Our new series follows Graham St., made up of Sue Macleod and her stylist daughter Hannah, as they visit interesting locations throughout the UK, wearing TOAST pieces. For this feature, they visited the city of York, home to our new TOAST shop.
A Brief Guide to York
To call York the London of the north might be deemed a backhanded compliment, but the phrase does sum up the extraordinary wealth of history in this most ancient of cities. With its perfectly preserved medieval streets, fine Norman minster and imposing Roman walls (more complete than anywhere else in England), it presents you with glimpses of the past at every turn.
York has played a role in many a national triumph and crisis. Its heroes include Joseph Rowntree, the Victorian chocolatier-turned-philanthropist, and campaigner William Wilberforce, who lectured on the evils of slavery before crowds in Castle Yard (although he was born in nearby Hull). Among its villains are chief Gunpowder Plotter Guy Fawkes, highwayman Dick Turpin (executed in 1739 in a prison which is now the Castle Museum), and two of England's most ill-fated kings, Richard III and Charles I. The city was, for a while, the heart of the kingdom, after the latter fled London in 1642.
Over millennia, York has been coveted by all those who have invaded England. The Romans left behind some elegant ruins (notably the Multangular Tower, once part of a huge fortress and still visible in the Museum Gardens). The Vikings gave York its name, Jorvik. And the Normans kickstarted the city's trading power, transforming it into the country's largest shipbuilding centre by the 13th century.
For hundreds of years afterwards, York was the north's most important political centre; a buffer between Parliament in London and the uneasy border with Scotland. The privileges this conferred on the city are visible to this day, in the shape of its medieval, Elizabethan and Georgian architecture and, of course, the magnificent Norman Gothic minster at the heart of it all. Designed to be the most prominent cathedral in the realm and 250 years in the making, it was once surrounded by its own walled city precinct and boasted the greatest quantity of stained glass in the country.
Huddled around the minster, York's warren of picturesque old streets is still a major lure for visitors. Most of the buildings are now inhabited by quirky independent cafs and boutiques, although in the past, the atmosphere was rather earthier. The famous Shambles, for instance known for its closely crammed, half-timbered shops was traditionally populated by butchers. The word shamble is believed to derive from the Old English sceamel, the bench on which meat was displayed for sale. You can still see old meat-hooks embedded in the masonry. Nearby Stonegate was apparently so named because it was the principal conduit of stone for building the cathedral. It was also home to craftsmen like jewellers and printers. And around the corner, Petergate housed bookbinders and tobacconists.
All the aforementioned streets are now part of the rebranded Minster Quarter - a very 21st-century method of drumming up trade. But keen observers will note much older advertising tricks still in evidence. On Stonegate, stained glass in a window signals that it was once the premises of a glass painter, while a striking sculpture of a red devil crouched atop a corbel is evidence of a long-departed print workshop. Elsewhere, look out for a carving of Minerva with an owl on the corner of Petergate the Roman goddess of wisdom signposted a bookshop and the exotic figure of a Native American Indian on Low Petergate, once the pride and joy of a tobacconist. Looking slightly startled to have pitched up in the middle of North Yorkshire, he sports a colourful tobacco-leaf skirt and headdress and is the target of many a tourist's camera lens.
Any visitor who tires of the throngs on these narrow thoroughfares should take a tip from the writer Mark W Jones, whose 1983 book A Walk Around the Snickelways of York put the spotlight on its hidden nooks and corners. He coined the word snickelway a portmanteau term formed from the words snicket, ginnel (both meaning narrow passageway) and alleyway to describe the tiny lanes leading off the old town's shopping streets. Their quaint names are part of their charm Little Peculiar Lane has a lovely view of the cathedral, while Mad Alice Lane was christened after a 19th-century poisoner.
Perhaps the most magical thing of all about York, though, is its association with chocolate. In the 19th century, it became known as the Chocolate City after firms like Rowntree's, Terry's and Craven's sprang up. The air grew thick with the smell of sugar and roasting cocoa, while a veil of chocolate dust was said to settle on buildings as it drifted from the factories. If this sounds fanciful, the present offers more tangible phenomena. Modern York has more than its fair share of artisan chocolatiers, and its industrial heritage lives on in the shape of the Yorkie bar, launched by Nestl in 1976 and named after the place it was first produced.
From chocolate emporia to cafes, shops and cultural hotspots, here are ten of the best places to visit in York.
1 Assembly Rooms
Though not as famous as its counterpart in Bath, York's Assembly Rooms is actually more than thirty years older. Dating from 1730, the Palladian design on Blake Street is one of Europe's earliest neoclassical buildings. It now houses an Italian restaurant, but even if you don't stay for pizza, it's worth popping in to admire the huge Corinthian columns and crystal chandeliers.
As well as European art and a wonderful group of paintings by 19th-century local artist William Etty, this museum has the world's largest collection of 20th-century studio pottery, including works by Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew. Until May 12, there's also an exhibition of ceramics by Dame Lucie Rie.
Once the home of Viscount Fairfax, this is one of the finest Georgian townhouses in the country and still has its original interiors, furniture and art collection. From April 14, it is also staging an exhibition on 17th-century master carver Grinling Gibbons, whose earliest surviving work was made in York.
This chocolate emporium and caf was launched by Sophie Jewett in 2011; in 2018, it expanded to include its own factory on Castlegate, where chocolate is made using sustainably sourced ingredients from around the world. It hosts factory tours and chocolate workshops, while the shop and caf are brimful with irresistible treats.
Opened as a family greengrocer thirty years ago, this caf on Blake Street is housed in a Tudor building and serves wonderful charcuterie, cream teas and craft beers in simple, grey-panelled rooms. The old-fashioned sausage rolls, liberally scattered with poppy seeds, are not to be missed.
The first things you'll notice at this Museum Street coffee shop are likely to be the country furniture, white metro-tiled walls and homespun lighting made from old jam jars, but it's by no means a case of style over substance. Locals love the wonderful espresso (beans are sourced from Bristol-based Extract Coffee Roasters) and artisan bread by York's Haxby Bakehouse. And as the name suggests, the chocolate brownies aren't half bad, either.
There's a lovely arty feel to this small place on Fossgate, where great coffee, bacon sandwiches and bubble and squeak are served on local craft pottery, and the tongue-and-groove-panelled interior is simply furnished with plywood chairs and tables. @kiosk_cafe
Located in the city's old Micklegate quarter, this is a place to buy work by local artists it has everything from original prints to ceramics and jewellery, as well as picture frames and art supplies. There's also a programme of unusual exhibitions, including a recent one on automata.
A quaint Dickensian atmosphere prevails at this rare bookshop on Micklegate, named as one of the UK's ten best by The Independent. It's made for leisurely browsing as you wander around you might spot a copy of The Times from the 1830s, an old botanical atlas or leather-bound vintage editions of Tennyson and Wordsworth.
10 Botanic York
Walk down Fossgate and across the river and you'll come to this delightful shop, festooned from top to bottom with jungle greenery and selling all manner of plant-themed wares, from pretty glazed ceramic pots for house plants to books, seeds and exotic cacti. A little oasis in the middle of the city.
Sue wears the Dogtooth Wool Franca Dress with the Jeans Belt, the Swingy Merino Cardigan, the Quilted Indigo Twill Coat, the Soft Merino Falke Tights and the Kate Sheridan Cross Body Bag. She is wearing suede Cheaney Boots from a few season ago.
Styling by Graham St. Photography by Alexandra Mooney. Words by Amy Bradford. Below portrait shows Rachel and Ellie from the York Shop.