A historic walk around the city walls of York
- Credit: @sharpstickfilms
Friends of York Walls volunteer Sally Hauser shares all the insider information you need to know about one of Yorkshire’s most prominent historical treasures.
There’s a common saying in York: ‘the streets are gates, the gates are bars and the bars are pubs’. No visit to the city is complete without a wander round the ramparts encircling it. But York’s walls are not just for the tourists. Many residents use them on a daily basis to commute, take exercise or simply soak up the ambience that living so close to almost 2,000 years of history offers.
With oodles of heritage, and 3.4km of walkways, there is much to discover. If you’d like to learn more, you can find an extremely in-depth guide, and latest restriction information online at yorkwalls.org.uk
Walls are currently only open clockwise, and access in all cases is via steps.
Section 1: Bootham Bar - Monk Bar – Layerthorpe
Beginning close to the iconic Minster this section (for the most part) follows the line of the original Roman walls which housed the Roman Fortress and one-time headquarters “Eboracum”. The Roman wall remains are underneath the earth ramparts, mostly obscured from view, but there are a few exposed sections. The walls you see now are mostly medieval, dating back to the 1300s, with the walkway installed by the Victorians. There are some incredible views of the Minster, standing on the site where Constantine the Great was declared Emperor in 306AD.
There has been an entrance to city on this site for nearly 2,000 years. The archway you see today is Norman, while the fortress above is around 700 years old. The best view of this bar and the imposing Minster behind it is from the square outside the walls.
The first stretch of wall-walk takes you through the slightly sinister Bootham Bar fort room then out into dappled light along a narrow, high-sided walkway – to your right are beautiful buildings and gardens, and of course the towering Minster.
‘Robin Hood Tower’ is the first corner tower you reach, with views towards Tower 28 - identifiable by its decorative Victorian ‘pepperpot turrets’. These serve no purpose and are a source of amusement for locals. All along this stretch are some of the most spectacular views of the Minster.
Before this is a plaque on the floor indicating the position of the original Roman entrance. Monk Bar - the ‘new’ north-east entrance to the city - was built around 700 years ago. If you are lucky, the door to the interior of Monk Bar will be open and you'll catch of glimpse of one of the few remaining working portcullises in England (although ‘working’ is an overstatement as it was last lowered in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, reportedly taking 10 minutes to lower and around two weeks to raise). The portcullis is original, and has been painstakingly restored over the years. Monk Bar houses the Richard III Museum, a worthwhile detour if you have time to learn a little about one of our most famous and controversial monarchs. In fact you can visit this, and the Henry VII museum housed in Micklegate Bar, on the same ticket so it’s also excellent value. To continue the wall walk, you’ll need to descend the very steep, enclosed and narrow steps down to the pavement.
Georgian Ice House, Roman ruins and medieval public toilets
Take care as you cross the road to ascend the next set of steps back on to the next section of wall-walk, which is thought to be medieval with Victorian repairs. Almost immediately, you can see musket loops likely dating back to the English Civil War (1600s) and through the embrasures on your left, spy the brick dome of a Georgian Ice House.
Just after this to your right are the exposed remains of the north-east corner tower of the Roman fortress. You’ll also spot where the Roman wall splits away from the wall you are walking on. The wall-walk continues ahead, and here the walls you can see are medieval, built on top of most likely Viking (9th century) and Norman (11th century) ramparts. The timber building on your right is the Merchant Taylors’ Hall – dating back to the Middle Ages. Along here are the remains of two very public toilets – it doesn’t take much to work out where the waste would have gone. You can clearly see the line of what was a moat running along the base of the walls.
Section 2: Red Tower – Walmgate Bar – Fishergate – Clifford’s Tower
Once you descend the steps at the end of the first section, you’ll need to walk a short while on the road. Contrary to popular belief, where there are no walls in York, there never were any. This stretch was filled with water during the Middle Ages. Follow the brass studs taking you to the Red Tower, built in 1490 and so-called as it is the only tower on the walls to be made of red brick.
The sweeping view from here is one of the loveliest along the trail in any season.
This is the furthest out of the city centre but arguably the most interesting. You will discover an extension built onto the back of the bar. These were living quarters added in the 1500s, and now house an excellent café, the outside space of which runs out onto the other most notable feature – the only remaining barbican in England. You may have noticed all the other bars have strange floating doors just under halfway up – these would have led out onto barbicans that have since been removed. Now you can enjoy a coffee above the former killing zone, which carries the scars of attack throughout the centuries.
