York

NY_YAG_YORAG_1257.jpgIt took longer to drive from Hull to York than I thought that it would, mostly because of delays occasioned by road works. I had the constant sense that I was driving up a U-shaped valley scoured out by a glacier aeons ago; remembering the schematic drawings from a geography textbook we had at Kuranui College. The word moraine recurred in my mind: what is a moraine? The compacted debris left behind by a glacier. Anything from gravel and sand to great boulders. Later I found out that I was indeed traversing a glaciated landscape. There had been at least three big freezes during which the ice advanced over the last two million years; that is, during the Quaternary, or the Fourth Age.

I drove straight into the heart of York without really knowing what I might find there. The streets became narrower, the traffic slower, the congestion worse. I passed through Monk Bar Gate—where a portcullis was still in use only a few decades ago—into the old city. It was a maze without a centre, a labyrinth of crooked streets in which the houses on either side leaned out towards each other as if intending to touch foreheads. Tiny though. In no time at all I was through to the other side and crossing the Ouse Bridge (not the one Lycett painted, its successor) into that part of the town on the other bank of the river. Clearly the only way to deal with the place was on foot. I turned the car around, dived once more into the maze and found a park in a cobbled square. Saint Sampson’s, it was called. Some Welsh divine I believe, not the strong man of the Bible. I was still early for my appointment; and along the way had glimpsed a prodigy.

And indeed I do not really know how to write about York Minster. Or, to give its full title, the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter. It seemed both monstrous and sublime; at once an act of supreme arrogance and supreme piety; a spectacular example of hubris as well as of loving devotion. Like something out of a nightmare or a dream, I could not comprehend it and, as in a dream, it provoked mingled fascination and alarm. Dread, almost. How did it exist? Who built it? Why? In truth, it did not seem as if men and women alone could have made this thing. There had to have been some larger power guiding them: scaffolding upwards / towards the glory of god. And I say this as one who does not believe.

Gothic cathedrals like York Minster took centuries to build. This one was begun, over the site of a Roman fort called Eboracum (the Place of the Yew Tree), in 1220 but was not completed, or consecrated, until 1472. Two hundred and fifty-two years, then. And in fact work upon it is going on still. Down one side, under blue tarpaulins, masons were working at their benches, carving out replacement pieces for those parts of the building where the stone has rotted or fallen. I could hear the tintinnabulation of their hammers and chisels as I wandered around the outside of the Minster, trying to grasp its aweful majesty. The gargoyles grimacing down derisive of my attempt.

Inside was revelatory in another way: like frozen music, perhaps, the image of a Bach organ fugue, say, bodied forth in stone. The multi-facetted, multi-hued light falling through stained glass windows onto the buttery gold-coloured stone gave a heavenly cast to the shining air. It was impossible not to feel awed and yet somehow abased at the same time. Your humiliation in the face of such grandeur was an intrinsic part of the experience. I even thought I could hear angelic choirs singing, though the actual sounds were just those of tourists satisfying their vague curiosities. And I didn’t even go properly inside: there was a charge, fifteen pounds I think, but that wasn’t why. I didn’t have time, because I was due over at the art gallery for my rendezvous with Joseph Lycett.

I was met there in reception by a young woman called Fiona Green and she took me upstairs and into the stock room. The big metal doors had to be locked behind us in case I turned out to be a thief. The painting was on a large easel, looking small and unassuming. And small it is: only 17.8 x 23 cm. It is painted on a wooden panel and—something not apparent in the reproductions—the panel is cracked. A vertical line ran almost all the way from top to bottom. Fiona let me hold it briefly in my hands so I could look at the back, where the crack was more obvious. It was signed there too. It is a very odd feeling to hold in your hands an artefact made two hundred years before by someone about whom you know as much as anyone else on this earth does.

The Old Ouse Bridge was built in 1566, after its predecessor collapsed and fell into the river, drowning a dozen people. It featured what was said to be the fairest arch in England and became one of the sights of the king—or queen—dom. The ubiquitous Daniel Defoe wrote that it was vastly strong, and has one arch which, they tell me, was near 70 foot in diameter; it is, without exception, the greatest in England, some say it’s as large as the Rialto at Venice, though I think not. There was a chapel on the nether side, with council chambers adjoining and the notoriously damp city gaol below; but after the Reformation the chapel was turned into apartments. This Tudor incarnation of the ancient crossing was demolished around the same time Lycett painted it: probably not from life, but after a print of some kind.

The view he took is from the south-west, with the former chapel, the council chambers and the gaol looming balefully on the right of the image. Their rooves are sprouting weeds, suggesting dereliction; in the immediate foreground is a low tree on the river bank, spreading its leaves over the water where reeds also grow. In the middle ground we see half of the main arch of the bridge, bent like an elbow, with the semi-circular image of its curved underside partially reflected in the blue-green, rippling river below; which seems to rise, in an uncanny fashion, towards a skewed vanishing point, suffused with yellow light, at the back of the picture.

On the other bank a line of sandy brown brick buildings, diminishing in size along the river bank as the row recedes, drinks the late sun; though these buildings are not red, they leave a peculiarly rubicund after-image in the mind. In the foreground two boats, one with human figures standing therein, are moored beneath the walls of the tallest of the structures on that further shore. The sky, which takes up nearly half the picture, is a premonition of one of Lycett’s Australian skies: grey clouds giving way to white cumulus and then to a blue which itself becomes suffused with yellow at that unseen point where river joins sky.

The strangeness of the picture is in part an effect of the starkness of that receding line of buildings, their black windows and blank anonymity before the gloaming water and under the luminous sky: like prison walls, within which there can be nothing except confinement. Meanwhile the river itself, which flows upwards and at a diagonal to the natural line of sight, takes us away from all this into a golden haze where, perhaps, felicity may be found. The last glimpse of this lost horizon comes at the far right back of the picture, through a minor arch which stands below the point where that dank, slimy prison was. Whether Lycett is commenting upon his own imprisonment isn’t clear however: he may not even have known this was the site of a gaol.

After leaving the gallery I wandered round in a daze. Looking at art can have that effect upon you, and I had looked at a lot this day. I had a bite to eat in the Kings Manor, so-called, actually a medieval abbot’s house, and then went back to the Minster. Round the side, unnoticed before, was a white Roman column, leaning ancient in the cold blue air. Two emperors died at Eboracum, including Constantius, the father of Constantine the Great, who brought the Empire to the church. He, the son, was proclaimed here by the Sixth Legion; there was a statue of him too, with his sword, outside the south transept of the Minster. Somewhere else I came across the ruins of Saint Mary’s Abbey, the grey stones, like decayed teeth, protruding out of the green sward before the north and west walls which are all that remain.

Nowhere in England, wrote artist E Ridsdale Tate in 1929, is there another spot so full of charm as York and where in York is there a more charming spot than the Gardens of the Philosophical Society, in which stand the beautiful fragments of that once powerful and noble monastery of St. Mary’s. Here we must leave the venerable pile in the evening of its glory. I too left it there. Avoiding the temptation of having a drink in the wonderfully named House of the Trembling Madness (rare Belgium beers) I found my way back to the car which, happily, did not have a ticket under the windscreen wipers. And then, not without losing my way couple of times, I drove back to Hull. There, in the Royal Suite at the hotel, the Hull Literary and Philosophical Society, founded in 1822, was meeting to hear a lecture about J Arthur Rank, the film mogul; he was the son of a Hull flour merchant. But I was too tired and did not attend. I ate then went up to my room and fell into bed. Tomorrow I had to drive to Essex.

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