YORK'S Shambles is known all over the world. It has been described as the finest street in Europe, and in the 2010 Google Street View Awards was named 'Britain's Most Picturesque Street'.

It hasn't always been so. Much of the street was built in about 1400. By the 16th century, according to the Bartholomew City Guide to York, houses in Shambles were "disinfected fragments of a Tudor and Stuart past that was far from 'merrie'."

But then York itself back then was a "dirty, muddy, overcrowded city, where pigs scavenged in the streets, chamber pots were emptied from windows and life was very earthy", the Bartholomew guide adds.

Shambles is known as the 'street of butchers'. It's name comes from the medieval 'shamel', or booth, because the butchers' shops had benches outside to display meat. Many of them are still there today.

That connection to butchers goes back a long way. By 1240, according to Van Wilson in Butchers, Bakers and Candlestick Makers, her latest volume of York oral history, the street was known as Haymongergate because of the hay and fodder stored by butchers.

By the 14th century, meanwhile, it was referred to as Nedlergate because of the needles made from the bones of slaughtered animals. To this day, the floors of many Shambles shops still slope - a design intended to help offal drain out into the gutter.

So much for the street's ancient history. Van specialises in much more recent history, usually in the form of interviews with people - often elderly, some since sadly passed on - who talk about the York of their childhood or young adulthood. It's an approach that makes for startlingly vivid recollections of a York that has just about faded from the living memory of most of us.

Her latest book, written for the York Archaeological Trust's oral history series and covering the recent history of Shambles and Colliergate, doesn't disappoint.

Here, for example, is Ivy Whincup (née Whattam), who was born in 1910 and lived as a child at 37 Shambles: "We got the house at 37... That was The Big Shambles as it was known. Mum used to do a lot of baking and she put pastries in the front window...

"Our parents often played with us.They would twine the skipping rope. And the butchers was good and when they killed a beast, they would wash the bladders and blow them up and would play football in the street with us. We had hoops, but they was metal ones, and we played marbles in the gutters and checkers, four little squares. We'd play hide and seek in the streets because there are lots of passageways."

Or here's Louisa Cook (née Dowker), who was born at the same house in 1928: "I remember the night my sister was born. There was just one bedroom up above and my father and I were downstairs around the fire.

It was an open staircase out of the living room, and my father was asleep and I crept to the bottom of the stairs, then a few steps further up, then a few more, and in the end when the midwife came out of the room she fell over me because I'd got to the top of the stairs...

"The biggest butcher there was Carter. Then there was a fish and chip shop, and a sweetshop that had jars with gooseberries, raspberries, hard-boiled sweets. A cow putting its head through the window, that's an early memory..."

Louisa Aldrich, meanwhile, lived at Number 22. "At the back of our house and opposite there were slaughterhouses where they killed all the cattle. It smelled because they used to put meat on blocks, open a shutter out at front of t'shops and just lay it down there for you to see.

"There was bluebottles and all sorts walking over them but we didn't bother. Nobody was ill through that...

"Next door there used to be a little partition between bedrooms and they'd hear rats at night time running along there. You could hear them scratching. Just like nails going down on a glass. It was horrible.

"It wasn't very pleasant in them days. There was allus rats. No bathroom and it was a coal fireplace with just bars across... There was fights every Saturday night in Pavement. I'd watch them from my bedroom window."

It may have been known as a street of butchers, but there were, of course, other businesses in Shambles. Established in the 1920s at 31 Shambles, WF Cox was a boot-maker and shoe-repairer. At No 1-2 Shambles, meanwhile, was second hand dealer George Ackroyd, who was listed as a furniture broker from the late 1890s onwards.

Then there was fortune-teller Juliet Young. She moved to Shambles in about 1933, and lived with her son Lawrence at No 44, later moving to No 9. In Butchers, Bakers and Candlestick Makers her daughter-in-law Lily Young recalls Juliet doing readings in about 1945.

"She had part of the house to do her readings and fortune telling. People sent handkerchiefs to have a reading off...

"She used to wear a scarf round her head. She was called Juliet but we called her Josie. She had travelled with gypsies a lot, round the fairgrounds. She died in 1947 and the fair that came just after she died, they wouldn't allow a fortune-teller on the fairground (in honour of her)..."

* Butchers, Bakers and Candlestick Makers by Van Wilson is published this week by York Archaeological Trust. It is available from Jorvik and local bookshops priced £9.99.

York Press:
 George and Margaret Ackroyd outside their shop

York Press:

 Looking towards Shambles from King’s Square