by without a street party of some sort.

Though still in use, the hall was in a sad and shabby state until just three years ago when City of York Council refurbished it and handed over the running of the building to a trust at a peppercorn rent.

Since then Clements Hall has undergone an impressive transformation and continues to prosper.

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Among its gleaming new look are five offices, which are hired by outside concerns, three other rooms also for hire, and the main space – an attractively redecorated main hall.

It hosts a variety of activities, from baby ballet and circuit training to craft fairs and local history groups. It’s also home to South Bank Community Cinema, which has a show every other week where patrons watch the big screen presentation seated at chairs and tables complete with refreshments. Now that what you call civilised.

According to trust member Herald Armer, it’s also indicative of the ethos of the hall.

‘Anyone can attend – it is not exclusive, it is inclusive,’ she enthused. ‘I remember coming here for my children’s birthday parties when it was derelict, so to see it now so well restored and so popular, it is a great amenity for the community and anyone who wants to make use of it. It is a hidden gem.’

A jewel-like quality is certainly true of St Denys Church in Walmgate. The grey-stone church, which is open throughout the day in contrast to many whose doors remain closed due to the threat of vandalism, espouses the aim of being ‘welcome to all-comers’. And it is.

Next time you pop in, just take a look at the visitors’ comments book. One poignant entry from someone who simply signs themselves as ‘Homeless’ praises the church as ‘a great place for peacefulness’.

That person could not have been more accurate in his or her verdict. As a haven for contemplation, or simply as a place to restore a much needed sense of peace, St Denys Church is a salutary sanctuary. Even though it’s on the route of York’s ubiquitous noisy but necessary tour buses, the bustle of the modern city is easily washed away when you find yourself captured by the charms of the church.

Venturing through the wooden doors, you’re greeted by an unorthodox shape. Given the placement of the altar the dimensions are far wider than they are deep. But the glories of the church remain in the nine stained glass windows, which represent the largest collection of medieval stained in glass in any church in York, save for All Saints in Pavement.

They depict scenes not only from the Bible, but also recalling the more illustrious families of a city from centuries long past. Studying the intricacies and colours of the sublimely-worked windows afford the viewer the warm sense of stealing some time back from a hectic day.

The art of stained glass is naturally the vital preserve of another of the walled city’s oft-heralded but still little known institutions. Since its establishment more than four decades ago by a former Dean of York Minster, Eric Milner-White, York Glaziers’ Trust is primarily tasked with the protection and preservation of the world-renowned stained glass of the Minster.

Work, however, is undertaken at other important historic sites of stained glass throughout the country from the medieval age to the reflowering of the art in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

But at its small workshop at Bedern, just off Goodramgate in the shadow of the imposing Minster, there is an opportunity for an intriguing glimpse by the public of the YGT’s valuable and methodical labours.

Melding the art of the glass-sorcerers of the medieval age with the most contemporary scientific advances, the YGT craftsmen display these skills to the public on its Connoisseur Tours. They offer the perfect opportunity for visitors to look into the methods of conserving the past, artfully combined with the techniques and talents of the present.

That co-operation through the ages reflects too the state of modern York – a city of historical drama still alive to the new ventures today, and tomorrow, might bring. w

Tell us about your favourite hidden gems and secret snickelways in York by writing to Yorkshire Life, PO Box 163, Ripon, North Yorkshire, HG4 9AG, emailing or tweeting @Yorkshire_Life