The King's Staith forms part of a pleasant linear walk beside the River Ouse close to York city centre. The route links Skeldergate Bridge (near York Castle / Clifford's Tower) and Lendal Bridge (near York Railway Station and Museum Gardens) via Tower Gardens, South Esplanade, King's Staith, Ouse Bridge (near the city centre), North Street Gardens and Wellington Row. However, please note that this entire walking route lies within the functional flood plain of the River Ouse and that it may be inaccessible when the river is in flood and for the duration of post-flood clean-up works.
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King's Staith was York's main quayside during the medieval period. It is now a popular and characterful leisure location (except when the river is in flood).
The word 'staith' (and the alternative spelling 'staithe') originates from the Old Norse word 'stǫth', meaning a landing stage. Its common use across north-eastern England is a legacy of the Viking occupation during the 9th, 10th and early 11th centuries.
The prefix (King's) is a relatively recent addition. It does not commonly appear in historical records until the 17th century and the reason for its introduction is not recorded. It may have been added to acknowledge the royal grant of 'quayage' (see below), to commemorate a specific royal visit, to demonstrate the city's loyalty to the Crown, or simply to distinguish it from the other commercial staithes that were beginning to appear within the city during this period.
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From inland port to leisure location: a brief history of the King's Staith
York's rivers (the Ouse and the Foss) have been used as transport routes for at least two thousand years.
Before humans intervened, both rivers were tidal and both were naturally navigable (with care) between York and the Humber Estuary (which gave access to the North Sea).
Throughout the first millennium AD, suitably sized boats could use these 'common highways' without legal restriction and without incurring any tolls or taxes. Small flat-bottomed boats could be beached close to the riverbank at high tide, loaded or off-loaded at low tide, then re-floated during a subsequent high tide. However, this would have been a muddy process and it would have been difficult to load / unload larger vessels in an efficient manner. The solution was to construct a quayside or jetty to support the boats in a more upright position and to provide easier (and cleaner) access between boat and shore at all states of the tide. Archaeological evidence of such structures dating from the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods has been found at dozens of locations along both banks of both rivers.
With the arrival of the Normans, York's riverside life changed dramatically. In 1068, William the Conqueror (King William I) ordered the construction of a motte and bailey castle on the tongue of land between the rivers Ouse and Foss. In order to strengthen the castle's defences, the River Foss was dammed to create a moat. (For more information on this, see the King's Fishpond.) For the next 700 years, this dam prevented boats from accessing the Foss, so all river-related commercial activity became focussed on the banks of the Ouse. The Norman Kings (and their successors) also imposed State controls and taxation on a wide range of daily activities, including river transport and mercantile trade. For example, at various dates between 1366 and 1388, the King granted the Mayor of York the right of 'quayage' (i.e. the right to operate – and charge for the use of – a quayside) and the right to levy tolls to fund the maintenance of the staith and the City Walls. The resulting city ordinances (local laws) forced York's merchants to use a single central quayside (on the site now occupied by the King's Staith) and, for the next four hundred years, this handled the majority of the river-borne cargo arriving at, or departing from the city. A wide array of merchandise has crossed this quayside over the centuries, including:
- stone and cobbles (for building);
- lead (for roofing, guttering, tank-lining, etc.);
- reeds and straw (for roofing and floor-covering);
- lime (for mortar, tanning, manufacturing whitewash, sugar refining and a wide-range of other uses);
- coal (especially in later centuries);
- wool; and
- a wide variety of foodstuffs including wheat, flour, barley, malt (malted barley), fish, wine, salt and spices.
Historical records tell us that the King's Staith was frequently in need of repair and that it was significantly modified on at least three separate occasions:
- During the 17th century, the staith was extended southwards along the front of 'The Friars’ Walls' (creating the forerunner of the quayside now known as the South Esplanade).
- In 1774, the height of the staith was increased and its surface was repaved.
- In 1820, the staith was completely rebuilt as part of works to replace the adjacent Ouse Bridge.
Despite these improvements, the commercial importance of the King's Staith steadily declined from the middle of the 17th century onwards. The process of change started when the city authorities began to permit the construction of competing quays elsewhere on the River Ouse. As an example, Topham's Staith was constructed on the opposite bank of the river in 1660. (This later became the Queen's Staith.) In 1793, Parliament passed the 'Foss Navigation Act', which allowed commercial traffic to return to the River Foss after an absence of almost seven hundred years. By the 19th century, there were (once more) dozens of quays and wharves along both banks of both rivers. However, while the rivers continued to carry significant amounts of commercial traffic, the usefulness of (and therefore the use of) the King's Staith steadily declined. Retail businesses within the city centre increasingly turned to road transport to meet their distribution needs and, during the second half of the 20th century, most of the city centre manufacturing and warehousing businesses either ceased trading, or relocated to industrial estates on the outskirts of town. By the early 1970s, the King's Staith had become little more than a riverside car-park. Fortunately, as a result of the growth in the leisure economy, the area has acquired a new purpose and today it is the perfect destination for a riverside stroll and a pleasant place to sit and watch the world go by.
The Pudding Holes
The ramp leading into the river from the quayside is the approximate location of an area referred to in historical records as 'the Pudding Holes'. This was a public washing place where city ordinances specifically permitted citizens to wash clothes, gut fish and rinse animal giblets. The latter included animal intestines, which were then stuffed with a mixture of animal blood, animal fat and processed cereal grains before being boiled to make black-puddings (the latter being one possible source of the name given to this part of the staith).