A walk through York with a surprise at every step
A century after it ended, Adrian Bridge gets a unique new take on the legacy of the Great War
All Saints’ Church, main; women railway workers in York in 1916, far right top; the Minster, far right
It is often the small, surprising details that have the biggest impact. I’m in York Cemetery to pay my respects to the fallen in the freshly turfed “soldiers lawn” when the man leading me there calls me over to look at some photographs on his phone.
The black- and-white stills show hundreds of horses packing the street that was normally used for the city’s cattle market. The year was 1914 and the horses, strong, fit and sleek, were being corralled to go and serve King and Country and to face almost certain slaughter.
I learn something else in the cemetery: that in 1916 a young soldier called Edward Beckett, on leave from the front, was killed during the course of a Zeppelin attack on York. “He’d have been better off staying in the trenches,” is the rueful observation of Richard Keesing, my guide to the cemetery and its multi-layered stories. I’m reminded of both these events later in the day when I embark on a timely new walking trail that has been introduced this autumn for visitors to the city: “Experiencing the Great War: York in World War One”.
The walk, through the heart of the city, is broken up into 10 stopping points, all throwing special light on how that immense conflict between 1914 and 1918 impacted on those left behind – the women, the children, the conscientious objectors, the interned – and how it changed lives for ever. It is a self-guided tour with downloadable commentary researched by University of York students under the guidance of public historian Helen Weinstein. As we as a nation this weekend pause to take stock of the fact that it is now exactly 100 years since the guns fell silent, it provides a fresh set of perspectives on the First World War and a compelling new look at one of England’s greatest cities.
“We always think about the First World War as something that happened a long time ago and a long way away,” says Professor Weinstein. “Actually, it had cataclysmic and continuing consequences much closer to home, and the point of this tour is to help people today connect with it.”
The plight of the horses cut down in their prime comes back to me as I spot the painted sign advertising “FR
Stubbs Ironmonger” at the entrance to Walmgate, site of the cattle market and one of the city’s most deprived districts in 1914 (Stop 7). The war put back slum clearance programmes by 20 years, and to this day certain types of heavy draught horses are classed as rare and semi-rare breeds due to the numbers that were lost.
Stop 9 at Peasholme Green brings to mind the night in May 1916 when “the skies of York darkened with the distinctive shadow of the Zeppelin airship” and nine people were killed. I think of Edward Beckett. I also think of my own grandmother, a girl at the time, who lay in her east London bed, terrified by the hum of Zeppelins flying overhead.
There are many poignant moments along the trail. Another, early on, comes outside the city’s main art gallery, a splendid-looking edifice which was where men came to enlist and which was turned into the post office from which so many letters and packages were sent to the front – in France and Belgium but beyond, too, to Gallipoli and Mesopotamia. Incredibly it continued to serve as an art gallery during the war, though its governing committee complained they were unable to curate many new exhibitions.
Life carried on. For women it meant new responsibilities – and opportunities. With so many male workers called into service, North Eastern Railways – then the city’s largest employer – had no choice but to employ female platform assistants, ticket inspectors and engine cleaners
(it stopped short of making them drivers). Votes for women – and calls for equal pay for equal work (still resonating today) – weren’t far behind.
Schools were turned into hospitals; children collected conkers to be used for shells and bullets. The shop which is now Crabtree & Evelyn but was then Holgate and Sons did a roaring trade in toys – buying them was considered patriotic, particularly since all the puppets and train sets that used to be imported from Germany were being built on the home front.
For people with German or indeed foreign-sounding names living in York at the time, internment awaited. One – W Kitching of Holgate Road – felt compelled to write to a local newspaper pointing out that he owned no airship “with which to assist the enemy”. Confinement was initially in tents set up on the grassy patch next to Clifford’s Tower – Stop 6 – and later in a barbed-wire enclosed camp on Leeman Road to which thousands flocked on Sunday to stare at the prisoners.
Incarceration was also the fate for most of York’s conscientious objectors. Their cases were given a hearing at the Guildhall (Stop 4) behind the Mansion House, home to the city mayor. A moving exhibition here depicts the graffiti-covered walls of the cells in which they were held. In a town of many Quakers, there were mixed views as to whether people should be forced to fight following the introduction of conscription in 1916, and in Arnold Rowntree, Liberal MP for York at the time, those who felt it was morally wrong had a worthy champion.
The influence of the Rowntrees – alongside the Terrys, one of the city’s two great chocolate-manufacturing families – is manifest at many points along the trail. In the Mansion House there is an original of the tin of chocolates sent to all serving men from York for Christmas 1914. Stop 8, now a Pizza Hut, was where the first Rowntree’s grocery shop was opened in 1822. During the war, the
Rowntree’s factory was used to house soldiers heading to the front – and later those returning home wounded. Nine houses in the company’s New Earswick model village for employees were given over to Belgian refugees fleeing the fighting; they in turn took jobs in the cocoa works – and taught French to those wanting to learn.
After the war, the Rowntrees bequeathed to a war-scarred populace the lovely expanse of parkland on the river Ouse just south of the city centre known ever since as Rowntree Park. I take a detour to the park to admire a visually arresting display of red, white and green poppies and bump into a local man, Timothy Owston, whose grandfather had fought in the war. He survived but had been gassed “and never wanted to talk about it”. A distant cousin had been killed. “I looked him up and saw he had been born in the 1890s and thought, Uh, oh.”
I take other detours – to the Sir Edwin Lutyens-designed memorial to the 2,236 men of North Eastern Railways who lost their lives, opposite what was the rail company’s stately HQ – now the aptly named Grand Hotel. I stop off at York Army Museum – the city is proud of its heritage as a garrison town – and am gripped by grainy film of men who had lost legs and limbs in recuperation establishments playing games of football and even staging a tug-of-war – a precursor, if you will, of Prince Harry’s Invictus Games.
Along the way, between uplifting glimpses of York Minster and medieval city walls, I learn, that in addition to being referred to as the First World War, the Great War, and – yes, really – “the war to end all wars”, experts at the city’s Bootham Park Hospital described it as the “psycho-neurosis war”, a chilling recognition of the phenomenon of “shell shock”.
After all that I need a stiff drink and retrace my steps to the Black Swan, a fine-looking pub in a building dating back to the 15th century to which I had been alerted at Stop 9. I sink several pints of the locally-brewed Guzzler ale and reflect on how good it is to be alive.
THEN AND NOW ACROSS THE UKFor six of the most striking Remembrance Sunday commemorations in the UK this weekend, see telegraph.co.uk/ tt-remembrance-day
ON THE WAR PATHA German Zeppelin, above; decorative poppies at Rowntree Park, above left; visitors on the walking trail, left