York City: Lovely City with a Chaotic Past

Reading Time: 7 minutes

For the Love of Harry Potter and all things magic, Cate Maina finds herself entranced in a city where Harry Potter Memorabilia is the currency.

I love this city. Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland, one of the four states of the United Kingdom. Sometimes I think of it as my home. It is difficult not to when it has hosted me for close to two years now. Edinburgh took me in when a little town in the Northern part of Scotland vomited me only six weeks after arriving in the UK. We have been inseparable since then. I initially thought ours was a rebound love affair, but it looks like we made it.

Last winter, I discovered the literal footprints of the Harry Potter Novel series. J.K Rowling, the philanthropic author of these novels lives in Edinburgh. Hers is called the White House a few metres from Cramond beach. Cramond is a picturesque beach on the shores of the North Sea in Edinburgh. It was strategic for world war. Her home is an imposing monastery tightly guarded with a high-rise fence. Friends have told me that they have bumped into her in the streets of Edinburgh. No idea why I have not. Perhaps I am not walking on the correct streets.

Talking of which, a street called George IV Bridge hosts the awe-inspiring café called The Elephant House.  In this iconic café, J.K Rowling sat with a coffee in one hand and a notebook in the other and there did she write part of the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone which is the first in a seven-part series of Harry Potter novels.  This she disclosed later in several interviews. Since then, The Elephant House has been a major tourist attraction site for all Harry Potter fans. We call ourselves Potterheads.

I am a dedicated Potterhead. Growing up, I needed to escape the miseries of poverty. I wanted to believe in unicorns and magic. J.K Rowling’s work was introduced to me by my English teacher, Mr.Wafula. He had no idea the doors of imagination he flung open in me. Harry Potter was my comfort. I would read these books anytime anywhere. I learnt my basic English skills from the books. The English language has shaped my communication and career. I feel indebted to J.K Rowling for ever putting pen to paper with  Harry Potter. I believed in magic. Where we could make bullies disappear and stupefy enemies of progress with a flick of a magic wand.

A few meters from The Elephant café is the Church of Scotland. This is the Greyfriars’s Church of Scotland. On the church ground is a medieval cemetery. J.K Rowling used the names on the tombstones to coin the characters of Harry Potter novels. That is a writer’s hattrick.

My unquenched love for Harry Potter drove me to York City last week. I have been going through some personal rough patches and a desire to abandon it all albeit temporarily washed over me. Since Harry Potter has always offered me some euphoric escapism, I took the two-and-a-half-hour train to York.

York lies in the North of England, next to Scotland. It is one of the cities that directly border Scotland. History has it that the battle between Scotland and England was frequently fought in York. I needed a weekend away just by myself. I booked a night’s stay at the Greensides Guesthouse. Greensides is only 19 minutes away from York City Centre. I have been doing my best to stay healthy, so I needed a place that is not too far away from the city, is affordable, and allows me to walk to the city centre.

Just like Edinburgh, you can easily tour York within an hour. You can marvel at the beauty of this old city as you wait for a connecting train to London’s Kings Cross Train Station. I was not sure what I wanted to do in York, but I was ready to flow with whatever was flowing. Harry Potter or none, I wanted to breathe better air. Feel other things besides what I have been hooked on lately.

In Edinburgh, we have the joy of hopping on and off a bus for easy sightseeing. York takes it a step further by introducing boat cruises on River Ouse where you have the enviable opportunity to sight-see. I took the boat cruise. The captain acted as the tour guide. The waning summer sun, our unmistakable companion.

The only drawback in the boat were the ancient speakers. The voice of the captain was easily drowned by the humdrum of the passengers, and I must confess I missed almost half of what he said. I believe York City can invest in personalized tour guides where passengers get to wear headphones and listen in. This saves the captain’s baritone voice from overuse.

