TOURISTS, eh? They spend half an hour dashing around the centre of York before hurrying back to their coach, and then they think they’ve ‘done’ the city...

Milo Gilderdate McMullen and Francesca Mitten poked gentle fun at the always-in-a-hurry, selfie-and-package tour brigade when they burst into the Guildhall on Wednesday night.

Francesca paraded around the council chamber pretending to photograph everything in sight, while Milo kept telling her to hurry up.

“How about going into the Minster?” pleaded Francesca.

“No time for that!” snapped Milo.

“But we’ve only been here two hours,” Francesca said.

“We have to go to Harrogate!” responded Milo.

It was a great way to begin York’s annual secondary school public speaking competition organised by the York Civic Trust, and held this year, as usual, in the Guildhall, ancient seat of democracy in York.

Milo and Francesca, from Bootham School, had taken as their theme the suggestion that ‘two hours in York is a waste of time’.

It certainly wasn’t enough in which to see everything York had to offer, the pair agreed.

“The Betty’s queue takes two hours!” Milo said. “And you need two hours in Duttons for Buttons at least!”

Both agreed tourists should really spend at least a day and a night in a city filled to bursting with ghosts, history and historic buildings.

But there was one advantage of a quick flying visit, Francesca said cheekily. “At least then you won’t find out about the football.”

York Press:

"Your ancestor might have helped design the Minster." Giulio Guest and Olivia Tate of Joseph Rowntree School. Photo: David Thewlis

Milo and Francesca’s double act brought the house down. But they were just one of eight pairs of students from six York secondary schools who took to the floor on Wednesday night in front of the Lord Mayor and civic party, councillors, civic trust members, parents and teachers.

The topics for debate ranged from whether a two-hour visit to York was worthwhile to whether chocolate or the railways had done most for the city – and what York was like as a place to grow up in.

The answer to that last question was that it was pretty great, several teenagers agreed.

Growing up in York you became aware of the importance of the past, because it was all around you, Joseph Rowntree School’s Giulio Guest told his schoolmate Olivia Tate. “It could be one of your ancestors who helped design the Minster or packaged the first Rowntree’s chocolate,” he said. “Or they might have waved at Henry VIII or shared a drink with Guy Fawkes.”

York might not have the beaches and blazing sunshine of her native South Africa, All Saints’ Lauren Wood said. But it was certainly a lot safer. “In Durban, my parents had to drive everywhere to be safe.”

York Press:

Lauren Wood (left) and Aoife Stancliffe of All Saints. Photo: David Thewlis

York was a great city in which to be a teenager, Lauren’s schoolmate Aoife Stancliffe added, because you were never short of things to do. Ice-skating, teen cafés, gym clubs, music, arts, St George’s Day parades – York had the lot. “I’ve got cousins in Berkshire, which is much more rural. When they come to visit, they always say how much there is to do.”

For more than an hour, the debate went on, youngsters pitting their wits against each other on a range of topics chosen beforehand by members of the York Civic Trust’s education committee.

There were heartfelt statements about how York was a great place to be young because of its tolerance and liberal values, and the example set by reformers such as Joseph Rowntree. York’s annual Gay Pride march even got a mention.

And, these being teenagers with a typically teenaged sense of humour, there were also plenty of laughs. Mount School pair Millie Warboys and Verity Harris were bickering over whether you needed more than two hours to see York.

York Press:

Millie Warboys (left) and Verity Harris of The Mount School. Photo: David Thewlis

Verity was waxing lyrical about York Minster, with its stained glass windows and the stunning view from the roof. “Okay, that might fill up half an hour,” Millie said. “What about the other hour-and-a-half?”

The biggest laugh of the evening, however, came from St Olave’s School’s Louis Recchia. The Minster, he said, had taken more than 250 years to build. “That’s 2,207,523 hours. If you only spend two hours looking around York, that’s only 0.000000906 per cent of the time it took to build that building!”

Argument signed, sealed and delivered...

York Press:

Alice Wilson (left) and Louis Recchia of St Olaves School. Photo: David Thewlis

Debates over, the judges conferred. There was a moment of tension when head judge Darrell Buttery returned to the council chamber.

It had been a tremendous evening all round, he said: outstanding, entertaining and stimulating. But the judges had agreed on a winner. And it was... Bootham School’s Milo and Francesca. The pair beamed and came forward to receive the smart obelisk trophy designed by York sculptor Dick Reid. They were gracious in victory.

“It’s a great honour!” Milo said. “I never expected to win!”

“Completely beyond expectations!” Francesca added.

This pair will go far...

York Press:

Winners Francesca Mitten and Milo Gilderdate McMullen receive their trophy from the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress


Growing up in York

York was a ‘small big city’, said Joseph Rowntree School’s Lhotse Cosgrove Stephenson, taking up the theme of why it was such a great city to grow up in with colleague Melo Saanaoui-Wood. It was a small city with big ideas and plenty of inspiring people. She rattled off both heroes and villains – Dame Judi Dench, WH Auden, Guy Fawkes and Dick Turpin.

Melo agreed. He loved the city’s history, he said, from the Romans to the Vikings. But he also liked the diversity of modern York. “I’m half Moroccan, and there’s a great North African community in York.”

York Press:

Lhotse Cosgrove Stephenson and Melo Saanaoui-Wood. Photo: David Thewlis

Have railways or chocolate done more for York?

The railways, of course, said All Saints’ Annie Donaghy. “They saved York from stagnation, linked us to the capital, and increased income drastically.”

Nonsense, sniffed her schoolmate Anna Tighe. Chocolate had made York known around the world. “Take Kit Kat. People love it and know what it is whether they’re in San Francisco or Selby!”

York Press:

Anna Tighe (left) and Annie Donaghy of All Saints School. Photo: David Thewlis

Freya Gibbon and Freya Gething from Huntington School were equally divided on the issue.

Imagine York without chocolate, said Freya 1, Freya Gibbon. But there wouldn’t have been a chocolate industry in York without the railways, replied Freya 2, Freya Gething.

But chocolate brought jobs, said Freya 1 – at one time Rowntree was the second largest employer in York.

“Yes, the second largest – after the railways!” retorted Freya 2.

Call that one a tie...

York Press:

Freya Gibbon (left) and Freya Gething of Huntington School. Photo: David Thewlis

The public speaking competition

Schools were given a choice of five topics to debate. These were:

  • Being a tourist attraction is a boon for the city. Discuss.
  • Georgians or Victorians – which contributed most to York?
  • Have railways or chocolate done more for York?
  • Is York a great place to grow up?
  • Two hours in York is a waste of time!

York Civic Trust organises two schools public speaking competitions each year, one for secondary schools held at the Guildhall in the autumn, and one for primary schools at the Merchant Adventurers Hall in the spring.

The aim of the debates is to encourage the younger generation to take an interest in the history and culture of York, said Verna Campbell, chair of the civic trust’s education committee which organises the competitions. But it is also to give children a chance of speaking on a public stage. “Public speaking skills are important,” she said. “And because we have a narrowed curriculum these days, it can be difficult for schools to fit it in.”

York Press:

Verna Campbell with the winner's trophy