If you trawl back through the archives of Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard (which I just have to be able to bring you this sentence) you will find an account of our last trip to York which was in the summer 0f 2010. Or rather, three accounts. One for each day that we spent there. Actually, let me save you some time. They can be found here, here and here. Almost seven years later we decided to go back there on the occasion of our 18th anniversary. That is to say we have been together for 18 years. We are not married. How are we going to afford weekends away in York if we get married?
We travelled over on Friday morning having booked to go on a walking tour of the city. Footprints walking tours don’t charge you for their services, but they talk a lot about tipping and how it is up to you to decide how much you think the tour is worth. Which isn’t an awful lot as we will see later but first let me tell you a little bit about the hotel.
We stayed in a Best Western called the Monk Bar Hotel. For me this evoked amusing memories of a contestant on University Challenge called Monkman who is fast becoming a cult figure. If you pay a visit to University Challenge’s Twitter feed you will see that their avatar is an image of the intense, slightly scary looking Monkman who represents one of the Cambridge colleges. He’s amusing due to his appearance, his intensity and the absolute sense of betrayal that he feels every time he gets a question wrong. As if he knows better and Jeremy Paxman is just taking the piss.
Presumably the Monk Bar hotel is so named not after the fierce television quiz star but after the area in which it is situated. Everything in that area seems to be known as the Something Something at Monk Bar or the Monk Bar Something. The disabled access room we were allocated (there may be more than one but don’t bet anything valuable on it) was set back away from the main hotel in a different building. Like an outhouse or the outside loo that used to sit in the garden at my nan’s house. Only bigger. And colder as we would find out when we returned from the walking tour to have a rest and get ready to hit the boozers. It also has no parking, something we didn’t find out until we had parked in what looked suspiciously like a car park at the back of the hotel. We were told we’d have to move the car to a car park just around the corner which Emma did, but if you are a wheelchair user driving there on your own then you will benefit from knowing that we had this problem. It will mean that you won’t have to make the mistake that we did before lugging your fat arse and your chair back into your car in order to move the car about 50 yards to a different car park and then have to push all the way back to the hotel to check in.
With an hour or so to go before the walk we went next door for lunch at the Yorkshire Bar & Grill. It actually joins on to the hotel but, this being us, we hadn’t realised this and so went outside to come back in again. Like that clip from The Simpsons of Abraham Simpson walking into his house, taking his hat off, turning around, putting his hat back on and then walking outside again. All while cheerily whistling along to himself. Twelve quid got us two meals (but not the drinks, they are extra) and it was all very nice. We were pretty much the only people in there at 12.30pm on a Friday so it was nice and peaceful too. Very different from Wetherspoons which I love but where you can't seem to get away from the inane chatter of Other People, many of whom try to put you off your breakfast by drinking pints of bitter at 9.00 on a Sunday morning.
We met for the walk on Stonegate, one of seemingly thousands of streets in York which has a name ending in Gate. As well as Stonegate there's Colliergate, Davygate, Coppergate, Deangate, Goodramgate, Fishergate, High and Low Petergate and the brilliantly named Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate among others. Everything short of Watergate and Pizzagate. Our guide was Matt, a young looking and incredibly posh-sounding chap who it turned out was studying at York University. Well that explained the well spoken accent. Everyone else here sounded like Keith Lemon. Matt was slightly scatty I think. The website for Footprints says that you have to book on to the tour either by phone or online, so he has an idea of who will be turning up before we start. After introducing himself he told us that it would be me and Emma and a school party! Just as I started to wonder how I would cope with 30 screaming children running off in different directions and asking 'why are you in that?' the so-called school party arrived. Fortunately, they were all well into their adulthood. What is more, none of them even worked in a school. Matt had no clue where he had got the idea from that they were a school party but I couldn't help but feel a wave of relief that we now wouldn't have to spend part of the tour looking for little Johnny who had broken away from the group and could be in any one of the 276 Gates or tea-rooms that line the city.
Here's another access bit. York is difficult to get around if you have a wheelchair. The first example of this was at Barley Hall, built nearly 700 years ago by monks (monk men?) with seemingly nothing better to do other than pray to their false God. Yet disappointingly, the hall we were actually looking at by this point has only been there for around 30 years after it was rebuilt in the 1980's following that prolific scourge of all things historic, decaying structures. You thought I was going to end that sentence with...that prolific scourge of all things historic, disabled people, didn't you? Go on, admit it. It's ok. Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard is exactly the sort of place where you would find that kind of offensive glibness. If you are a wheelchair user then you will be familiar with the concept that some buildings are just so historically important that they cannot be altered in any way to allow the likes of you inside but it does happen more often than you would think. But mostly buildings are altered in historical cities either because they are becoming unsafe due to structural damage or because they have burned down.