Hopping off the boat, my phone’s battery declared itself dead. I had to use physical maps. Lynne, the attendant at Greenside had been kind enough to give me a map of York. It felt good to finally put all those Geography lessons I had in high school to proper use. I followed the map to the Shambles Market, where our story gives birth.

The Shambles

 A quick internet search on York City will undoubtedly mention the Shambles. Shambles Street, as it is known is the inspiration behind Diagon Alley, a street where Harry Potter and his friends used to buy wands and potions. Initially, Shambles was a meat market. Butchers used to sell their chunky cuts on the shops on either side of the street. They would hang meat on hooks which are still visible today on the several shops that line the street.  There are no butchers left on Shambles street today. However, one butcher shop defiantly remains behind the street, on the Shambles Farmers’ market. Shambles street is colourfully dotted with exquisite shops some of which are dedicated to Harry Potter’s magic world.

The Shambles is so narrow that a seller in one shop could easily shake hands with a seller in the shop across them without leaving their own shop. This architectural design is not a mistake. The tapering street was so made to block the sun from directly shining on the meat which would be hanging from the hooks. This preserved it for longer.

The name ‘shambles’ may not be very attractive. History has it that butchers would drain the offal, blood, and other organs down a trench that runs from the north to the south of the street. This concoction of meat and blood would then attract dogs from the York village for a feast. Looking at it, one would easily say the meat market looked shambolic hence the term Shambles.

Shambles hosts several shops inspired by the Harry Potter series. The Potions Cauldron is a shop specially dedicated for all you witches and wizards out there. Here you meet a Hogwarts’ student waiting for you to hop in and buy your own ‘potion.’ You even get a chance to mix them and watch them fizzle into an enviable colour. I did not get a chance to go inside as there was a long queue of Potterheads waiting to pop in.

On the South end lies one of the most famous shops in all of York. This is The shop That Must Not Be Named. This is a clever name that comes from The One Who Must Not Be Named, the archvillain in the Harry Potter series. They sell all memorabilia associated with Harry Potter.

Outside The Shop That Must Not Be Named

They have gowns for all the four Common houses in Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry. They have quidditch ball (a game ball played in Harry Potter) and as if that was not enough, they proudly display the Sorting hat! One attendant noted my excitement as I let out ecstatic sighs behind my facemask.

“Oh, you are a Harry Potter fan!” She exclaimed

“That is an understatement,” I confessed.

“What House are you?” she quizzed

“Gryffindor,” I chuckled like the little girl that lives within me. She pointed to the Sorting Hat. I should try it on next time. In Harry Potter, the hat is a magic one that decides which of the four Common rooms a student should be in. It is the magical school’s admissions team.

They sell wands all named after the great characters in Harry Potter. From Luna Lovegood to Ginny Wesley. From Harry potter himself to the dark lord. The wands glister on a double-sided velvet window.  They cost anywhere between 30 pounds to 200 pounds. If you want to take the experience higher, for just below 10 pounds, you get a chocolate bar shaped like a Harry Potter wand.

Stepping into The Shop That Must Not Be Named was borderline orgasmic. The last time I experienced that adrenaline rush was when I walked down Greyfriars’s cemetery in Edinburgh and managed to see all the names J.K Rowling used in her earth-shattering novels. Sacred.

The walls are coated with posters from the Harry Potter series all asking you to report to the nearest authority should you see Harry Potter. I know I am on a roll on this one. Why don’t you just go to The Shop That Must Not Be Named on Shambles street in York? Step into magic. Soak in it and don’t forget to park your broom at the back of the shop where it meets the Shambles Market. I bought a non-alcoholic  Butterscotch Beer which is allegedly from the Flying Cauldron, another shop in the Harry Potter series.

As I bring you to a reluctant finish, I will go back to York for her northern moorland where the actual filming of Harry Potter took place. Some scenes in Dracula movies are also filmed in York. York is a creative’s Holy Grail.  I believe that the magic in Edinburgh called me, and the mystery of York serenaded me.

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