Armageddon is always the highlight of any walk, and this superb city hike offers an unusual and possibly heretical opportunity to start with the End of the World. It is, after all, conveniently located near York station, inside All Saints Church. In fact, our walk is a circular one, so could begin at any point, even at our ultimate destination, the Phoenix Inn.
As you emerge from York station, the 14th-century city walls are in front of you. Built on earthen ramparts that mark much earlier defences, they are Britain’s longest intact medieval walls and can be walked for most of their route. Head left, passing under the wall and you will see a couple of access points. But I promised Armageddon and you must have it. A couple of hundred metres down North Street is All Saints Church, one of York’s less-visited gems.
There is a lot to look at here: note the little hole in the wall on the left of the entrance: behind here lived Britain’s last hermit, Walter Wilman, a Great War veteran who died in the 1970s. Moving into the nave and looking up you see a fine 15th-century hammer-beam ceiling, where painted wooden figures cavort: they’re supposedly angels, although one looks suspiciously like Priti Patel. Nearby is the Prick of Conscience window, depicting the last 15 days of life on Earth. Constructed in the early 15th century, it seems to be a fairly accurate scientific depiction of what we now know will be humanity’s last moments: devastating fluctuations in sea levels, catastrophic heating of oceans, then finally, terminal inferno. There is plenty of other medieval stained glass to admire: see if you can find the man wearing spectacles.
Having got Armageddon over with, head back up North Street, passing the stone modern building on your left, an example of how town planning can have dire consequences. Go under the arches, climb the steps and head across Lendal Bridge. There are many ancient towers and turrets (most now cafes), but over the bridge is one of the few sections of wall that cannot be walked. Instead nip into Museum Gardens and seek out the best section of surviving Roman defences: the Multangular Tower, probably built in the third century. It’s the smaller stones in the lower half of the tower which are Roman. Explore a bit and don’t miss the museum itself. The recent star arrival is Ryedale Hoard, discovered in 2020 by metal detectorists.
From here head towards York Art Gallery (another worthy diversion, with cafe) and through Bootham Bar. Two millennia ago, this was the gate into the Roman fort, but the existing structure is 14th century. A door knocker was added in 1501, with Scottish visitors required to use it. Another diversion would take you up High Petergate to the Minster, but that’s a day’s exploration in itself. Limit yourself to a swift perusal of the facades, including the house of Sir Thomas Herbert, explorer of Persia and attendant to Charles I on the scaffold in 1649.
Back at the Bar, climb the steps and set off along the wall in one of its narrower sections, but also with the best views of the Minster across lovely gardens. The walls are open from about 8am until dusk. A good, long stroll brings you to Monk Bar, where there is a small museum, largely about the celebrated local autocrat and alleged child murderer Richard III. You are never more than 10 steps from a cafe in York and there are a lot in this area if you need a break.
Back on the wall, via the steps, the route continues, passing the ruins of a Georgian ice house before dropping back to earth at Peasholme Green. This area was once a swamp, considered impassable, so no wall was ever built.
Follow the Inner Ring Road for a short stretch until you see the Red Tower, where you can rejoin the wall all the way to the Barbican gate, then onward to Fishergate. Tucked below the ramparts is our destination, the Phoenix, but we will return. The gate here bears the scars of a rebellion in 1489: pinkish blotches on the archway from fires lit after Henry VII tried to increase taxes to subsidise his Breton possessions, a move not likely to endear him to Yorkists, particularly as he had recently dethroned Richard III.
Back on the wall, continue to Fishergate Postern, built in about 1500 to guard a dam on the River Foss that was used to flood defensive moats (the tower has about 20 open days a year). From here skirt the Castle Museum to Clifford’s Tower, a 13th-century keep recently given a £5m facelift by English Heritage. Cross Skeldergate Bridge and climb the steps back to the walls for a lovely long stretch to Micklegate Bar, the gate where rebel heads were nailed, including Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy in 1403, after he had been exhumed in Shropshire.
Micklegate is worth a diversion and there are excellent places to eat, including Partisan (breakfast, lunch, tea) and Skosh (lunch, evenings) before you reconnect with the wall and finish back near the station.
Start York railway station
Distance 3 miles
Time 3 hours with stops
Google map of the route
York’s city walls are handy for several good pubs, but for a proper old-fashioned drinking den, the Phoenix, right by the walls, is unbeatable. The front bar has red leather seats, polished tables and panelling that long ago came from the railway carriage works. There is a lovely bow-fronted bar, recently restored.
On cold nights the open fire is lit: there’s a coal scuttle by the bar and logs by the serving hatch. The lounge at the rear is where the standup piano gets used in jazz sessions (three times a week) and where local maestro Karl Mullen tickles the keys on Fridays. On music nights you may be met by a blast of Thelonius Monk piano, but at other times this is a quiet place, perfect for reading: no TVs, no sports channels or gambling machines. The clock above the fire can tick quite loudly.
Landlords Paul Rodgers and Mark Taylor keep it simple and beer-oriented: five hand-pulled pints from local breweries, including Wold Top, Timothy Taylor and Saltaire, but with guest appearances from others such as Knaresborough’s Turning Point. “For food, we do Yorkshire tapas,” says Paul, “nuts, crisps, pork pies.” At the back is a beer garden overlooked by the walls.
Where to stay
The Phoenix Inn does not have rooms, but there are good accommodation options right by the walls. The Bar Convent is especially convenient, less than a minute from Micklegate Bar, where you could start and finish your walk. Unusually, this is a working convent, so do not expect a hotel: the atmosphere is between a hostel and a homely guesthouse. Rooms (doubles from about £110 B&B, bar-convent.org.uk) are in what used to be novice cells, but are not austere or colourless. The best ones overlook the leafy courtyard. Generous breakfasts are served in the convent cafe, and there’s food throughout the day, with a limited selection of alcohol.