A new book tells the story of York in 50 buildings. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

THE thing about York is that so many people have lived here, for such a long time.

Each generation probably feels the city belongs to them, and them alone. But of course, it will outlive all of us alive today; and our children; and our children's children.

Just as today, we can suddenly be struck by the sight of a piece of Norman stonework sticking out of a wall, or by the wavering lines of a half-timbered building above a shop front, so nearly 300 years ago the historian Francis Drake was struck by the evidence of ancient York all around him in the 'modern' York of his day.

In one lovely line in his famous book Eboracum, published in 1736, he described seeing 'a bit of Roman masonry' tucked away in the back yard of an elderly woman's house, says architectural historian Andrew Graham. Anyone living in York today will have had similar experiences. In this city, even when we don't notice it, we live with the past all around us...

For Andrew, a former City of York Council development control officer turned self-employed architectural historian and urban designer, that made the challenge of putting together a book called York In 50 Buildings both easier, and more difficult.

Easier, because with so much history, and with buildings from so many periods to choose from, he was never going to struggle to find 50 York buildings that were worth writing about.

Harder, because he actually found it a real struggle restricting his choice to just 50.

"The real problem was that it was quite hard to reduce the list down!" the 40-year-old admits. "I kept saying to myself 'how can I miss that out?'"

In the end, he's gone with a very personal choice - the buildings that really mean something to him. He tried to include some buildings that are less well known (for example, until he started researching for the book, he himself didn't know the John Carr-designed Pikeing Well on New Walk even existed,) alongside the obvious ones such as York Minster.

The buildings featured here also represent every stage of the city's long history, from the Roman through the Viking, Norman, medieval, Tudor and Georgian periods right up to the present day.

One of the astonishing things about York, he says, is the sheer continuity of things. "The Roman legacy lives on in the very shape of the city," he writes in the introduction. "The streets we walk on to this day follow the general alignment of those laid out nearly 2,000 years ago."

He doesn't just focus on the old, however: buildings from our own age also make his list - the Central Hall at the University of York, for example; and Stonebow House.

Stonebow House? Well, it is of its time, he says. And the windows conform to something called the 'golden section', which gives them proportions that are pleasing to the eye. That said, he's not going to claim it is one of his favourite York buildings. It completely fails to respect the other, older buildings around it. It is just 'plonked down' in a way that is very obtrusive.

In a way, it illustrates one of the themes of his book: that if we today are to add to York's future heritage by contributing worthy buildings of our own, then we need to take inspiration from what's already here. We don't have to slavishly follow what has gone before, he says. But nor do we necessarily need architects determined to 'reinvent the wheel' and impose something utterly modern and alien on the time-weathered townscape around us.

Food for thought...

York In 50 Buildings by Andrew Graham is published by Amberley, priced £14.99


We can't include all of Andrew's 50 buildings here. So here are just a few, to give you a flavour...

Holy Trinity Church, Micklegate

Holy Trinity was one of the great priories of medieval York. A Benedictine church was destroyed by fire in 1137. The nave was shortened and the priory church continued in existence for more than 300 years. By 1446, however, it was being exempted from taxation due to poverty. Then in 1551 the tower collapsed in a storm.

In the 1560s, the church was used as a quarry to build Ouse Bridge. So little of the early priory remains today except the two central piers and the north end of the nave.

Walmgate Bar

The 12th-century bar is the only one of York's city gates still to have its external barbican. The bar itself is a mixture of dates - the archway 12th century, the barbican 14th century and the timber-framed room at the back 16th century. "This transition is curious and shows on the one hand the harsh, defensive nature of the walls and on the other the domestication and reuse of these buildings in later centuries," writes Andrew. The bar was also on the frontline of the Civil War and was heavily shelled from Lamel Hill near St Lawrence's Church.

King's Manor

Now home to the University of York's archaeology department, the building dates to the thirteenth century and originally formed part of the lodgings of Simon de Warwick, Abbot of St Mary's. Following the dissolution of the monasteries it became home to the 'Council of the North', virtually a Parliament for the north of England, underlining York's status as England's second city and northern capital.

Our Lady Row, Goodramgate

A modest row of cottages backing onto the graveyard of Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, the houses were built in 1316/17 and are some of the oldest surviving city houses anywhere in England. They are timber framed and rendered, with later brick infilling.

Merchant Adventurers' Hall, Fossgate

Andrew admits to having a weakness for medieval timber-framed buildings. So if he had to pick a favourite building in York, it might well be this, he says. Medieval timber-framed buildings don't get much better. "The building exudes a rich and highly significant history and sense of place. Its gnarly, silvered timbers, still welded together through the use of pegs and tenon joints, even now create a magnificent spectacle," Andrew writes. There are some lovely details, too - such as the carved oak lion's head which sits on top of oak pilasters at the entrance to the hall.

York Medical Society, Stonegate

This building, tucked away down a narrow alley off busy Stonegate, has had connections to the medical profession in York since the early 1800s, writes Andrew. An 'amalgamation of ancient buildings', it provided accommodation for numerous York doctors, among them Dr Tempest Anderson, whose black- and gold-lettered plaque is still in place near the door.

The Pikeing Well, New Walk

New Walk was a grand public promenade laid out by the city fathers at the height of York's fashionable phase in Georgian times. Halfway along the Walk was an ancient natural spring that it was hoped would become York's answer to the Spa towns of the time: the water was said to have purifying properties, and to be especially good for the eyes. The architect John Carr was commissioned to design a 'well head' to cover and contain the spring waters.

York Railway Station

When it opened in 1877, York boasted the longest railway platform anywhere in the world. "(It) was, notably, built on a curve in the line that allows the cast iron arches to show all their glory as they filter the light and concertina into the distance," Andrew writes. His photographs capture the almost Art Deco quality of the curving roof: a thing of great beauty.