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

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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