Whilst our campus leaves a lot to be desired with the 1960s architectural disaster that is Central Hall, a toxic lake and an indecent amount of duck poo, you’re in luck when it comes to the City of York. The nightlife may be nothing short of sleepy, but York’s historical and cultural plenitudes more than make up for it. And, from campus, it’s just a moderate walk (20 mins), cycle (10 mins) or bus ride (10 mins) away. Everyone in York cycles, so it might be an idea to bring a bike, or buy one when you get here (although the weather in Yorkshire doesn’t always lend itself to happy, wet-free cycle journeys).
There are two main theatres in York, both situated in town. The first is York Theatre Royal, which sits past the high street near the Minster on Saint Leonard’s Place. Theatre buffs will be chuffed to know that it has a Victorian proscenium arch, creating an authentic, beautiful main house atmosphere than enlivens even the most lacklustre of productions. This is accompanied by a very modern, expansive bar area and café and The Studio, which is situated slightly underground and is the characteristically claustrophobic site of often moodier, more intimate productions. York Theatre Royal offers a rich programme of innovative, in-house creations, challenging new drama, rising amateur theatre and a classic, absurdly popular pantomime. In-house theatre companies include the edgy Pilot theatre and our very own, University of York grown Belt-Up, who are currently wowing audiences up in Edinburgh.
The Grand Opera House lies in an equally fantastic spot by the river, just as you enter town. Next to Gallery Nightclub, and just past the Castle, it’s hard to miss the deceptively shabby exterior. Housing touring crowd-pleasers, the Opera House will offer a somewhat different experience than the Theatre Royal, but is a safer bet entertainment-wise. The main house is spacey and contains a versatile stage, but can often feel slightly empty and engulfing. Recent popular touring productions have included Billy Eliot, Dad’s Army and When Harry Met Sally – each time never short of a C-list celeb to bolster crowd numbers.
There is also the Joseph Rowntree Theatre on Haxby Road (a good bus ride or cycle away – check travel details carefully), a quaint inter-war building which is worth a visit just for the history and the ethos – it was built as a recreational hub for the workers of the factory and aims to provide an affordable facility for York residents. It is the place for musicals, amateur productions and egalitarian ideas – but some gems lie in its programming, including last year’s The History Boys. Keep an eye out.
Not to forget the Upstage Centre Youth Theatre on Monkgate, an obscurer find that requires more of an open mind. It is charity run entirely by volunteers, that boasts some fantastic young performers and Dame Judi Dench as its President.
If that’s not enough… branching further afield won’t be a disappointment – Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse is a magnificent venue which produces consistently high quality programmes, whilst Sheffield’s extremely versatile theatres – all situated within the same, newly renovated plaza by Sheffield Hallam University – house stimulating productions and envious auditoriums (Sheffield Theatres: Crucible, Lyceum, Studio).
The main art gallery is the York Art Gallery. You may bemoan having to travel all the way into town to see your supervisor/tutor once in a while at King’s Manor, but the surrounding proximity is the site of some of York’s cultural highlights. In fact, make a day of it. After seeing said supervisor/tutor, hop up the strictly Oxfordian steps of the manor to the tea shop. Selling campus refreshments, complete with the same packaging and everything, you will feel like you are back in Vanbrugh, without having to smell the lake or be hassled by anyone wanting you to come to their charity auction at Vanbrugh Stalls. Then head over to York Art Gallery, right next door, to see their current special exhibition and The South Gallery, housing the Sacrifice and Courage displays of early religious paintings and 17th century Dutch works. The Burton Gallery on the first floor is closed until January, which is very sad as this is the usual route of celebrated English professor Jonathan Brockbank and his eccentric English tours. Any literary types will love his accessible take on York Art Gallery’s Modernist works as part of the Approaches to Literature module.
One surprisingly popular place is The Cat Gallery which sells a variety of quality cat collectables, if that’s what you’re into. Otherwise, take a chance with The ArtSpace, just opposite Clifford’s Tower, which changes its exhibitions at least every six weeks and is partnered with a number of acclaimed local artists.
Failing that, try further afield once again, and head to Leeds Art Gallery, which is well worth the journey. Larger and more comprehensive than York’s main gallery, Leeds Art Gallery has a fantastic collection of 20th century works and displays some remarkable exhibitions. If you really want to go crazy for an artistic fix, then head to Manchester Art Gallery for the afternoon. The building is beautiful, is never too busy, and has some wonderful Pre-Raphaelite paintings and 20th century European classics. There is also, inevitably, an affectionate permanent L.S. Lowry exhibition – a must for any fans.
Now, you will quickly learn once settled in historical York that, well, there’s lots of history. Too much, one may say. So I’ll try and keep this brief if I can. Most of the history is centred around, of course, the Vikings! Take a trip to the Jorvick Viking Centre (although, I would advise to go during the sleepier weeks of term time, as it gets ridiculously over-filled with tourists in the holidays) to stand on the site of the remarkable archaeology discovery, the Viking-age city of Jorvick. From my experience, any history you can learn from this place is vital when entering local pubs filled with staunchly Yorkshire-proud local people. They expect you to know all about the history of York if you expect to live here.
Other musts are the Yorkshire Museum and York Castle Museum. If you’re northern you will probably recognise these places after trips with the parents when younger. The Yorkshire Museum is what you would typically call ‘family-friendly’ and displays an eclectic collection of archaeology, in addition to biological specimens and geological items. (Perhaps the best bit is the picnic-perfect garden on a sunny day – you’ll probably have had enough culture by this point won’t you?) If you’re a social history kinda person then the Castle Museum will be more your cup of tea. The Victorian Street is unforgettable and is complete with new areas including a Victorian school room. Bring out your inner child with the Victorian street shop and bank in the authentic York street of Kirkgate.
If this isn’t enough, then I will give my personal favourite a mention: the rather more eccentric Richard III museum. If you fancy learning a bit more about the War of the Roses (and more Yorkist history – what joy!) then, warning, don’t go here. If, on the other hand, you are indoctrinated by Shakespeare’s naughty Tudor propaganda about Richard as a tyrant verging on deformed beast then you may want to take a trip here for the starkly opposite view (Richard was a Yorkist hero). It’s sneakily located at Monk Bar, so is easy to miss. But it’s only a short walk away from campus, so is definitely worth a visit.
There are a lot more museums in York, so a quick Google search will surely display something a bit different and more to your liking. But, thankfully, this time you won’t have to go further afield for more of a culture shot.