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Strolling Through the Friendly Streets of York

January 06, 1991|JUDITH MORGAN

I was leaning over the rim of York's ancient city wall when a man spoke close to my ear.

"They used to keep goats," he began. "I wonder where they went. Oh, the chickens are fine and look healthy enough. But the goats had more character. I used to see them every morning on my walk. You're not from here, are you? American, perhaps? I served with Yanks in the war and would be pleased to try to pay back those friendships. I could show you the city. I have all the time in the world now that I've retired. Hmmm, I do wonder about those goats." I had heard that the people of Yorkshire were more ebullient than their reserved London compatriots, that they were apt to spring into conversation with strangers as if they were chatting with neighbors about a mutually understood subject.

The voluble man was proof. We stared companionably into the tidy chicken yard that was framed with chestnut trees and backed by the soaring stone lace of York Cathedral, affectionately known as York Minster, the largest Gothic church in England.

Although I declined his offer of a tour, we agreed that the trees were lovely and the cathedral was magnificent and, yes, I would be sure to listen for the York Minster bell ringers that evening at their weekly practice. He doffed his tweed hat and walked on.

York is a town for walking. Crooked lanes whip between sagging 15th-Century buildings, and, in some cases--such as the medieval market street called the Shambles--the overhangs almost brush. Black-and-white lines of half-timbered buildings are broken up by dark piles of Victorian brick. Bow windows add grace; thatch rooftops add comfort.

And the people of Yorkshire add merriment.

"The red roses are even sweeter, luv ," said a woman selling flowers, when I paused to admire the yellow. "You are turned around, luv ," said a policeman when I asked directions. "Your hotel would be that way, beyond the museum. Now if you haven't visited the museum."

I had begun my wall-top hike at Bootham Bar, a turreted gate flanked by stone stairs. Fragments of a Roman wall support medieval ramparts. The view from above is a patchwork of kempt green lawns and overgrown gardens, of madcap rooftops holding a folly of chimneys.

At Monksgate, I descended shadowy stairs to wander a maze of streets and pray to come out at the Minster. Shop windows glittered with antiques and silver and porcelain. Amber lamps brightened pubs and coffeehouses. In a small park by St. William's College, schoolchildren were lining up to be counted. A peacock flew down from a tree branch and landed near them in a thud of turquoise. Two children toppled over with giggles.

York is proud of her past: the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, the kings, the conquerors, the builders of the Minster and the 19th-Century railroad men who made the town a hub.

She also is proud of her present, including an especially savory Yorkshire pudding that is served with roast beef or turkey, or as a main course at the heart-of-town Russell's restaurant.

Toward day's end, I strolled back to the Grange, a Georgian townhouse converted to a hotel with 29 rooms. I wanted to stretch out and read before going downstairs for supper.

At 8 p.m., from my third-floor window, I heard a glorious cacophony, the methodical change ringing of bells that is both art and sport in England, a matter of tradition and training. The sounds tumble over a scale in change ringing, but the pattern of bells varies each time.

I slipped into my shoes and hurried through the dusk toward the cathedral. Beyond Bootham Bar the peals grew louder. From the cobbled pavement I watched silhouettes high in the bell-tower windows. They flickered like smoke from a candle.

"It's the change ringers, you see," said a voice near my ear. "They pull down on the ropes and then ride them up. We have 12 bells in York, you know. Most places have just eight. Well, all the best."

And away she toddled, a cheery stranger with a flower on her hat and a run in her stocking. I felt I had known her for years.

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