Back at the ranch, the point I was making is that you will have trouble getting around this area due to the uneven paving and the cobbles which are pretty much a feature of the whole of York. Matt told me that his brother is in a wheelchair (at least he didn't say he has a brother who is 'like me' because I can almost guarantee you that he isn't) and that he has trouble with cobbles. I replied that I do too, and that it wouldn't be the first time I have come a cropper if I should hit one or a crack in the pavement and end up sniffing the dirt. Fortunately I managed to stay in my chair throughout which, though disappointing for the humour content of this column, is a good thing for me.
Now Matt had explained to us before the tour started that there was a part of the tour that is inaccessible. This is not uncommon, especially in cities so rich with history and...well....cobbles. Fear not though, he assured us, as we could just take an alternate route while the others climbed the steps to walk along what remains of the city walls. Again this is something we have experienced before and usually takes no more than a few minutes out of the tour for before we meet up again with the group fairly quickly. Not this time. Matt advised us to head to Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate via the arch close to where the city walls begin where he and the group would re-join us for the rest of the tour. It took about 10 minutes to get to Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate and we arrived to find that the rest of the group were conspicuous by their absence. So we waited. And we waited. And we waited. Like the old Guinness advert. We waited there for another 15 minutes on top of the 10 it had already taken us to get there. So that is 25 minutes of a two-hour tour (which is actually only about 1 hour and 45 minutes anyway despite what the website tells you) that you won't be experiencing if you happen to be a wheelchair user. To my knowledge there is nothing on the website about this and actually there is no information whatsoever there about wheelchair accessibility or any other kind of accessibility needs you might have. So it's not great form, really. More than once while we waited we discussed the possibility of giving up on them and going into The Terrace, a pub right across the road from where we were waiting. York apparently has 365 pubs within its city walls and we had only been in one of them to that point, and that was only for lunch. We needed to make a start. And it was just there, staring at us and softly whispering 'come in, have a pint and forget about Matt's loopy Michael McIntyre schtick.'
But we didn't. Eventually Matt and the group turned up all apologies and have-you-been-waiting-longs. The wait wasn't really worth it. Before the rude interruption we had been walking for about an hour so I fully expected another half an hour at least, even allowing for the time we had missed. But that didn't happen. There were only two more stops on Matt's tour, the most memorable story of which had been the one of how catholic women were pressed to death hundreds of years ago if they were caught practising their religion. This meant basically being laid flat out and having a variety of heavy objects piled on to you until your spine literally snapped. Now everyone who has ever seen this column knows I care little for religion but this seems just a tad harsh just for being misguided enough to practice Catholicism. And we worry about Donald Trump. The final stop was Clifford's Tower, sometimes referred to as York Castle. There is a museum right by there but having done it before during our 2010 visit we don't bother again. However, you can read all about that in the blogs I linked to earlier if you so wish.
And so it came to the thorny issue of the tip for the walk. How much was it worth? We forgot to go to the cash machine and so only had a tenner between us anyway, but we actually debated whether or not we should give all of that to Matt following the Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate debacle. Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate-Gate, if you will. In the end the wastefulness that I inherit from my mother's side of the family won out and I just gave a yeah-whatever shrug when we were talking about it. We ended up giving him the tenner. That's only five pounds each after all and there were some worthwhile moments on the tour. Yet anyone who reads this column for advice on access issues in all of the strange places I visit should know that I would probably advise you to look elsewhere for your guided tour of York. Most of them will probably include some sort of alternate route to the part where you walk along the city walls but I wouldn't mind betting that most of them could do better than to have you waiting 25 minutes for them while you contemplate whether you might just be better off getting drunk.
