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An introduction to York's historic defences

The historic defences form a key attraction for most first-time visitors to York. A stroll along at least part of the wall-top walkway is highly recommended.

Defending a city

Like many historic European towns and cities, York was once completely surrounded by a series of walls, banks, ditches and / or areas of open water. Collectively, these had at least three key functions:

  • To provide a defensive capability.
  • To control the movement of goods and people (which also facilitated the raising of revenue via the imposition and collection of taxes and tolls).
  • To demonstrate the power, wealth and prestige of the city and its citizens.

Most other English towns and cities have long-since demolished their defensive structures. However, York has managed to retain many of these fascinating features and the city now boasts that it has the longest circuit of standing defensive walls in England and the second longest in Europe.

Figure 1: A simplified map* of York’s historic defences.Map showing relative position of Clifford's Tower, York city walls and the defensive 'bars' and towers. (Thumbnail linking to larger version)

* A high resolution version of the map (dimensions: 5,360 pixels x 4,020 pixels, filesize: 1.8Mb) can be viewed / downloaded via the following link:

https://www.york-illustrated.co.uk/sites/1/files/figures/maps/map-york-city-defences-simplified-v1-1.jpg

Either version of this map may be saved to your device and / or printed for personal (non-commercial) use. However, the map must NOT be altered in any way and it must NOT be uploaded to the internet or offered for sale.

From the perspective of a sightseeing visitor, the city's defences can be split into six key areas, as per the descriptions below and the associated map (see figure 1) :

1: York Castle

This area covers Clifford's Tower, Davy Tower and a short section of the inner bailey wall (which includes the South Angle Tower, the Southeast Tower and the foundations of the castle's south gatehouse and associated drawbridge).

2: York Walls Southwest - Skeldergate Access Tower to Barker Tower

This section of the City Wall also includes Baile Hill, Bitchdaughter Tower, Victoria Bar, Sadler Tower, Micklegate Bar, Toft's Tower, the modern road and railway arches and North Street Postern.

3: York Walls Northwest - Lendal Tower to Queen Margaret's Arch

This area also includes Multangular Tower, Anglian Tower, the defensive bank cross-section and the defences of St Mary's Abbey including the Water Tower, St Mary's Abbey Gatehouse, St Mary's Tower, and Postern Tower (aka Bootham Tower).

4: York Walls North - Bootham Bar to Laythorpe Tower

This section of the City Wall also includes Robin Hood's Tower, Monk Bar, Harlot Hill Tower, and New Tower.

5: Foss Islands Road

During the Middle Ages, the area between Laythorpe Postern (demolished) and the Red Tower was defended by a man-made lake known as 'The King's Fishpond'.

6: York Walls Southeast - Red Tower to Fishergate Postern Tower

This section of the City Wall also includes Walmgate Bar and Fishergate Bar.

York's famous Wall Walk

It is possible to walk along the top of the following sections of the city wall:

It is also possible to walk alongside (or relatively close to) the following sections:

Section 5 ('The King's Fishpond') involves a 500 metre (550 yard) walk along the pavement beside the busy Foss Islands Road. This will take approximately 5 to 10 minutes, but part of the route lies beside the River Foss so it is more pleasant than it might sound.

Practical Information

If you are planning a real-world visit to York's City Walls, please note the following:

  • The City Walls and the associated wall-top walk are managed and maintained by York City Council. The practical information provided here has been obtained from the interpretation panels installed at the various Wall Walk access points and it is provided here in good faith to help visitors plan their visit. All questions, concerns or complaints relating to the City Walls and the associated wall-top walk should be directed to York City Council (see External Links below).
  • The wall-top walkways along the City Walls are open daily from 08:00 to dusk, except for Christmas Day (December 25th) and when icy underfoot conditions are expected.
  • All but one of the access points for the wall-top walkways involve the use of steps (the exception being the ramped access point from Station Road, near Lendal Bridge). There are also steps at regular intervals along all three sections of the wall-top walkway.
  • The wall-top walkway is very narrow and many sections have unguarded drops on the city side.
  • For the reasons listed above,
    • the wall-top walkways are NOT suitable for wheelchairs, mobility scooters, prams or pushchairs,
    • great care must be taken to ensure the safety of children,
    • cycling is not permitted, and
    • the City Council has banned dogs (except for assistance dogs) from all parts of the wall-top walkway.
  • The main circuit of the Wall Walk is 2.88 miles long. At a brisk pace without stops, it can be completed in 45 minutes. However, at a more moderate pace (with time to read the notes and enjoy the view) it is likely to take between one and two hours. The loop following St Mary's defences adds an extra 0.66 miles (15 to 30 minutes).
  • The most popular (and therefore the busiest) sections of the Wall Walk are:

A brief note about stone

Most of York's historic defensive structures are constructed from Magnesian Limestone. In the language of geologists, this is a magnesium-rich dolomitic limestone sourced from the "Upper Permian Cadeby formation". There are no sources of this stone (or, indeed, any other good quality building stone) in the Vale of York, so stone had to be sourced from further afield. As stone is both bulky and extremely heavy (making it difficult to transport overland in large quantities), quarries located close to navigable rivers would have been the preferred option. As stone was a tradeable commodity, availability and purchase price would also have been important considerations. In the medieval period, two powerful families with significant links to York (the De Percy family and the Vavasour family) owned quarries near the River Wharfe, between Tadcaster and Bramham. As a consequence, the vast majority of the stone used for York's historic defensive structures (e.g. Clifford's Tower and the city walls) was obtained from this area. The quarries are approximately 10 miles southwest of York as the crow flies, but the route via local roads and the rivers Wharfe and Ouse involves a slightly more circuitous journey of approximately 30 miles.