Heritage or Highway: York’s city walls as tourist and civil infrastructure

Louisa Hood

This blog explores two very particular histories of York’s city walls. Although known generally as Roman or medieval defences, the social, material, economic, and other histories of the walls are layered, obscured, or unknown. York’s extant walls are a key aspect of its historic environment and identity as a tourist destination, but they are also part of the city’s transport infrastructure. Here, I consider both of these facets, tracing the walls’ interrupted yet conflicting existence as heritage site and bustling superstructure from 1800 until the present day, in order to reflect on how their duality impacts current and future management practices.

A divisive and decisive period for York’s city walls?

In 1800 the Corporation of York applied for an Act of Parliament to improve the city by demolishing the city walls. The Corporation argued:

“That all the Bars, Posterns, Gateways or public entrances into the said City are narrow and inconvenient and the arches of some of them are so low that public loaded Stage Waggons and other carriages having occasion to pass through the same cannot conveniently do so with Goods, Wares, Merchandize, Hay or Straw which they are authorised and accustomed to carry but are frequently obliged either to unload part thereof for the purpose of passing into or though the said City and afterwards to reload the same or to adapt the loading of such carriages to the said Entrances and Arches and by reason of the narrowness of the said Entrances many persons have been hurt or injured and foot passengers cannot safely pass through the same.” – ‘Introduction’, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 2, the Defences (London, 1972), pp. 1-5. British History Online

Though the Corporation of York spent around twenty years pursuing their application by various means, those in support of retaining and restoring the city walls for their historic value and visual appeal (organised as the York Footpath Association) were ultimately successful. This interlude in the walls’ history demonstrates how changing and different civil infrastructure needs are not always compatible with historic significance, but – crucially – how these differences can be accommodated.

Figure 1. Women walking on the city walls, York (c.1880)

Heritage tourism and recreation on the city walls today

If you are able-bodied, York’s city walls are free to access on foot throughout the year. The wall walkway is a permissive footpath, unlocked by attendants for the City of York Council at 8am, and locked again at the indeterminate time of dusk. The wall walkway is used for recreation and has been since it was constructed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In many places the walkway is awkward; at its narrowest it is wide enough only for one person and there are many unguarded edges and uneven steps. However, the walkway – as well as allowing people the opportunity to understand some of the built history of York – also affords some of the most famous views of the city and the chance to ‘do’ York in just a few hours. The ramparts that abut the city walls along most of their length are a green space encircling the centre of York and are also used for recreation, mainly by local residents.

Despite their clear role as a heritage tourist attraction and public space in York, visitor infrastructure on the walls is limited to a small amount of third-party provision. York’s city walls do not conform to heritage visitor attraction standards: they remain unbranded, have no coherent web presence, ticketing, or membership system, and they have no interpretation beyond orientation panels. That York’s city walls are managed as little more than a pavement is surprising, but it is also refreshing that the lack of visitor facilities fails to detract from their popularity (though it arguably detracts from their bottom line). It also reflects the fact that many people in York do use the wall walkway as they would any other footpath, as a way to get from one place to another.

York’s city walls as transport infrastructure

Just as they did in 1800, York city walls provide vehicle and pedestrian access routes into the city centre. Around this time, as part of the strategy to establish York as a railway centre, the walls were also adapted to allow trains. Today, three of the five arches created in the walls to facilitate the railways carry motor traffic. Three out of the four largest city gates exclusively carry bicycles and have subsidiary arches to carry cars and pedestrians. Bootham Bar, the only gate that permits motor traffic, remains inconvenient to vehicles carrying goods to be sold in city centre shops. The city – already with a largely pedestrianised centre during the day – has serious plans to become car-free and it is perhaps the city walls that will provide the boundary. Whether this ambition is realised or not, the walls remain a determining feature of the city’s transport infrastructure with significant implications for presentation and conservation routines.

Figure 2. Archway at the old railway station, York (1920s). 

Today and in the future

Conserving and making accessible important historic structures and buildings is often complex and can be made more so if the structure of building must meet multiple needs. Though it is possible to set the transport function of the city walls in direct opposition with its heritage credentials, these versions of the walls overlap in the sense that their continued and authentic civil use encourages their position as a heritage asset embedded in the fabric of people’s everyday lives. Others places demonstrate this duality too. Tower Bridge, for example, is a critical part of London’s highway infrastructure and river navigation system, but its heritage significance is protected by law and it is operated as a visitor attraction. Moreover, it is a globally recognised symbol of London. The UK’s National Parks may also fall into this category of infrastructure and visitor attraction: they are places of recreation for their many visitors, but are simultaneously agricultural and environmental resources. Overall, integrating the needs of civil, agricultural, and environmental infrastructure with those of the historic cultural environment and its visitors is perhaps a way to protect the interests of both.

Figure 3. Sheep being driven through Walmgate Bar, York (1910s).

You can find more information about the whys and wherefores of city walls in this vlog by Dr Eleanor Janega (in the context of another of England’s great cities). For detailed, open access information about the history of York’s city walls see: An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of York, volume 2, on British History Online.

Louisa Hood works for City of York Council managing care of, and access to, York’s city walls. Prior to taking up this post, Louisa was assistant curator at the National Trust. Louisa completed her PhD as a collaborative doctoral student at the University of Exeter and the Tate, and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Her research focuses on the social use of cultural spaces.

Figure 1. Unknown photographer, ‘Women walking on the city walls, York’ (c.1880). This image was recommended by the author and is in the public domain. It can be accessed online here.

Figure 2. Unknown photographer, ‘Archway at the old railway station, York’ (1920s). This image was recommended by the author and is in the public domain. It can be accessed online here.

Figure 3. Unknown photographer, ‘Sheep being driven through Walmgate Bar, York’ (c.1910s). This image was recommended by the author and is in the public domain. It can be accessed online here.

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