Over in one corner, we saw a bearded man hard at work, turning the lathe and carving out wood, while a cobbler busied himself sewing a new pair of shoes. We heard children giggling while playing games in the street and elsewhere, long-haired ginger pigs squealed and snorted as they tucked into the day’s leftovers.
There was even a couple arguing over what to eat for dinner.
Had it not been for the ancient clothing, long beards, old Norse accents – and distinctively unsavoury smell of sewage – one could have imagined these scenes anywhere, but in fact we were in 10th Century York, having been transported back in time thanks to the fantastically interactive ride at the city’s Jorvik Viking Centre.
Our youngsters were in their element, gawking at the 22 animatronic characters on display, the more-than-realistic rats, the fantastical Viking witch doctor chanting incantations and their favourite of all – the man looking for a bit of peace and quiet on the privy.
Each scene captures the reality of Viking life in ancient Britain and is based on the multitude of 1,000-year-old finds unearthed around York over the years, including, much to the children’s delight, a fossilised human poo.
For youngsters wanting to have a go at unearthing their own buried treasures, walk on over to DIG, located inside St Saviour’s Church, where they can find out everything about becoming an archaeologist and excavate parts of a Roman fortress, Viking city, medieval burial site and Victorian workers’ cottages.
But York’s fascinating past isn’t just to be found here. In fact, there’s much to discover everywhere you walk in this place known as Eboracum to the Romans and Eoforwick to the Saxons, where the 7th Century architecture of York Minster mingles seamlessly with smart-fronted Georgian townhouses, the Victorian rail station and the impressive medieval city walls.
Even our accommodation for the weekend – The Grange Hotel – is reminiscent of a bygone era inside a beautifully-preserved, Grade II listed building dating to 1830 and located in York’s affluent Bootham.
As we enter the boutique, four-star hotel – which is also dog friendly – we glanced upon the grand sweeping staircase leading from the chic lobby to 41 en-suite rooms and the luxurious Regency-style décor.
Our junior suite room is equally impressive, with a comfy, king-size bed for the adults and a sofa and extra bed placed into the lounge for our children. The en-suite bathroom is generously-sized, decked out with White Company toiletries and boasting underfloor heating.
The hotel also features The Ivy Brasserie, awarded 2 Rosettes, which offers a wide range of fine dining options, including vegetarian. For more family-friendly fayre in the evenings, the hotel is well-located close to the city centre, with plenty of restaurant options available just a few minutes’ walk away.
A nice touch was a map handed on arrival to the children to follow in the steps (or paw prints) of the hotel’s resident pooch, Buster, which takes in some of the most iconic sights around York.
After marking all the places off, they happily skipped off to the lobby and were rewarded with their very own Buster cuddly toy to take home with them. Now that’s customer service!
Next on our itinerary was a visit to Clifford’s Tower, located just over a mile away from our hotel. The tower is all that remains of a castle originally built in 1068 by William The Conqueror, but which burnt down during one of York’s darkest moments in history: the massacre of 150 Jews in 1190.
Numerous accounts detail the anti-Jewish feeling in England during the 12th Century that led to that fateful day. According to one account, a violent mob began looting the homes of York’s Jewish residents and caused them to seek protection from the ‘keeper of the King’s Tower’ inside the castle.
But relations between the Jews and the keeper broke down and the mob arrived at the castle, pelting the besieged Jews with stones taken from the castle walls.
Rather than waiting to be murdered or forcibly baptised, they took the tragic decision to set fire to their possessions and for the father of each family to kill his wife and children, before taking his own life.
We climb the 110 steep steps to the top of the tower and take in the magnificent panorama of York, contemplating how just over 800 years on, life is thankfully very different for Jewish families living here.
Wanting to explore more of the city from a different perspective, we make our way over to Lendal Bridge on the River Ouse and hop on board a tourist boat operated by City Cruises York.
Our 45-minute round-trip takes us along York’s waterways, past the city’s National Railway Museum, which is home to more than 100 engines and the only Shinkansen Bullet on display outside of Japan, past the famous racecourse and past the site of the old Terry’s chocolate factory, which alongside Rowntree’s, put York firmly on the map as a pioneer in the confectionary industry.
We also sail by St Peter’s School in Bootham, where we learn that every 5 November, the burning of a Guy Fawkes effigy is banned – an understandable decision, given that Fawkes was an old boy of the school!
Tourists today can also visit the house where his parents live and where the man behind the infamous Gunpowder Plot is said to have been born, located in Stonegate.
Our weekend visit is rounded off with a trip to The Shambles, the most famous of all of York’s snickelways and ginnels – or extremely narrow streets, as outsiders to the city might call them.
Once home to medieval butchers’ shops, the streets were kept purposely narrow to keep the meat out of direct sunlight and indeed, at certain points along the road you can actually shake hands with someone in a house opposite, from the upstairs windows.
Today The Shambles is filled with shops selling antiques, jewellery and curiosities – and if the streets look vaguely familiar that might be because they are said to have inspired set designers from the Harry Potter films in creating Diagon Alley.
Fully embracing that connection, The Shambles is now home to no less than four Harry Potter-themed shops, including The Potions Cauldron, an old-fashioned apothecary offering specially-concocted drinks, such as Serpent’s Venom Poison, Basilisk Blood and Elixir of Love.
For die-hard Harry Potter fans, The Shop That Must Not Be Named is also well worth a visit.
It certainly provided an enchanting end to an already magical city.
Francine’s travel tips
Francine and her family stayed at The Grange Hotel, where rates start from £210 per night, for a double room on a B&B basis. To book, visit www.grangehotel.co.uk or call 01904 644744. For more information about York City Pass and tourist information, go to www.visityork.org