March 23rd 2006
The river Ouse was, for a long time, the bloodstream of mercantile York. In Roman times it provided the means to transport bulk goods for the military (grain, for example, as seen in the remnants of beetle-infested Roman grain cellars along Coney Street). It allowed cost-effective transportation of raw and worked materials in and out of the city, allowing the economy to thrive, thus aiding the development of the high-prestige specialised industries that made York such a focal-point in English medieval craftworking. It helped people into York, and it helped people stay here. It also, like any self-respecting bloodstream, carried away a lot of the filth generated in the process.
Visiting York, it would be easy to simply be mesmerised by the river itself. (Indeed, if you visited in the late autumn of 2000, it would be hard to ignore it). But the fringes of the river are just as interesting. Right underneath the feet of oblivious coffee-sippers in the City Screen cafe. Cellars, vaults, tunnels, half out the water, clogged with silt and foliage, bricked up or crumbling wider every year.
That’s the problem with maps. We see the river, winding through the city in two dimensions. It’s only by looking at the bank, perhaps unusually exposed by a dry few weeks up the Vale of York, that it’s possible to get a feel for the sandwiched, gouged, accreted, chaotic, higgledy-piggledy conglomerate of long-forgotten structures that line the basements of the modern riverside properties.
And then it’s possible, mind’s eye, to see York not as an area – from far above in Google Earth a wriggle of water surrounded by a white-noise of buildings – but as a space of four dimensions. To wonder how the skyline has changed over the years – the prickle of spires and towers giving way to blunter, more utilitarian fashions. To feel in your gut how the past has, yes, often been hacked out the ground, but also hammered flat, crushed into itself by all the history laid on top, sword-metal folded. It pokes out through ragged patches here and there, like skin through a hole in a sock, but mainly it’s out of sight, and out of mind.
Yet York goes up from your head, and it goes down from your feet, and between its past and its future there you are, always in the middle.