Immersed in the past

The immersive Van Gogh exhibition was an unusual and fascinating way to learn about the artist and experience his work
New internal walkways mean we can see parts of Clifford’s Tower in York that were previously inaccessible, such as the Royal Latrine
The flushing loo in Clifford’s Tower, York, built for King Henry III in the 13th century. Rainwater was collected in a cistern on the roof which was channelled down to the toilet, entering from the left-hand side (where the yellow light is shining).

When you live somewhere that attracts tourists, you often neglect to go to see for yourself the sights that lure them in. York has been voted one of the most popular destinations time and again, and yet, even though I live close to it, I hardly ever make time to visit those things that make it so. It’s easy to see why it does so well in those polls, with its streets and buildings oozing history, its ancient character preserved around many a corner.

I was flicking through a book recently which showed ‘then and now’ pictures of parts of the city that have disappeared through development. It was sad to read how whole sections were levelled, such as large parts of the ancient Roman walls, torn down in the name of progress. We shudder to think of that happening now and thank goodness much of the walls remain in tact giving the city its unique quality.

I had heard that the immersive Van Gogh exhibition which was touring the country was due to land in York. For a change I got off my backside and booked tickets rather than let it become just one more on a long list of things that I wished I’d seen or done but never got around to. I was also keen to see the re-opened Clifford’s Tower with its new high walkway crossing right over the centre of the tower, and the brand new rooftop platform affording panoramic 360° views.

I forced my middle son to emerge from the black hole that is his bedroom and come with me, and we spent a lovely few hours together. The immersive exhibition, where you sit in a darkened church surrounded on all sides by sound, colour, voices and moving images, was an enjoyable and unusual way to appreciate not only Van Gogh’s art, but also what he went through as an insanely talented yet deeply troubled man. It’s so sad to think he only sold one painting during his lifetime, and yet his work now sells for tens of millions of pounds.

Clifford’s Tower has such a chequered history that it is a testament to its construction that it is still standing. Built in the 11th century by William The Conqueror to repel the rebellious northerners, it has seen life as a royal mint, a mediaeval stronghold and a civil war garrison. It is possibly best known for being the scene in 1190 of the terrible massacre of the city’s Jewish community after they had taken refuge inside from a violent mob. With no chance of escape, many took their own lives rather than be murdered. They set fire to their belongings too, which in turn set the timber tower ablaze. The stone tower that we see today was built 60 years after the massacre.

The construction of new staircases and walkways means parts of the tower that were previously inaccessible are now available to view, including a room called the ‘garderobe’, or the King’s Latrine. Built in the mid-13th century for Henry III, it resembles a stone throne built into the wall and set over a hole in the floor to channel the waste outside. Originally it would have had a wooden seat, and what is remarkable is that it had a flushing system. A cistern on the roof would collect rainwater which swooshed down a shaft to the toilet, rinsing away all the nasties. This was a full 300 years before the flushing toilet was said to have been invented, and is believed to be the only surviving example in England.

On the way home, in stark contrast to the grand history of Clifford’s Tower, we drove past the site of the Mecca Bingo hall. Built in 2003, it can only be described as an eyesore, and what’s worse is that York Council planners in all their wisdom sacrificed the 1930s art-deco Rialto building next door to make way for the bingo customers’ car park. It mattered not that during its remarkable history, the Rialto hosted the Beatles four times in the 1960s.

The huge Mecca Bingo hall, just 19 years after it was built, has just been reduced to a pile of rubble as construction of student flats begins. It makes me wonder, will there come a day when we will regret pulling down this example of turn of the millennium architecture?

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 30th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 28th September 2022

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