The Museum Gardens are five minutes walk from the Minster in the centre of York. The Gardens are named after the Yorkshire Museum which is built on the remains of St Mary’s Abbey. The gardens are free and open most days except Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Entrances to the gardens are located at the side of the Art Gallery, Museum Street, at the side of King’s Manor, Marygate and the riverside walk near Lendal Bridge.
I have many fond memories of the gardens. A common meeting spot in the summertime, I used to hang out with my friends on Saturdays and Sundays, usually waiting for the pub to open!! It also used to host occasional concerts most notable for me, Roxy Music with the original lineup which included Brian Eno. I have also watched the Mystery Plays in the gardens and various historical re-enactments as well as a 21 gun salute on the Queen’s birthday.
Visit on a summer day and it can be quite crowded as there are often events going on. However, if you explore a bit you might just find a quiet corner.
There is lots to see including Yorkshire’s oldest working observatory, an extensive botanical collection, 40 species of bird that live within the gardens, lots of almost tame grey squirrels, the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, the Roman Multangular Tower and the Yorkshire Museum.
The museum is famous for purchasing the 15th Century Middleham Jewel at a cost of £2.5 million. This is one of the finest pieces of Gothic Jewellery ever found. It is also home to 2nd Century Roman mosaics and an Anglo Saxon silver gilt bowl. It houses three famous collections:
Roman York – Meet the people of the empire
Medieval York – The power and the glory
Extinct – A way of life, which showcases the Jurassic World.
The museum also has an audio-visual guide to the history of York in its auditorium. This makes it an ideal place for the first-time visitor to York.
The York Museums Trust (YMT) owns the Museum as well as the City’s Art Gallery and Castle Museum. If you plan to visit all three locations on your visit to York, you might want to purchase a YMT card which will save you money on entrance fees and it lasts for a whole year.
St Mary’s Abbey
The abbey was built in 1088. What you see now is all that is left of one of the most wealthy Benedictine monasteries in England. The entire site of the Museum Gardens would have been part of the abbey estate. This would have included a chapter house, kitchen, school, guest hall and infirmary. The abbot was a very powerful clergyman, the equal of the Archbishop of York. You can still see part of the nave’s walls and the abbey church. You can also see parts of the cloister, where the monks would do their chores, and where they were allowed to speak.
The stone walls running from the Marygate entrance around the back of the Artist’s Garden are the most intact set of abbey walls in England. They were built to defend the abbey. These were called into use several times when the city and the abbey argued over land ownership and taxes. There are also some abbey remains under the Yorkshire Museum building.
The Marygate entrance, next to St Olave’s Church, was the abbey’s main entrance. The poor would come here for charity. St Mary’s Lodge which is part of the gateway is now the headquarters of York Museums Trust.
King Henry VIII banned all monasteries in England in the 1530s. The monks at St Mary’s would have been retired. The abbey buildings were subsequently used as a palace for the King when visiting York. Gradually they fell into ruin and disuse. They were then excavated in the 1820s by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. The society bought the land and created a botanical garden, which became the Museum Gardens as we know them today.
The Multangular Tower
The Tower is the best example in York of a Roman structure that’s still standing. It is near the Museum Street entrance between St Leonard’s Hospital and the Yorkshire Museum. You can see the tower and also some stretches of the fortress wall from both inside and outside.
One of two corner towers, the Multangular Tower was part of the west corner of the old Roman fortress. The two corner-towers bookended a huge stone wall that overlooked the river. The smaller stones in the lower half of the tower are third-century Roman. The upper half of larger stones was rebuilt in medieval times. The original construction of the tower was revolutionary as it used mortar, which allowed the Roman’s to build much larger structures.
Towers like these were a military innovation, allowing the defenders to fire arrows sideways along the wall as invaders tried to climb them.
St. Leonard’s Hospital
St Leonard’s Hospital was founded shortly after the Norman Conquest. At one time it was believed to be the largest medieval infirmary in the north of England. The Hospital’s undercroft remains are next to York Central Library. The entrance is in the Museum Gardens, just inside the Museum Street entrance on the right. From the Hospital it is possible to walk along the side of the library and see the rear of the Multangular Tower. A small doorway in the wall leads in the gardens.
Artist’s Garden and Edible Wood
The Artist’s Garden is in the corner at the back of York Art Gallery. Contemporary art is displayed on the site. Together with the Edible Wood, the Artist’s Garden was created as part of the gallery’s recent re-development. The Edible Wood is based on forest gardening.
Church of St Olave
This old church is named after the patron saint of Norway, St Olaf. Olaf was converted to Christianity when he was in England and went on to establish the church in Norway. He is depicted in the east window of the church.
The present church dates from 1446 and still has some medieval glass in the middle of the east window. The famous York artist, William Etty, is buried in the graveyard.
The York Observatory was built between 1832 and 1833 and is the oldest working observatory in Yorkshire.
As well as a telescope the Observatory houses a clock dating back to 1811 which tells the time based on observations of the positions of stars. Once it was the clock by which all the others in York were set.
Some days the Observatory is open between 11.30 am to 2.30 pm. However, the site is manned by trained volunteers, so there is no guarantee it will be open on any particular day.
The Hospitium was built as part of St Mary’s Abbey in the medieval period and was used for housing guests. These would have been people who were not allowed to stay in the main abbey with the monks.
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