A walk around York’s city walls will take you through 1900 years of history.
First built in Roman times, they have been added to and rebuilt over time – so that different parts date from different centuries.
As such, they tell the important and fascinating history of York. And as King George VI once said, "The history of York is the history of England."
York’s city walls are among the longest and best-preserved walls in England. They are a scheduled ancient monument and a Grade One listed building.
The walls are visited by over one million people from all over the world every year.
Originally built as defences for the city, much of the work carried out in modern times is for conservation.
The idea of preserving the walls as a valuable historical monument began in the 19th century. At this time, the Corporation of York wanted to demolish them.
In 1800 the corporation resolved to apply for an Act of Parliament to improve the city "particularly by the taking down of the walls and bars". The corporation told Parliament, "The towers, turrets, walls... are mostly of great antiquity and by reason thereof are are becoming ruinous... and cannot be repaired, maintained, kept up and preserved in good order, but at a great annual charge and expense and more than the said mayor and commonality are able to sustain and pay."
Despite the opposition of King George III, and a campaign from those determined to protect the walls, the corporation managed to destroy three walled fortifications, four gates and some small sections of wall at St Leonard’s Place and Skeldergate.
Those interested in preserving the walls formed the York Footpath Association. This group set about raising money and restoring sections of wall. The first section to be restored was between Micklegate Bar and North Street Postern in 1831. The corporation, although it allowed this work to be done, was still far from happy and resolved that, even if the walls were repaired, it could not agree to maintain them. Even as all this restoration work was going on, the corporation was in the process of demolishing Layerthorpe Postern.
In 1838, William Etty, a noted local artist and painter of erotic art, and leading light of the York Footpath Assocation – argued that the restoration of the walls should be completed so that they could be used as a tourist attraction!
The last attempt to demolish a significant section of wall came in 1855, when the Board of Health Committee proposed to remove "the whole or such part of the city walls between Walmgate Bar and Red Tower as may be considered requisite to improve that locality".
It was argued the walls had "no particular historic interest about them and had been little noticed until the proposed improvement had been projected".
The walls, said the committee, were seen as promoting ill-health as they obstructed the free circulation of air.
Luckily, the proposal was rejected. And since then the story has been one of progressive restoration.
Location photography completed: 24/6/01 19:45:25
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