Several companies offer York walking tours, and there are all kinds of tours to choose from. Some of the themes covered by guided walking tours in York include
York Minster Cathedral
However, the best York walking tour we found was a Historic Toilet Tour of York, and here’s what Mike made of it…
‘Now the Vikings were a messy lot,’ Julian Cripps tells us. I’m in York, renowned for its Viking past, though I was learning rather more about these early English immigrants than I’d expected. Specifically, their toilet habits. ‘Yes,’ says Julian, who leads Historic Toilet Tours of York with great enthusiasm: ‘The Vikings used holes in the ground and cleaned themselves afterwards with moss and stones, which sounds a bit painful to me.’
I tried not to think about it. Julian used to work for the Metropolitan Police, dealing with vice and smuggling. ‘I’ve met some very nasty people and seen some very unpleasant things,’ he reveals, so evidently the toilet habits of the Vikings hold no terrors for him. But how did he move from PCs to WCs?
‘I took early retirement,’ he says, ‘and moved to York. I love history, and began leading tours for Yorkwalk. I didn’t want to do the Toilet Tour, to be honest, as I didn’t think it was my kind of thing, but they talked me into it. I am interested in all aspects of York’s history, especially the unusual… and it doesn’t come any more unusual than this!’
On that first tour Julian soon found out how curious people were about water closets: ‘One woman asked me why we saw no toilets for women, and I said that was because women, like royalty, don’t go to the toilet. When she said she really wanted to know, I told her that if women were going out, they made sure they went before they left home because there simply were no facilities for women.
‘Anyway, this woman persisted and asked what they did if they were out and they absolutely had to go. I explained that women in those days wore knickers with a hole in them, so they would find a quiet spot and crouch down. ‘What do you mean,’ this woman asked. ‘You mean they just stood up and walked away?’ Look, I told her, you really don’t want to know any more about it than that!’
Prior to the messy Vikings, the Romans were actually well-organised and clean, with bath-houses and communal public toilets using running water. No Roman toilets remain in York, except for some in the Roman Baths, where the male citizens sat in a long line, talking politics and telling jokes.
‘They used sponges on sticks to clean themselves afterwards,’ explains Julian, ‘dipping them into clean water that flowed down the middle of the room.’
York City Walls at Night, Photo (c) Visit York
We climb up onto York’s magnificent city walls at Monk Bar. This is the tallest and strongest of the several gates into York, and houses (appropriately, given the theme of our tour) the Richard III Museum. Julian leads us to a tiny room in the tower in the corner.
‘This is a prison cell, and you’ll have to go in one at a time as it’s so small. It is only 4’6’ across, so you couldn’t even lie down in it. Take a look in the recess in the corner which is the toilet. There’s another room in the opposite tower, which was the rather more spacious guard’s room, and you can still see his toilet too. You can just imagine him sitting there having a break from his guard duties. At least, I can, but then I’ve always had a vivid imagination.’
We inspect the guard’s toilet and walk along the walls a short way, until Julian stops. ‘We are now,’ he says, ‘looking at the back end, if you’ll pardon the expression, of the Mercer’s or Merchant Tailor’s Hall. They didn’t have a toilet so they would come out of the back door there and climb this bank to one of the two toilets here on the city wall.’
He points to two holes side by side in a recess sticking out from the wall itself. Apparently you just reversed in, and did what you had to do, which then fell outside the city walls.
‘I find it amazing,’ says Julian, ‘that people would do it like that, in full view of anyone who happened to be passing by. I can’t help but think there must have been occasions when someone was strolling by, carrying a bow and arrow, and looked up and saw this bum poking out of the walls. What a target!’
Further along, Julian points to a cab shelter, and tells us the next stage in the history of the toilet. ‘By the time we get to the 18th and 19th centuries, they were putting up little prefab buildings in the streets, for people to use. These were always built where the coaches and cabs stopped, mainly for the convenience of the drivers.’
At the end of the fascinating 2-hour tour, one of our group inevitably needs to go. Is there a convenient convenience? ‘Oh,’ says Julian, ‘I always use the ones in Brown’s, the department store.’ Well, it sure beats a hole in the ground.
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