Fishergate Bar and Fishergate Postern Tower
Back up onto the walls and along a relatively flat section until you descend some steps to cross the road at Fishergate Bar. Take a moment to view the archway, marked by scorch damage from a revolt in the late 1400s. The little pub just inside the walls has a fantastic beer garden, a great place to catch some sunshine with a drink on your way round.
As you round the bend just before you approach the final tower on this stretch, there’s a glimpse of what remains of York Castle’s walls and a hint of Clifford’s Tower peeping up above. This section ends at Fishergate Postern Tower - one of the youngest on the walls at a mere 515 years old. This tower is opened to the public by The Friends of York Walls on several weekends throughout the year with no entrance fee. It features four floors accessed via a very steep and narrow spiral staircase, a beautiful timber roof, an exceptionally well-preserved garde-robe (toilet) and lots of interesting information about the history of the walls.
Taking care to cross the road, follow the blue railing along the remaining walls of York Castle, look to your right near the base of the wall along this stretch and you can see the remains of a drawbridge pit, as this area was once covered by water. Clifford’s Tower will shortly come into view on your right, set on a mound constructed during the time of William the Conqueror in the late 1000s. Originally, the tower that sat here was wooden and was burned down more than once, most notably during a massacre of Jewish people who had taken refuge inside the tower in 1190. Next to the entrance steps is an inscription in memorial to this horrific event and the daffodils which bloom here in spring were planted in the 1990s as a tribute.
Section 3: Baile Hill – Micklegate Bar – Lendal Bridge
After crossing the river, an attractive Victorian tower is the entry point up to Baile Hill - all that remains of the second of William the Conqueror’s Norman mottes, dating back to 1069. Shortly you will arrive at the somewhat distastefully-named Bitchdaughter Tower. The view along the wall as you leave here is another handsome stretch. A blanket of trees and pretty terraces on your right and overhanging branches from the left.
Soon you’ll reach Victoria Bar, added in the 1800s to ease traffic congestion. From this point the visible walls follow the line of Roman walls that were built around the civilian town outside the fortress.
Ahead the wall-walk goes directly through Micklegate Bar. It’s worth descending the stairs to look at the front of the bar, where traditionally the heads of those deemed to be traitors would be displayed after execution. This principal bar is the main entrance to the city from the south and where the reigning monarch would have been greeted. It’s more ornate than the other gates, displaying rather more lavish heraldry. Also, some of the stones inside the passage appear to have been recycled by the Normans from the original Roman gate that likely lies underneath where the bar stands now. Micklegate itself is a hub for local independent eateries so a perfect place for refreshments.
As you arrive at the next corner tower, look across to your left and you’ll see a windmill, which celebrated its 250th birthday in 2020 – and allegedly produced five times more flour than usual at the height of the nationwide lockdown.
Around the bend is one of the most famous views of York – a long stretch of walls leading the eye down towards York Minster. You can just see the Heart of Yorkshire window between the two front towers. This much-photographed scene is always spectacular, rain or shine.
As you head towards the water and over pretty Lendal Bridge, the conical Barker Tower (now a quirky little café) is on your left, this tower is often partially submerged by the river when it rains heavily.
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The approach to the river is the last piece of wall you can walk on, but there is one more treat in store before you complete your circumnavigation of York. Just over the river, before the Minster, is the entrance to the Museum Gardens. Inside are some rather eerie-looking sarcophagi amongst the flower beds, behind which the remarkable Multangular Tower comes into view. The last surviving corner of the original Roman Fortress has been standing for nearly 2,000 years, a fine example of Roman architecture. The decorative red brick stripe is interrupted only by a ‘repair job’ on a hole to the right of the tower, thought to have been caused by a stray cannonball during the English Civil War in the 1600s. The top third of the stonework is medieval, with larger stones and arrow-slits.
It’s possible to get behind the tower to see the stonework inside and explore behind the Library, to the curious Anglian Tower and an archaeological display depicting the different eras of the city in the ground.
Inside the main gardens you can also view the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey and St Leonard’s Hospital (both 1200s), the Yorkshire Museum, and a curious stone showing cup and ring carvings. These are thought to be from the Neolithic Ages (12000-3500BC), which would make this carving potentially the oldest man-made thing in York.
Friends of York Walls is hoping to host the annual York Walls Festival this August. Visit yorkwallsfestival.org for the latest information.