One of the things I have come to look forward to most at this time of year is my annual visit to the St Nicholas Fayre in York. Few places that I have been to can manage to replicate the images of Victorian Christmas that we have all been programmed to think of as traditional; it has the picture-postcard setting, the cobbled streets, the cosy shops, and the market traders dressed in Dickensian outfits. Even the use of the archaic fayre is an affectation to draw to mind cosy imagery of Christmas past; it is something I personally cannot stand, but tolerate in this instance because I enjoy the event so much. (To be honest, I wouldnt be surprised if I saw Tiny Tim making his way along the street
). If you can get past this twee characterisation, though, the St Nicholas Fayre is well worth a visit to get stuck into your Christmas shopping in a more pleasant environment than your average high street. I wouldnt go as far as to say relaxing I dont think any Christmas shopping is that! but I have managed to pick up some great gifts and Christmas treats over the past few years, and found it to be well worth the effort of going.
The St Nicholas Fayre was started in York back in 1992, as part its impressive annual calendar of markets and events. York actually has a range of Christmas markets available from early November to Christmas week (see http://tinyurl.com/2fw43y), but the St Nicholas fayre is by far the largest and most popular, making it worth my while to spend an hour on the train to get there. The fayre has grown dramatically in size and reputation over the years, and now extends to a group of markets taking place over a four-day period (Thursday to Sunday) in late November/early December, attracting thousands of shoppers into the city for it. This year it will take place from the 29th November to the 2nd December. I should note that trying to penetrate the crowds on the Saturday or Sunday of the fayre is almost impossible, so I would suggest you do what I do and save a day off work to head down on the Friday instead if you can; it is still busy, but you stand a chance of actually getting close enough to the stalls to buy something. Of course, going to the fayre is not just about the market stalls. York is a fantastic shopping experience anyway, with lots of exclusive and independent shops as well as big name high street chains, so it offers plenty of options for getting a lot of your shopping sorted out at once, and having a nice lunch out in the process!
The St Nicholas Fayre markets are spread over the city centre: there is a medieval market in Barley Hall, St Williams College houses an arts and crafts market, and there is a string of outdoor stalls stretching from St Sampsons Square down to Coppergate Square. All of these venues are within a short walk of York train station; I would strongly recommend using public transport to access the fayre, as the car parks and roads get horribly busy with all the extra visitors over this period. If you are unfamiliar with York, a clear street map can be accessed at www.visityork.org/information/mapcitycentre.htm, which shows all of the locations I have mentioned, while public transport, Shopmobility and disabled access information can be found at http://tinyurl.com/2bphdl. Personally I like to make my way north, up towards the Minster, first of all to visit St Williams College, then it is just a short distance down Stonegate to Barley Hall, and afterwards I can have an enjoyable wander through the citys smaller and more interesting shops before reaching the outdoor market, finishing at the south end of the city centre. This way, I dont miss anything out.
**St Williams College**
This fine timbered building is located on the east side of the Minster, and was once a college for training Minster priests. The three upstairs rooms of the college are given over to the fayre, and offer a range of arts and crafts stalls (selling things such as paintings, photographs and other framed artwork; handmade Christmas cards; carved wooden gifts; aromatherapy sets, etc) that are pleasant to browse around, but often expensive to buy from. I have bought a couple of smaller items from this market, but I dont really see it as very useful (unless you count the fact that it is warm, has toilets and a nice café). The arts and crafts market is open 10am to 5pm, and there is an entrance charge last year it was 50p per person, but this years rate does not appear to be available online.
Barley Hall is my favourite part of the St Nicholas Fayre. The hall is the result of a major archaeological project in York, being the reconstructed remains of a medieval townhouse that was rediscovered during redevelopment work in 1984. A great deal of effort to investigate and research this remarkable find was put in during the 1980s, and once complete, the York Archaeological Trust rebuilt the hall as it would once have looked, using the original 600 year old timbers as far as possible; about 30% of the wood in the building is original, the rest is new, but worked using the same tools and techniques that medieval craftsmen would have used. The result is a quite incredible building that is well worth a visit in itself, although it is usually quite expensive at £4.50 for an adult ticket. Going during the fayre allows you to see inside this structure and visit the stalls it houses for a mere £1.
