MORE than 1200 years ago, York's most famous Anglo-Saxon scholar, Alcuin, wrote a poem in praise of his home city.

The year was 780AD, and York was already ancient and time-honoured.

"It was a Roman army built it first, high-walled and towered, and made the native tribes of Britain allied partners in the task," Alcuin wrote.

"The city is watered by the fish-rich Ouse which flows past flowery plains on every side; and hills and forests beautify the earth and make a lovely dwelling-place, whose health and richness soon will fill it full of men."

It is a wonderful, evocative description of this city in the years long before the Normans or even the Vikings came here.

The Romans were long gone, of course: but at the time Alcuin was writing, the remains of the great Roman fortress would still probably have dominated the Anglo-Saxon city - the capital of Northumbria - in which he lived.

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Roman remains - the Multangular tower, part of York's old Roman fortress

We have no photographs or drawings from that time. But Alcuin's poem allows us to see the city of 1200 years ago in our mind's eye.

These days, thanks to the efforts of archaeologists such as Dr Peter Addyman, the first director of the York Archaeological Trust, we know more about the ancient beginnings of York than ever before. And a wonderful new historical atlas of the city published today brings together the results of more than 40 years of archaeological research, peeling back the layers of York's history one by one and allowing us to see how it has evolved and changed over the last 2,000 years.

A series of maps take a snapshot look at the city at different periods of its history - under the Romans in 200AD; in the Anglian period when York was capital of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria; under the Vikings; in 1100AD following the Norman invasion; and then roughly every 200 years up to the 1850s, when Victorian York was on the cusp of its industrial expansion.

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Map of Roman York

A final, large-scale 'base' map based on an 1852 OS map of the city brings together all those layers of history in one place. Spreading it out on a desk, you can trace the evolution of the castle precinct and the development of York Minster and St Mary's Abbey; understand the significance of the 'King's pool' that once dominated the eastern side of the city; see where the glass works, iron foundries, tanneries and saw mills that characterised early industrial York were based - and even spot evidence of the old trading routes into the city's markets, in the form for example of the pubs that lined both sides of Walmgate as it approached the Foss Bridge. "If you were coming into York you had to cross the bridge," says Dr Addyman, who has edited the atlas. "So near the bridge was a great place for a pub. If you look at Walmgate coming up to the bridge, you see pub, pub, pub, pub, pub."

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Detail from the 1852 'base' map, showing layers of history overlaid upon each-other

For Dr Addyman, publication of the atlas today is the culmination of 43 years of work.

He arrived in York to become the York Archaeological Trust's director in 1972.

His new boss, the Trust's first chairman Professor Maurice Barley, had just produced a historic atlas of Nottingham.

"He said 'We need to do a historic atlas of York'," Dr Addyman recalls. "I said 'yes Maurice, that would be a great idea'."

Prof Barley's idea was that much of the research being done by the York Archaeological Trust could be used for the atlas. "You can do the rest of it in your spare time," he told Dr Addyman.

Dr Addyman grins ruefully. "But archaeology in York turned out to be really rather busy. There wasn't much spare time!"

Hence that 43 year delay. But it has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

In the past 40 years archaeologists have discovered far more about the history of York than we ever knew before, for a start (there was the small matter of that archaeological dig beneath Coppergate to find the remains of the Viking city, for example). And mapping techniques are also now far ahead of what they were in the 1970s.

"So there is far more information in it than we could have put in in 1972," says Dr Addyman.

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Dr Addyman with the atlas

Anyone who loves York's history will feel this atlas has been worth waiting for.

The more you study the maps, the more you see.

Each of the historical maps shows what we know about the roads, streets and rivers of the city at the time, all superimposed above the faint outline of Victorian York, to help you get your bearings.

So the Roman map shows the Roman fortress plumped down right where the Minster is today. The fortress walls are depicted in red, and show individual towers. the site of the Roman baths and forum are shown - and, on the other side of the River Ouse, burial sites under what is now The Mount and the railway station, as well as a cluster of temples around what is now Micklegate.

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Detail from the Roman map showing the fortress

The inhabited area at the time is shaded in brown. So by flipping through the maps in sequence, you can quickly see how the size and centre of gravity of the city shifted over time. In Alcuin's time - the Anglo-Saxon period - the are around the old Roman fortress was still inhabited, but a new area had been colonised south of the Foss around what is now Walmgate.

By Viking times, the inhabited area of the city had expanded enormously. And by 1100, the city walls as we know them today had begun to appear, together with the the first Norman Minster and castles at the Eye of York and at Baile Hill. You can also see clearly how the Normans had dammed the Foss to create a defensive moat around York Castle - creating as a by-product the King's pool, a large lake to the east of York.

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Map showing York in 1100 AD

By 1300, the Minster has clearly grown in prestige and size, as has St Mary's Abbey, and the city is dotted with 'new' churches.

Little seems to have changed by 1500 - but in fact, as a result of the Black Death, the population of the city had declined hugely, Dr Addyman says, from 20-30,000 in 1300 to something like 7,000 in 1500.

But York was still a fairly prosperous city. "There were far less people - but that meant more resources for fewer people," he says. "Some of the buildings that survive today - buildings that are the reason why people think of York as a medieval city, such as in Goodramgate or Shambles, date from this period."

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Map showing York in 1500 AD

Looking at this sequence of maps, Dr Addyman says, you can almost see how the city breathes in and out, as it grows more or less populous and prosperous throughout its 2,000 years of history.

It all comes together in that 'base' map of 1852, on which 2000 years of history is overlaid. Ancient walls are in red; medieval remains in yellow; more recent pre-industrial buildings in pink. So you can see the changing shape of York Castle, with the later debtors' and felons' prisons overlying the earlier medieval castle; you can follow the rise and fall of St Mary's Abbey and the growth of York Minster; and you can see at a glance just how much of the land just outside York was, for centuries, little more tan a flood plain. The whole of St George's Field; the whole of what is now Clementhorpe (with the exception of a single large medieval building, St Clement's Priory) and much of the land on either side of the Ouse just north of the city centre, was Ings or 'fetes' land, used for agriculture when possible but ready to flood. Food for thought there for modern-day planners, surely?

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Detail from the 1852 'base' map showing the old railway station inside the city walls - with a Dominican friary beneath it

There is much more to this atlas than simply the maps, however - beautiful as they are.

Also included is a series of wonderful drawings and sketches, showing familiar York buildings and streets at various stages in their more recent history.

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A page from the atlas showing sketches of York's walls and towers

And there is also a book of authoritative essays, written by leading historian and architects, which puts the information in the maps themselves into context.

So is Dr Addyman pleased with the result?

Much of it is own to the wonderful work of the team of cartographers, archaeologists and historians who have laboured to put it all together, he says.

"But yes, I'm extremely pleased and very proud of it. I hope that it will be of use for a generation to come."

  • The British Historic Towns Atlas Vol V: York, edited by Peter Addyman, is published by the Historic Towns Trust and the York Archaeological Trust, priced £70.


York place names

One of the parts of the atlas that Dr Addyman likes most is the gazetteer of York place names it contains. it is an education in itself.

Hornpot Lane, for example, is named after a pit or 'pot' used for soaking horn in urie, to soften it so that it could be worked. "Horners worked in York until 1931," the gazetteer notes.

Feasegate comes from the old Norse 'fios', or 'cow house', and 'geil', or 'narrow passage between houses'. Most people know where the name Grape Lane comes from, and its not suitable for printing in a family newspaper. Jubbergate, meanwhile, comes from Jewbrettgate - this was where the city's Jewish population once lived.