A Stroll Between Living History and Ghosts of the Past

“Veni, vidi, vici”     

“I came, I saw, I conquered”

– Latin phrase commonly attributed to Julius Caesar

Photo Credit: Kristen

Well, it took about two months longer to get here than it did in reality but finally…Kristen and I reached the York City Walls.

And a glorious sight they were.

One of the incredible things about the UK, and most of Europe come to think of it, is how extraordinarily interactive their large-scale historical attractions are.

Unless you’re visiting an art museum in which most of the works of art are in constant danger of being damaged beyond repair, the historical enthusiasts and authorities alike across-the-pond are remarkably supportive of proactive exploration.

Prime Example: While visiting Potsdam, Germany, I was wandering around some rather packed palatial grounds in various states of disrepair when I almost walked right off a 20-foot-drop onto what would have admittedly been a decently soft landing on some long grass below. No guard rails, no signs, no…possibility of a lawsuit? And, most extraordinarily, no reaction whatsoever from the madding crowd. When I mentioned my near-injury experience to the Canadian expat I was with, she merely shrugged and said, “Yeah, that happens sometimes”. Right. Moving on.

You want a UK example, you say? How about Ireland instead: I once slightly fell off the Cliffs of Moher following a hand-scrawled map on a folded piece of lined paper. True story, that did not happen to a friend of a friend of mine.

31969_429382759282_6989362_nThe cliffs didn’t seem so high from this angle…

Someone may be watching over me in my recklessness.

Despite the occasional unintentionally death-defying feat, this accepted interactivity usually adds to the appeal of travelling through both the UK and Europe. You don’t have to stand a regulated distance away from some dilapidated old ruin and take the approved, pre-angled photographs.

Instead? You get to climb all over it.

And we did.

(Disclaimer: please pay attention to signs that DO exist when visiting attractions in other countries. “But a blog I read told me this was OK” does not fly with most authorities.)

Before you gasp at the thought of Kristen and I clambering all over two-thousand-year-old walls, wait a moment… The original walls of York indeed used to encircle an old Roman fortress, designed as a defense of sorts against the roving natives. You would think these walls would have been huge and imposing and enduring, right? Wrong.

Useless Historical Fact #4

Today, the original Roman Walls, for the most part, lay buried underneath England’s most complete example of medieval city walls. What happened to the defense system the hardworking, homesick Romans put together? Well, it survived until the 9th century when the Vikings came a-pillaging. Attacking in AD 866, the Vikings apparently sneered at the unimpressive stone walls in distaste and decided some redecorating was in order so they buried the stonework under an earth bank and topped it with a tall palisade. Let me break this down in plain English. They covered the stonework of the almighty Romans with some dirt and replaced it with pointy sticks. So, needless to say, the Roman work may not have been all that daunting to begin with…

The moral of the story is: if you’re upset about the lack of Roman architecture visible in York, blame the Vikings. Everyone else does.

Needless to say, the pointy sticks didn’t last long – most of the walls in existence today date from the 12th to 14th centuries though in some places the original Roman walls were later incorporated into more recent structures. Regardless of their exact dating, the walls remain an extraordinary sight, towering above the tourists walking below at some points and dipping tantalizingly within reach at others.

Kristen and I climbed up the deceptively uneven steps to new heights at the Bootham Bar. Please note, the Bar included an impressive stonework gate that was maybe 10 metres from Princess Margaret’s welcome gift, which I mentioned in a previous post. I must reiterate…Why?!

The marvelous thing we noticed first was how quiet it got the moment we walked through the archway onto the wall-proper. It’s not as if we had reached Olympic heights. The climb had involved around a dozen stairs… We were definitely within earshot of the touristy-clamour below.

And yet, the air felt different up there. Calmer, cleaner…It was exhilarating.

The best part? It appeared that most of the tourists milling about the City Centre were quite happy to remain safely on the ground. You can’t blame them really. Remember, no guard rails. Or, well, few guard rails.

If you want proof of how alone we were up there, here is a nice dose of our exhilerated ridiculousness.

Conclusion? Obviously that Kristen is more athletic than I am. No great mysteries solved here.

I think the majority of my photos in York may have been taken from or of these walls. They captivated me.

Sure, renovations (OK OK complete reconstructions) have been done in the intervening centuries between Roman occupation of Britain and today. But that doesn’t take away the sensation of truly walking on and through history.

Let me explain.

Instead of being frozen in time in an eerie defiance of the laws of physics, these walls have been swept up fully in the changing tides of York’s fate through the ages and yet, in their own way, they have also played a major role in molding the beautiful city we still enjoy today.

For the most part, the 14th century walls were not torn down and not forgotten. In fact, the force most detrimental to their survival has always been the effortlessly powerful Mother Nature herself. 14th century masons, evidently, did not fully understand how bogs work.

I can’t speak for Kristen, but I will admit that flanked by the wall’s ancient parapets, I had an overwhelming sense of thousands upon thousands of feet having walked the same aerial stone roads as I did that day. Many of them were modern tourists, to be sure. Many more, however, would have had a far different interaction with what was once a stoney defense system.

How many men (predominately) had stood on these same walls, grimly facing a field of fire that may have spelled their own doom, as in the 1644 besiegement of the city by the Parliamentarians?

How many remained at their posts while the city they were apparently guarding from harm was ravaged by the plague? Did the changing of the guard during the turmoil happen smoothly and without incident? Or were the shift rotations peppered with desperate conversations about sick loved ones below?

These kinds of thoughts seem to come unbidden every time I walk the fine line between history and the ghosts of the past.

Just before we climbed down off the first section of the walls, Kristen and I noticed something that brought me immediately out of my heavier historical reveries.

Now what would the Roman conquerors have made of that?

To conclude, they say history is edited by the victors. If so, the Vikings dropped the ball. The quotation that began this post should probably now read. “I came. I saw. I conquered. And then the Vikings turned up and buried my legacy.”

While many of the photo credits on this blog must rightly go to Kristen, my partner-in-crime, credit for my delightfully overactive imagination must go wholly to my wonderful parents. It was cultivated over years of bedtime stories both classic and original as performed by them in various voices and I can’t thank them enough for the best mind-fodder a writer and historian could ever ask for.

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