This image shows the upper storey of Bootham Bar.  One of the statues on top of the bar represents a stonemason, a key figure in the construction and conservation of the city walls!

What is conservation?

Conservation, with its connotations of frugality and preservation, is the term used to describe how we care for places and things that we think are significant.  This includes historical sites, but also the natural environment, archaeological artefacts and works of art.  The overall aim of conservation is to stabilise or enhance the condition of whatever is being conserved, either by preventing deterioration or by undertaking repairs or restoration.  In essence, conservation is managing change so that things we think are important, for their communal values as well as their historic values, survive and can be enjoyed by as many people as possible, for as long as possible.  However, conservation comes with big questions: who decides what is worth conserving? What if conserving something means nobody can see, hear or touch it anymore?  What if something is important to different people for different reasons?

This blog is about conservation and York’s city walls.  It includes overviews of current projects to give a flavour of the type of work we need to do to keep the walls in a stable condition, and to demonstrate how we can’t always answer the big questions!

What are some of the challenges associated with conserving the city walls?

York’s city walls haven’t always looked as they do now.  The stone defensive walls sitting on top of earth ramparts that we see today were largely built between the mid-thirteenth century and the early fourteenth century, probably to replace timber structures.  The walkway is an even later addition to the city walls, generally constructed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to facilitate the recreational use of the city walls that continues today.  It surprises some people that little of York’s Roman walls exist above-ground.

Multangular Tower and wall in Museum Gardens, some of the only above-ground remains of York’s Roman walls.

Tower Two, close to Baile Hill.  This tower is in poor condition and a new project is underway to stabilise the tower and reveal its interior face, highlighting the different construction phases of the city walls.

What this potted history (for a detailed history see: An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York Vol. II) illustrates is that the city walls have changed according to the values and needs of the city’s inhabitants.  If the city walls were once a vital way of defending the city and managing who came and went, today they are key parts of York’s civic identity and treasured historic environment, and an important space for recreation.  Without a single ‘historic’ version of the city walls, however, and with uses and meanings that have changed quite significantly over time, conserving the walls can be a complex business – especially when we throw in current public needs, the scale of the city walls and the fact that it intersects at various points with the public highway.

This image shows the Minster and one of the archways inserted into the city walls to accommodate the railway in the 19th century.  The arch was actually dismantled and rebuilt in the 1960s, yet the image persists as one of the most well know views of York’s historic environment.

Railway arches in the city walls!

In the nineteenth century, five archways were made in the city walls to accommodate railway infrastructure.  They were designed using a contrasting stone to visually complement the walls, perhaps to ensure the walls still felt medieval even with trains running through them.  One of these arches, the one which features in perhaps the most widely circulated image of York, was replaced in the 1960s with a steel and concrete structure hidden behind contrasting stone cladding.  As you can see when you drive or walk from the railway station towards Lendal Bridge, this stone cladding is in poor condition.  One of the reasons for this deterioration is that the stone is incompatible with the adjacent magnesium limestone, the type of stone used to construct most of the city walls.  Replacing the damaged stones with a compatible stone might give the stone cladding a longer life span (maybe even outlasting the steel and concrete) but the design intention of the arch would be lost.  Retaining the design intention is desirable because it connects to York’s transport and railway history, it shows us how York integrated new innovations in transport with its historic environment – a hot topic today – with an eye towards design as well as commitment to fairly drastic change.

An archway in the city walls, now carrying traffic inbound to the city.  The archway was constructed in the nineteenth century to accommodate the railway but was dismantled and rebuilt with a steel and concrete core in the 1960s.  Some of the stones cladding the archway will be repaired or replaced.

The fire damaged tower

The fire damaged tower is part of the boundary wall of St Mary’s Abbey. The boundary wall of St Mary’s Abbey was begun in 1266 and the battlements and towers were added about 50 years later. Originally the fire damaged tower and the adjacent tower were identical. Ledges to support joists are still visible in the walls and it is likely that both towers had two storeys and roofs made from wood. Joining the towers together was a wooden fighting platform.

It is thought that what remained of this tower at the start of the second world war was damaged by a fire caused by a bomb dropped during an air raid.  The heat of the fire weakened the stone, causing the flaking and crumbling that now puts the tower at risk of collapse and also changed the colour of the stone from weathered pale-grey to pale-red and yellow.

Stabilising the condition of the structure, for its own sake but also to protect the public, whilst ensuring that the story of the fire damaged tower can still be seen in its stones is a challenge.  Replacing the stones would stabilise the tower, but would this erase a reminder of the air raid and the inadequacy but tenacity of a defensive wall during a modern war?

This image shows the temporary support at the Fire Damage Tower; it is keeping the upper storey of the tower in situ until a conservation scheme is developed.  In the image, you can see how the heat of the fire has changed the colour of the stone to a pinky-yellow colour.  You can also see, to the left of the tower, where new stones have replaced old stones (probably in the 1960s) which don’t quite match.

Finding solutions

Tacit understanding of the walls and research, desk-based, archaeological, structural, community and beyond, give us a good chance of making sure different significances are accounted for, even if they are not obviously visible.  However, caring for the city walls means realising there is no single solution – there are best practices and conservation guidance – but each section of the wall might mean many different things to many different people in history and today and there might be lots of ways of keeping these meanings in circulation.  Keep walking on the walls, keep looking at them, keep making new meanings, keep them as part of the fabric of everyday life in York!

For more information about conserving scheduled monuments, visit Historic England’s website.

All photos (c) Olivia Brabbs, for City of York Council

Comments (1)

  1. peter mattam


    Thank you for this interesting and informative bit of writing -I had, for example, never before thought that the stone selected for the 19th century archways was sometimes consciously chosen to contrast with the stone of the medieval walls they were cutting through. Olivia Brabbs also deserves thanks for her photographs -in particular the second one, where a wild pear tree seems to be leaning dramatically to one side to give us a clear view of the Multangular Tower, is brilliant.

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