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Petergate - A street full of history
Petergate is one of York’s jewels. In the first of an occasional series on some of our most famous streets, MATT CLARK takes a look behind the facades.
Guy Fawkes was born here, proclaims an inn sign on High Petergate. He probably wasn’t, but the claim is good for business and American tourists just love the idea of having lunch in a conspirator’s home.
However, one thing is for sure; the Gunpowder Plotter was baptised just across the road in the church of St Michael-le Belfry.
Petergate is one of the most fascinating streets in York. Georgian and medieval houses, that lean precariously, hold a wealth of history in their heavily beamed rooms, but don’t be fooled into thinking these are museum pieces.
Part of the newly branded Minster Quarter, this is one of York’s most prestigious streets, with an eclectic mix of the best high street labels. And last year Petergate was nominated for Britain’s best shopping street in the Google street view awards.
When not longingly gazing into tempting shop windows, you find yourself spending a lot of time looking up, with fire marks at first- storey level catching your attention, especially near the corner of Stonegate.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, insurance companies had their own private fire brigades and these plaques identified the properties they covered.
Then there is the figure of an American Indian above the door at 76 Low Petergate, which causes visitors many a furrowed brow.
Why a Red Indian in York? Well, it once advertised a tobacconist’s shop and the boy’s headwear and kilt represent Virginia tobacco leaves.
Of course, the best reason to look up is to catch peerless views of the Minster, and nowhere more so than at the corner of Minster Gates, where tantalising views finally blossom into South Transept glory.
This was the original entrance to the cathedral precincts and a centre of learning. Indeed, when the printing press came to York this tiny lane was renamed Bookbinder’s Alley, as we are reminded by the carving of Minerva at the corner with Petergate.
The Roman goddess of wisdom is shown leaning on a pile of books with an owl, to advertise a shop below where authors and readers met as members of one of Britain’s earliest book groups.
Petergate was named after York Minster, which is dedicated to St Peter, and one of its grandest properties is the Georgian mansion at 62 Low Petergate. It was once home to Dr Alexander Hunter, the founding physician of the city’s infamous lunatic asylum and from the late 19th century became York College for Girls.
Many of Petergate’s treasures can be found hidden in the ancient snickelways, some with splendid names like Mad Alice Lane, which leads to Swinegate.
It was named after Alice Smith who lived there until she was hanged in 1823 for poisoning her husband. Some believe her spirit still haunts the alleyway. A lot of empty medieval purses were found in rubbish pits in the lane, possibly relics of ancient medieval muggings.
The Hole-in-the-Wall snickelway, next to the pub of the same name, is said to refer to prisoners having to beg for food through a hole in the wall. The view at the end is one of the best in the city.
Another tucked-away gem is Talbot Court, a medieval half-timbered courtyard with hidden gardens overlooking the Minster.
The Minster is again seen in all its grandeur as High Petergate crosses Duncombe Place. This is the edge of a once-walled city state called The Liberty of St Peter.
The Minster’s city within a city had its own prison and gallows, as well as a legal system administered by magistrates and constables. The Liberty was abolished in 1839, but the Minster police force still guards the Precinct.
High Petergate continues from Duncombe Place to Bootham Bar, which stands on the spot occupied by the Porta Principalis Dextra (right-hand main entrance) of the Roman walled fortress. This is one of the oldest streets in England, via Principans, and was the Roman main road from Bootham Bar into Eboracum.
Petergate’s final treasure lies in the shadow of Bootham Bar. Petergate House was the home of Sir Thomas Herbert, who was groom of the bedchamber and a friend of Charles I.
It was Sir Thomas who stayed with Charles I on the night before his execution and who attended him on the scaffold.
Perhaps a better story to tell American tourists as they have lunch in Guy Fawkes’s supposed home.