York: Cycling City Of The North?

If Newcastle had been at one end, York should have been at the other end of the familiarity spectrum during my visit to Yorkshire & the North East of England last week; I had, after all spent three years in the city as a student, albeit over twenty years ago.

I expected the University – which provided me with a relatively cheap room for the night – to have completely transformed itself from a drab, concrete infested campus to something more fitting for the market-led student ‘consumer’ of the 21st century. There are certainly lots of new buildings occupying the bits of the campus that used to be open green lawns, but the drab concrete core that I remember from the late 1980s was still there to guide me around the site. My old college – Wentworth – has new accommodation blocks where the old ones used to sit, but at its heart – the college itself – it remains as it was; a cheap pre-fab wooden building with a few modern additions & rearrangements & a nice new bridge across the lake. The most shocking of the changes is to the college bar which has been converted into a (get this) reading room. A den of iniquity transformed into a paradise of silence & study. Surely a reflection that standards in education are being maintained or probably enhanced. It may of course be the case that the old two-storey library made for a more spacious location for downing the pints and they simply swapped over functions. I didn’t investigate so am only left to wonder.

After a first class full English breakfast on campus, I set off back into the centre of York and deposited my bag at the station. First stop the Minster. I wanted a leisurely walk under its lofty ceiling but an equally lofty entrance price of £9 gave me second thoughts. I left the cathedral to the believers (in God as well as free-market economics) and headed into the streets and alleys of the very old town. Well, the bit with timber-framed houses which are now home to gift shops, art galleries, fancy sweet shops & the inevitable Edinburgh Wollen Mill. A coffee in the more contemporary Caffe Nero allowed for a few moments of Internet browsing. I remembered that Cyclorama – a new publication about all things cycling which I had received  on a swap arrangement for my own little tome – was based in York, but where? It would make for an interesting diversion in my day if I could find it. Google provided the answers and off I went, heading towards Fulford. More of the visit to Cyclorama here

A couple of hours later, back in the centre of the city and with batteries recharged  (both mine and my iPhone which was desperately low; it gave me a good excuse to sit in the Cross Keys pub near the Minster, plug the phone into a wall socket while I sipped away on two pints of beer reading the newspaper), I returned to wandering. My mind turned towards cycling once again. Did York live up to its reputation of being the cycling capital of the north. I can’t remember if I had a bicycle when I was a student (which probably means that I didn’t…) but in the city centre I had only passed one small bike shop tucked away under one of the bridges across the Ouse (although I later noticed a larger place at the station entrance), there weren’t cycle lanes in any greater number than there are in say Reading where I now live and the number of cyclists actually on the streets was, well, normal for the UK. By ‘normal for the UK’ I mean of course that there were a few but nothing of Cambridge proportions. So much for York being a haven for cyclists. York’s credentials for being a ‘Cycling City’ – it was officially recognised as one a few years ago along with more outstanding candidates such as Bristol – seemed pretty thin on the ground and it was something that cropped up in my conversation with a cycling paramedic who was reading a book in the small park tucked away behind the Minster. She said that the when the accolade had first been attributed to York ‘there were signs everywhere’ but now, a few years later they had all disappeared. If the award had been given in order to give the city a kick up the cycling backside (it’s a place that has much going for it when it comes to cycling notably that it is flat, not too big and has a large population of students) it clearly hadn’t worked. What a great pity. A great missed opportunity.

So, a bit disappointing on the cycling level but on many others a nice day out revisiting what used to be familiar nooks and crannies. I ended the afternoon with a short walk around the gardens of the Yorkshire Museum which is currently hosting the biannual Mystery Plays. The last time the museum hosted the event was back in 1988 and I remember attending the event that year so it seemed fitting that I was there again to see that it had returned. Not that I saw anything of the play, just the main actor Graeme Hawley who found fame as serial killer John Stape in Coronation Street. It was a little disconcerting to see him playing with his daughter & feeding the ducks in a public park…

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