Which, predictably, is exactly what we do on Friday evening;
As I mentioned York allegedly has 365 pubs within the city walls and we set out with the intention of seeing as many of them as we could over the two nights of our stay. The first of these was just around the corner, literally about a minute's walk from the Monk Bar Hotel. It's called Keystones Scream, which is an interesting moniker if nothing else. Unfortunately its name is just about the best thing about it. It was standard student fair, which would have been my absolute utopia when Emma and I met and for a few years afterwards, but now seems somehow inappropriate. We found a place to sit, a sofa situated in front of a large screen showing the Derby v Leicester FA Cup tie in which even I had absolutely no interest. Behind us the students were playing pool, drinking heavily, chatting loudly and generally being students. Not only that, but Emma said that the sofa she was sat on is what my scouse friends would call 'minty'. What she actually said (because she wouldn't actually say minty, it would sound ridiculous) is that it feels like someone has pissed on the sofa. Not recently. It wasn't wet. But it was tatty and stained. I stayed in my chair but I have to be honest and say that just looking at it did remind me of a brown and white sofa that my mum threw out about 100 years ago. From the outside, it looks a little like this. But really, with 365 to choose from you should probably save yourself the bother of going in;
I don't mean to pick on students. As we know I was one once, and what great times they were. In fact, being in Keystones Scream with all those long-haired idealists brought back great memories. As unattractive as Keystones Scream is it has nothing on some of the absolute shitholes we used to frequent back in my student days in Barnsley. Browns was a particularly gruesome venue but I absolutely loved it. They sold shots of whisky with a mixer for 50p. You don't need palatial surroundings to enjoy that. There were others. We used to flock to The Pheasant which was a short walk from the halls of residence where we all lived for the simple and only reason that it was a short walk from the halls of residence where we all lived. It was an absolute and total dive without a single redeeming feature. Same goes for The Firkin, a loathesome place but a place which could be relied upon to show live football and serve drinks to students at silly prices. It would all end in Hedonism nightclub, a place which was both dingy and smoky (this was before the ban) but which for young people with no responsibilities absolutely and completely lived up to its name. The things that went on. If anyone heard 'Sit Down' by James in any of the pubs I frequent now, and actually sat down next to me as people were fond of doing in Hendonism, I would punch them squarely in the face. How times change.
The Royal Oak
Remember that plan to visit as many pubs as we could in York? This was where it all started to go wrong, but for the right reasons. The Royal Oak is a relatively small place, and when it is busy it obviously seems even smaller. We had to fight our way to the only empty table in the place. It was empty for a reason. Just next to it, on the sofa literally about two feet from where we sat down, a man was setting up his keyboard. I took the opportunity to make a cheap joke about organs on Facebook (standard) and waited for what I thought would be an inevitable deafening from the man once he started playing. We still expected at this point to have one beer and move on. Normally when someone sets up musical equipment close to where you are sat in a pub it means the end of any possibility of conversation between you and whoever you are there with. But then the man, whose name was Adam, started playing and pleasantly surprised us with both his musical talent and his ability to keep the noise down to a level that it was possible to not only withstand but also to hear other sounds. He never touched the keyboard as it turned out. He played an acoustic guitar, all of which was right up my street. I was singing along to The Beatles, Oasis, Crowded House, Mumford & Sons, Jamie Lawson and even a bit of Ralph McTell!
So we had begun to enjoy ourselves to the point where we decided to stay for a few more, at least until Adam finished playing. Not only was the music good and the atmosphere pleasant, there was only an accessible toilet! Oh what joy was this? It meant fighting my way back through the huddled masses enjoying Adam's little sing-along but this was a small chore considering the number of pubs I have been in where wheelchair users can't even get through the door of a toilet. Strictly one and move on territory and even then only if you haven't been drinking heavily since your last visit to the bathroom. Having got through the crowd I had the usual problem of having to ask Miss behind the bar for the key (we had somehow neglected to remember the radar key - again) and then I had to ask her to move a number of sandwich boards which had been stored inside the disabled toilet. This again is a common practice in pubs where there are facilities. It's total lip-service to comply with the law. Install a disabled toilet and use it as a store room. Don't worry, nobody using a wheelchair will actually come in. Well, sometimes they do.
My singing had obviously been noticed by Adam. He told me I was 'in tune' which ranks among the higher compliments I have ever received for my vocal exploits. For this reason, for Adam's entertaining segment and for its commitment to actually bothering to have a disabled toilet The Royal Oak had instantly installed itself as my favourite pub in York to that point. It looks a little something like this;
The Cross Keys
Four pubs out of 365 is not a particularly good effort, I know. But where is the logic in leaving a pub if you are having as good a time as we were in The Royal Oak? You could go somewhere else but you would be doing it for the sake of it and there is a high risk that you wouldn't enjoy it so much. And an even higher risk that wherever you do go won't have a disabled toilet and you will either piss your pants or else spend your time there performing the I Need A Wee Dance that people with full control over their bladder function are so fond of. In any case for every Royal Oak there is bound to be two or three Keystone Screams. So by the time we left The Royal Oak it was well after 11.00. Time for another before everywhere started chucking out. The next one we came to was The Cross Keys which sits at the corner of Goodramgate just in front of York Minster. It's very scenic from outside, but from the inside it is fairly bog-standard pub gear. It started to empty out not long after we arrived which may or may not be a coincidence so we just enjoyed the beer and the peace before ending Friday back at the hotel bar. It was pretty much the only place still prepared to serve us.
Here's a shot of the Cross Keys to end on. I have decided to split the weekend into two entries because this has gone on far longer than I had expected. I hope you will join me for part two....