The stalls in Barley Hall are a little bit different from what you might expect at the Christmas market. The great hall and the upstairs rooms of the hall play host to a group of medieval traders in full costume, selling wonderful historical replicas and medieval-themed goodies; expect jewellery, costume, carved wooden boxes, tankards, pottery and ceramics, and a medieval bar selling mulled wine and ales. This combination of living history and Christmas shopping is not only entertaining, but also offers unique gift ideas for any history enthusiasts you might have to buy for, and raises valuable funds to keep Barley Hall in a good state of repair. On the down side though, access to the hall is not great for anyone with mobility problems; due to the nature of the building, the floor is quite uneven in places and there are steps and stairs throughout. It is open 10am to 5pm for the duration of the St Nicholas Fayre, and can be found in Coffee Yard, just off Stonegate.
A little further on from Barley Hall, you will find yourself in St Sampsons Square, home of the famous Roman Bath pub that has, well, a Roman Bath in its basement. The square is transformed into a foodie market during the fayre, and anyone who enjoys the culinary aspect of Christmas will delight in these stalls. Most of the stallholders are serving up local produce, from specialist butchers (wild boar sausages, anyone?) to pies, confectionary, beers from local microbreweries, cheeses and roasted chestnuts. You can also expect to find stalls selling brandy-laced hot chocolate (mmmmm .), mulled wine and other warming snacks to the hungry shoppers. The outdoor stalls continue from the south end of St Sampsons Square along Parliament Street, and there is also another cluster over the road in Coppergate Square (outside the Jorvik Viking Centre). These stalls vary from year to year, but generally sell more affordable Christmas gifts that those on sale in the college, and most of them are good quality too (past stalls have included scented candles and homemade toiletries, collectables, traditional childrens toys and jewellery, for example). These streets are wide and even (theyre well away from any cobbles), so are accessible for all shoppers. Following the row of markets will take you past many of Yorks big chain shops and eateries if you want to continue your shopping there, but I prefer to stick to the smaller independent shops that York offers once I have finished with the fayre and then I can stagger back to the train station with all my bags!
I am looking forward to this years fayre as much as ever despite the cold, the crowds and the cost of going. York is a lovely city to visit at any time, but at Christmas it is very special indeed, and the atmosphere more than makes up for any downsides (the brandy hot chocolate helps as well, mind). I intend to get a good proportion of my gifts sorted out at the fayre, and I will treat myself to some foodie items as well if I can carry them! I highly recommend this event to anyone who can get themselves to York for it and who is organised enough to start their Christmas shopping in November!
My husband and two boys aged 7 and 9 visited the York Dungeons today. We pre-booked last night online, it cost us £30. This meant not having to queue (although there wasn't a very big queue). It took about two hours and it scared the 7 year old rigid throughout, and even our mouthy 9 year old was quiet in places.
It was very educational, and we learned about the plague, Guy Fawkes, Dick Turpin, torture, court procedure, execution, immuration (being walled up) and being trapped in a burning building.
The actors who took us round were very entertaining (especially the man in the surgery who told us about plague symptoms, the high judge and the chief torturer).
The labyrinth might have been more promising if there had been fewer people in there at the same time - it just made it obvious that we were going round in circles and not trapped in a mirrored nightmare after all!
We all enjoyed ourselves and thought it was worth the money - we went in at about 10.45 and came out just after 12.00.
I would be wary about taking in very young or nervous children (my 7 year old is scared of the dark and that alone terrified him until his eyes adjusted).
Only downside is that straight after the execution, you emerge blinking into daylight - straight into the giftshop to be plagued by children demanding money for various gruesome artefacts.