Conserving York’s Bar Walls

Guest blog from Eva Barker, one of our fabulous York St John’s placement students.

Recently I had the privilege of volunteering at York Explore’s archives where I came across a photographic survey conducted in the 1970s by Mr C. Richards. They were a perfect example of the incredible conservation work the city carries out to preserve historically important parts of York’s history.

The two photographs that stood out to me specifically had been taken in 1977 when they were recording damage on York City Walls. The first was of Monk Bar, the most obvious difference is the alterations to the road. This was likely done considering traffic as a risk to the Bar’s conservation, as the area now has restricted vehicle access.

When I photographed Monk Bar it was covered in the seasonal light decorations, this clearly shows how important the walls are to the city of York. The City Walls and Bars have become a historic landmark, as well as a tourist attraction. Anyone who has tried to photograph the Bars around York will understand how long it takes to get pictures with so few people in!

The similarity between these images taken over 40 years apart is a credit to the people who look after the City Walls. Preservation is a huge priority in York, the community tries to keep the walls the same while the city changes.

Monk Bar is particularly special as it was the Bar with the strongest defence, it was only until the 1970s, the same decade the first image was photographed, that its portcullis became disused. Monk Bar is also unique due to its carved stone figures that are the oldest ones out of any of the others on the Bars. The Richard III Experience is also located at this Bar as an extension of Jorvik, the Bars’ popularity has only enhanced since the 1970s. The Friends of York Walls CIO was even set up in 2011 as a way for the public to contribute to the conservation of the City Walls.

To show off just how well the Bars have been preserved I tried to mimic the original images, using the same angles so they can easily be visually compared. To photograph Bootham Bar I stood at Exhibition Square, where the William Etty statue is located, outside the Art Gallery. I mention this as Etty campaigned to protect the Bar Walls and keep them open to the public.

The local government considered them useless and an expensive drain to maintain, as they had become dangerously damaged. The City Walls also impeded the modernisation of the inner city as they restricted stagecoach access, at which point the barbican at Bootham Bar, among others, were destroyed.

Etty began a media campaign using newspapers and donations in the 1830s, he – and the traders in York – saw the City Walls as a foundation of the city’s tourism and trade. He delivered lectures on the topic and during this decade created four paintings of the Bars, building upon their fame, as well as the fame of the preservation campaign.

Etty had previously led a campaign to preserve Clifford’s Tower and later led the campaign against the redesign of the Minster after it was the victim of an arson attack, he proposed the restoration of the Minster to its original state. The city of York clearly feels indebted to the painter as over 60 years after his death G.W. Milburn erected a statue of Etty outside the Art Gallery in 1911, his dedication to preserve York’s history is an inspiration.

The city’s aspirations are now in line with Etty’s, not only are there immense efforts to preserve the City Walls, but there is now work underway to make Clifford’s Tower more accessible to the public. The plan to make York’s inner city a pedestrian zone began in 1987, and this may not have been feasible without Etty’s preservation campaigns, York now has the largest pedestrian zone in Europe.

The Bars contribute to York’s beauty and historical significance, and as the city evolves they are visual proof of why conservation is a priority.

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