Back in October last year we spent a weekend up in Yorkshire – the Sunday was reserved for a very special day out on a via ferrata at How Stean Gorge while the Saturday was spent wandering around several of York’s best museums – luckily, in fact, as it chucked it down with rain all day.
Jorvik Viking Centre
First stop was probably the best-known attraction in York, the Jorvik Viking Centre. York was ruled by the Vikings for around a century, between the Roman and Norman periods, and evidence of their civilization is still being dug up to this day. A visit to the Jorvik Centre and memories of its authentically smelly mock-up village have been a rite of passage for British schoolchildren for years.
After an interesting section at the entrance, where you can see some excavated Viking foundations and try your hand at identifying ancient relics, you get into a capsule that glides slowly around the centre, with a commentary track accompanying you. You pass recreated Viking houses with wattle walls, craftsmen working with wood and metal, a Viking dentist hard at work and I think if I remember rightly I also saw a Viking sat on the toilet.
There are animatronic traders, priests, fishermen (York was an important Viking port), leatherworkers, women at their looms, all of them depicting Viking life very accurately because the Jorvik Centre is built on years of academic research. Several of the characters are actually based on real people, whose skeletons have been found.
At the end of the tour, which takes around 15 minutes, you walk through a series of displays showcasing Viking weapons, tools and clothing before every child’s favourite part of any museum: the gift shop.
Jorvik is indispensable for anyone wanting to learn more about York’s fascinating history. You can buy the ‘Pastport’ which gives you access to a handful of other museums such as DIG, and the entire Jorvik experience takes about an hour to get around. I’d say it’s best for kids aged about 10 or so up, Charlie had just turned eight and he enjoyed parts of it but wasn’t fully engaged really.
National Railway Museum
When I said Jorvik was York’s best-known attraction I should probably have said its equal best-known attraction because the National Railway Museum is also very famous. And, because it’s just a five-minute walk from the train station, it’s an obvious first port of call for many people.
Tracing the history of rail travel around the world, this museum holds over a million different exhibits and if your kids are train buffs they will absolutely LOVE it here. It holds the only bullet train outside Japan, which was a nice reminder of our own travels there and a replica of George Stephenson’s Rocket, as well as the actual Mallard, the fastest steam train.
You can step into most of the trains and carriages, and all around there are original posters and signage from down the years. There are lots of models and interactive exhibits, and it’s such a vast space that you can happily wander round for several hours without getting bored – provided you love trains.
For adults it’s also very educational, with exhibits on rail pioneers and interesting personalities, and it’s quite fascinating to see the train of progress over the decades.
The National Railway Museum is free to enter but do leave a generous donation because it’s a great place to visit that’s doing important work conserving an important part of history. There are also lockers available too, for luggage or buggies.
The last museum we visited was one we stumbled on by accident, escaping the rain while walking in the lovely Museum Gardens. And I was really glad we did because it turned out to combine what Charlie was learning about at school right then: Romans, with his greatest passion, Virtual Reality dinosaurs!
Again it started with the chance to practise some archaeological skills, brushing sand and dirt off artificial dino bones and fossils, something younger kids will love. Then we walked past a real Roman mosaic floor, several dinosaur skeletons including an ichthyosaur (no, me neither), before we bumped into a lady standing around waiting for a visitor to approach her. It was a slow day at the Yorkshire Museum, so Charlie got to spend plenty of time playing around in a VR helmet.
This was so much fun, as he got to approach a brontosaurus (or something, one of the big ones anyway) and feed it a branch. After doing this, we looked around a little more, then seeing the lady was still on her own,he asked for another go,and another, so the dinosaur was probably starting to recognise him. Younger kids will go nuts for this simple little piece of VR, and any children with an interest in dinosaurs or Romans would get a lot out of this museum.
The Yorkshire Museum is also free to enter, but happily accepts donations. And afterwards don’t forget to have a little stroll in the scenic gardens and have an ice cream. It’s a little paradise in the city centre, set in the ruins of a medieval abbey with a working observatory and over 40 bird species.
Whenever we’re in York one of our favourite things to do is take a walk around the old city walls. It was raining still and I wasn’t sure how much of it Charlie would want to do, so we stuck to what I think is the most attractive section, entering at Bishopthorpe and walking around past the Minster. If you’re doing this, and I recommend you do, keep younger kids close because there are some steep drops off the side in places and no safety barriers.