If you’ve been anything like me over recent months, you’ll have been up close and personal with a screen quite a lot of the time. I’ve been craving a little more contact with some different landscapes than the ones I’ve legally been allowed to venture into!
Now that the parks, gardens, and open spaces are gradually reopening in and around my adopted hometown, petals are blooming and hopes are budding.
Parks, gardens, meditation stations
The York Museum Gardens nestle right in the middle of the city. They are registered botanical gardens, and offer sights and floral smells to bombard the senses, and also hidden trails and dens at the back to provide peace, calm and relaxation away from the crowd and potential buzz of post-lockdown city life. So-called because the grounds house the Yorkshire Museum, or The Dinosaur Museum as my daughter likes to call it, you can sit, read, eat ice cream, enjoy a picnic, meditate, practise yoga or Pilates, and even hold an owl…
Dean’s Park, aka Minster Gardens, is located to the north of York Minster and is an oasis of calm in the centre of the city. Previously a private area frequented solely by those associated with the Minster, it became the site of a mansion built by Sit Arthur Ingram in the early 17th century. After the building sadly went to ruin in the late 18th century, the gardens were laid to seed and it’s now an absolute gem for everyone! In warmer months it hosts, as well as outdoor yoga, second hand stalls, craft fairs, flower and plant stands, and children’s activities.
West Bank Park
West Bank Park is slightly further out; a short hike of around 30 minutes from the city centre to the Holgate/Acomb area. It’s a tranquil space with nature reserves, mature woodlands, a fragrant and beautiful rose terrace, and a pergola walk. Take a wander down woodland pathways and relax on trails that weave between the trunks of unusual tree specimens.
Homestead Park is another lush green space that’s not far from the town centre. Opened in 1904 by social reformer Benjamin Rowntree, son of one of York’s original master chocolatiers Joseph Rowntree, it’s best known for its flora. Feast your eyes on herbaceous borders, a medieval garden, a wildflower meadow, and woodland with native and ornamental trees. Chill out on the lawn, wander through the shrubs and bushes, and enjoy this haven for relaxation.
Stretch your legs. And your eyes!
The City Walls
York is famous for, among many other things, its walls. Back in the day, they kept intruders out and were used for gruesome tasks such as firing arrows from and furthermore, displaying heads from… For centuries, the ‘bars’, as Yorkies refer to them, or gates as they might otherwise be known, were kept permanently closed to deter enemies and keep citizens safe. They were also used for bragging about the lives that had been taken. The unlucky Richard of York, 3rd Duke of York, had his head popped on a pike at Micklegate Bar after being defeated by the Lancastrian army in the Battle of Wakefield.
But anyway, I digress: this isn’t conducive to relaxation, I hear you say. Fair enough.
These days, the walls in the spring are a stunning proliferation of flowers and foliage. Daffodils and crocuses bloom joyfully and reliably year after year on its embankments, and various climbing plants blossom on the stone ramparts. The walls offer a gentle stretch for tight limbs; you can walk all the way round and see some amazing views of parts of the city, looking down into hidden courtyards, secret gardens, and surprising views of York’s architecture.
Open spaces, open mind
Sun salutations on the strays
York boasts many of what are referred to as ‘strays’; traditionally common grazing ground for York residents to bring their livestock to. Micklegate Stray is the largest and contains the areas of land known as the Knavesmire, Scarcroft, and Hob Moor. You can enjoy many activities here: walking, running, meditating, sun salutations, tai chi, watching and playing cricket and football, picnicking, meandering through the Knavesmire woods and making dens with the kids… the list is endless and York residents like me are lucky enough to have this on their doorstep.
Watching the garden grow
Part of the Scarcroft end of Micklegate stray is given over to allotments, the cultivation of which, I’m sure some of you will appreciate, is a vastly rewarding and worthwhile use of time. The seasonal changes, the growth and regrowth, the satisfaction of cooking and eating home-grown food and giving others treats seeded by your own hand and dug with your own spade… the connection to nature and all-round good karma put allotment life firmly among the top few in the list of activities for mental positivity.
