York Minster

The drive from Leeds, where we were staying, to York was an hour through lush Yorkshire countryside; and, unusually, the streets of York were exactly as they were shown on the map. (Everywhere you go here, it always seems that the city has just closed off streets or changed the direction of one way streets or is working on exactly the street you need.)  We found the approach to the Minster and the nearest parking lot easily.

You approach York Minster through the old city gates, then along a narrow street of medieval shop fronts. It’s little more than a passageway and is closed to all but foot traffic. The shops and cafes in this street cater mostly to the tourists.  However, as we walked to the minster, I noticed a small, intimate cafe that was absolutely packed with locals; and it whispered echos in my mind of cafes in Berkeley (Mozart, Bateau Ivre) and Oakland (a coffee house near 51st and Telegraph).  So we had a late lunch there after we saw the minster.  Atypically for England, both the food and the service were excellent.

Having heard about York Minster for ages, I was interested in seeing it but didn’t have any particular expectations, no specific part of it I wanted to see.

My strongest response was surprise: I was completely taken  aback by how un-sacred it felt. I felt no sense of hundreds of generations (since 627AD, according t the handout) praying there.  The atmosphere there was chaotic and surprisingly noisy, and the attitude of the hoard of volunteers reminded me of the people who run the rides at Disneyland. I got the distinct impression that they were there to watch the punters in case they touched anything, and to herd the crowds around– not to tell people about the history of a sacred space.

Some of the stained glass is indeed spectacular, in particular the Five Sisters window (c. 1260) and the Rose window (c. 1500).

The best part of our visit was that a choir was rehearsing, and the quality of the singing was so good,  I thought at first that they were piping in recordings. It was a choir of women only, and their voices were strong and clear and full, and their singing made my heart leap. Their presence, their music, was the only truly sacred experience of our visit to York Minster.

I bought a stack of postcards, but found only two without copyright notice.  Fortunately, one is of the quire where the women were singing:

Quire and High Altar

They stood in the center aisle, the piano and conductor set in roughly the position from which this picture must have been taken.  We stood there for quite some time listening to them; they seemed unaware that anyone was watching. Relaxed and focused, the women read their music and sang from their hearts.

According to the handout (four-colour printing on heavy coated paper, a high-end, expensive printing job) York is both a minster and a cathedral. Mynster was the Anglo-Saxon word for a missionary church, which this one was; and a cathedral is the seat of a bishop, which York also is.

York Minster charges admission to go inside: £8 (roughly US$12).  I’ve visited Lincoln, Ely, Wells, Bath, Coventry and other cathedrals and churches, famous and not famous,  in England, and this is the first one that I’ve visited outside Londonwhich charges money to enter. All of them have a place where visitors can make a donation, and I always make a good one, but I find it offensive for a church to charge people to enter it. (St. Paul’s charges entry,  but in London it’s not such a surprise.)

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