WHEN was the last time you walked on York’s city walls? Can’t remember? Then it has probably been too long.

The walls are breathtaking: just think of York Minster seen across the Deanery Garden from the stretch between Monk Bar and Bootham Bar; the view along the walls from Station Road towards the Minster again, with Lendal Bridge in the foreground; the many towers and bars, with their arches, turrets and grim histories; the seats dotted around on battlemented corners offering wonderful glimpses across York itself.

But walking them – especially the whole two-mile circuit – can also be frustrating. Getting from Fishergate Postern, where the wall breaks off, along Tower Street and across Skeldergate Bridge to where they resume at Baile Hill is difficult enough if you’re a local: imagine how hard it is for a tourist, struggling with a map. There is the same problem between Jewbury and the Red Tower, with the Layerthorpe lights and then half the length of Foss Islands Road to be negotiated.

Then sometimes bits of the walls are closed off, for repairs or because they are blocked by overhanging trees. And beautiful as it all is, there is little to explain the walls’ history as you walk around.

“There is so much more that could be done with them,” says Keith Myers.

We’re sitting in the Gatehouse café on Walmgate Bar – the very tower that, in 1644 during the civil war, came under attack by Parliamentary forces.

They had one of their big guns sited at nearby St Lawrence’s Church, and dug a series of mines towards the Bar to try to blow it up. It is just one of countless stories about York’s amazing medieval walls that go largely untold.

The walls don’t even feature as one of the ‘must-see’ attractions in the official Mini Guide to York, says Keith.

“This is one of the first things I looked at,” he says, waving a copy at me across the table.

He’s absolutely right. There are 13 ‘must-sees’ listed at the beginning of the guide. They include York Minster, of course; and Clifford’s Tower, the Castle and Yorkshire Museums, Fairfax House, even York Dungeon – but not the city walls. The only mention the walls get – apart from being included on the city map in the centre of the guide – is a small advert for the York Walls Audio Tour tucked away on page 22.

It does seem odd that one of York’s most priceless assets isn’t flagged up more. Any other town or city lucky enough to have such a stunning piece of historical architecture would shout it from the rooftops, Keith says.

After all, York owes its very existence, its survival over the last thousand years, to these ancient walls; and they have shaped and defined the city that grew up within their confines. “So it is crazy that they aren’t promoted a lot more than they are.”

He is not blaming anyone. The 56-year-old handyman and school governor, who for many years ran a small manufacturing company in York, accepts that the city council spends a fortune – up to £200,000 every year – on preserving and maintaining the walls, and that Visit York provides an excellent guide to the walls themselves.

But if you’re a visitor, you need to know to ask for it. And if you’re a local – well, we’re just not making as much of the walls as we could, he says.

Now he and a group of like-minded friends want to change all that.

A year or so ago, he started making enquiries about who was ultimately responsible for looking after the walls. He found to his surprise that there was no single individual at the council making decisions about how best to manage them – and, more to the point, no ‘Friends of York Walls’ group.

He and his friends – Mike Stillings, a 63-year-old retired company director and university professor; John Dowell, a 74-year-old retired businessman and local historian; John’s wife Chris, a 71-year-old former nurse tutor; and 35-year-old high street bank financial planning manager Lindsay Clarke – have now set up a ‘launch committee’ with the intention of forming The Friends of York Walls.

The new group, which has the backing of the city council, and of city archaeologist John Oxley, will be formally inaugurated at a public meeting at the Mansion House on February 28.

The five friends are already brimming with ideas. Keith would like to see the walls playing host to a range of new festivals and ‘traditions’. “We could use them for cultural events, festivals, works of sculpture. We could have some new traditions on the walls – flag flying on St George’s Day and Yorkshire Day; an annual inspection of the walls by the Lord Mayor; bulb-planting days on the ramparts. There are thousands of things that the citizens could enjoy.”

Mr Stillings is keen on better signs to explain, as you walk around, more about the walls’ history. “When people walk around the walls, they don’t really have a clue what they’re looking at,” he says.

Mr Dowell agrees. “Every part of the walls has a story to tell,” he says. Like the story of King Edward I, for example, marching north beneath the very archway that still stands at Bootham Bar to subdue the Scots. And the story, even longer ago, of the Roman Ninth Legion, which might well have marched out of the Roman gate that stood on the same site on its way to Hadrian’s Wall and the defence of the north 2,000 years since.

Those stories need telling. And there are plenty of other things the group would like to see: educational packs for schools, and more visits by schoolchildren; proper guided tours of the walls, by guides in high-visibility vests; groups of friends who will help clear back overhanging branches and plant wildflowers on the ramparts; repair of the spotlights so that the walls are illuminated properly at night; even, suggests Keith, guided candlelit tours of the walls at night.

The group also wants to see every single one of the major bars and towers around the walls used for some kind of display or community base, starting with Fishergate Postern.

It has been empty for years, Keith points out. But his fledgling group has already put in a bid for £60,000 to the Jubilee People’s Millions – an ITV series backed by Buckingham Palace which will ask members of the public to vote on local projects which should get lottery funding to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee next year.

If they succeed in getting the money, they would use it to refurbish the Posterngate as a visitor centre and base for the new Friends group.

What they need now, however, is members. “The key is to get as many people as possible, so we get as many great ideas as possible,” says Keith.

So if you’re interested in York’s history, or simply enjoy walking the city’s walls and would like to see them put to better use, put that February 28 date in your diary now.

• Membership of the Friends of York Walls will be free, but members will be asked to make a voluntary donation. Other funds will come through sponsorship and fundraising.

• The launch meeting of the Friends group will be at The Mansion House from 7pm to 9pm on Monday, February 28. Places at the meeting will be limited to 50 because of space; email info@yorkwalls.org.uk to put your name down. Don’t worry if you don’t get a place at the first meeting, as depending on demand, the group will hold further meetings in the near future to welcome new members.