Open Water Swimming
Open water swimming is an excellent way to connect to nature, and fans reading this will already know of the many physical and mental health benefits it provides. Physically, swimming is a supportive form of exercise, but take it outdoors to a lake, river, beach, or tidal pool and BOOM. The exhilaration, endorphins, stress relief, the intense alive-ness and the glowing feeling you get for hours afterwards are like nothing else.
Regular open water swimmers have long been extolling its virtues for improving mental health, and in 2016, the first scientific case study published in the British Medical Journals showed that open water swimming could (in this case) in fact be used in place of medication to treat symptoms of depression and anxiety.
When we jump, dive, or tiptoe into cold water, the body experiences a stress response; increased heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. The more frequently we expose ourselves to this response, the easier the body finds it to deal with the feelings of depression and anxiety that can go hand in hand with stress. PLUS, endorphins are released to block the discomfort the body initially feels when it commences exercise, and we all know that endorphins make us feeling amazing.
The fabulous Allerthorpe Lakeland Park, where you can participate in all sorts of water sports including my holy grail, swimming, is about half an hour’s drive from York.
Spa pampering: top class me-time
If you are in York, you could take a short and picturesque train journey to the nearby spa town of Harrogate for some serious pampering and relaxation– it’s been renowned for spa and restorative experiences for body and mind for 200 years.
The River Ouse runs through York, and the River Foss is a tributary. Although swimming in the Ouse is NOT recommended (apart from at specific entry points, and never after a long downpour of rain when floods are likely), walks and boat trips along the river most certainly are. I took a lot of riverside walks and gentle bike rides during lockdown last summer, and felt a sense of Wind in the Willows nostalgia – cut off from cars, motorcycles, planes and trains, switched off from technology as I left my phone at home, concentrating on myself and my wellbeing.
Cycling and walking
If some brisker cardio is your bag, then there are loads of options. York has many cycle routes to explore. A popular one (it’s not too taxing and is very good for children) is the York Solar System Trail, which runs from Bishopthorpe in York to Riccall in Selby. You’ll cycle past models of the solar system on the route and will see information about each to-scale planet. The distance between each planet is also scaled.
For a longer walk, I can highly recommend the grounds and surroundings of Beningbrough Hall. Just a 20-minute drive from the centre of York, if offers a multitude of fun stuff to do. Take a brisk (or gentle!) walk through the woodland paths or the surrounding areas of the hall itself along the river, and then return to picnic on the lawn, look round the working kitchen garden, and let the children play in the wilderness play area.
Chill out post exercise
So after you’ve done some gentle exercise, or even something a little more invigorating, how about a massage? The UK-wide Neals Yard Remedies has a store on York’s beautiful Low Petergate, in the shadow of York Minster. I have a massage voucher that was given to me in Christmas 2019 (!) and I haven’t been able to take advantage of it yet; I can’t wait to use it. If you’re a massage fan, check out my pieces on foot massage and head and scalp massage on TR. York also has multiple independent massage practitioners available for your de-stressing pleasure!
Relaxing places to eat and drink
York residents are lucky to have the pick of many independent cafés with delicious menus. Goodramgate, a street in central York, has Coffee Culture, a friendly, quirky place with amazing coffee and lovely staff, and also The Habit, a café which also opens in the evening as a bar and regularly hosts live music and comedy. A small venue that makes the absolute most its three floors, it boasts Minster views from the roof garden.
Ippuku Tea House is a Japanese tea house in central York. On its menu are delicious authentic Japanese dishes, all are which are gluten-free and many vegan friendly.
Plush Café has been a revelation in York since it opened a couple of years ago. Loved by kids and adults alike, it’s an independently run venue with three specifically styled rooms; the Art Deco neon room, the garden room, and the bohemian room… They are all quirky, unique, and welcoming. Add to those a menu which has great vegan and gluten-free options and also unexpected joys like Jackson Pollock inspired nachos with blue yoghurt and pink chilli mayo, black coconut ice cream, and unicorn toast, and you have a recipe for a lot of giggling and maybe another brisk walk to calm the kids down…
The best thing about the activities mentioned here is that they are just the tip of the iceberg for anyone looking for a chilled out trip to York. So if you do have a chance to visit, take the opportunity to explore all the river walks, roof gardens, and relaxing parks and gardens you can – you won’t be disappointed.