York Minster

sights / Religious

Lonely Planet review

Not content with being Yorkshire's most important historic building, the remarkable York Minster is also the largest medieval cathedral in all of Northern Europe. Seat of the archbishop of York, primate of England, it is second in importance only to Canterbury, home of the primate of all England – the separate titles were created to settle a debate over whether York or Canterbury was the true centre of the English church.

But that's where Canterbury's superiority ends, for this is without doubt one of the world's most beautiful Gothic buildings. If this is the only cathedral you visit in England, you'll still walk away satisfied – so long as you have the patience to deal with the constant flow of school groups and organised tours that will inevitably clog up your camera's viewfinder.

The first church on this site was a wooden chapel built for the baptism of King Edwin of Northumbria on Easter Day 627, whose location is marked in the crypt. It was replaced with a stone church built on the site of a Roman basilica, parts of which can be seen in the foundations. The first Norman minster was built in the 11th century and again, you can see surviving fragments in the foundations and crypt.

The present minster, built mainly between 1220 and 1480, manages to encompass all the major stages of Gothic architectural development. The transepts (1220−55) were built in Early English style; the octagonal chapter house (1260−90) and nave (1291–1340) in the Decorated style; and the west towers, west front and central (or lantern) tower (1470−72) in Perpendicular style.

Choir, Chapter House & Nave

Entrance to these features of York Minster is via the south transept, which was badly damaged by fire in 1984 but has been fully restored. To your right is the 15th-century choir screen depicting the 15 kings from William I to Henry VI. Facing you is the magnificent Five Sisters Window , with five lancets rising more than 15m high. This is the minster's oldest complete window; most of its tangle of coloured glass dates from about 1250. Just beyond it to the right is the 13th-century chapter house, a fine example of the Decorated style. Sinuous and intricately carved stonework (there are more than 200 expressive carved heads and figures) surrounds an airy, uninterrupted space.

Back in the main church, take note of the unusually tall and wide nave. From the aisles to the sides are roofed in stone, in contrast to the central roof, which is wood painted to look like stone. On both sides of the nave are painted stone shields of the nobles who met with Edward II at a parliament in York. Also note the dragon's head projecting from the gallery – it's a crane believed to have been used to lift a font cover. There are several fine windows dating from the early 14th century, but the most impressive is the Great West Window (1338), with its beautiful heart-shaped stone tracery.

Beyond the screen and choir is the lady chapel and, behind that, the high altar , dominated by the huge Great East Window (1405). At 23.7m by 9.4m – roughly the size of a tennis court – it is the world's largest medieval stained-glass window and the cathedral's single-most important treasure. Needless to say, its epic size matches the epic theme it depicts: the beginning and end of the world, as described in Genesis and the Book of Revelations .

Undercroft, Treasury & Crypt

A set of stairs in York Minster's south transept leads down to the undercroft, where you'll also find the treasury and crypt – on no account should these be missed. In 1967 the foundations were shored up when the central tower threatened to collapse. As engineers worked frantically to save the building, archaeologists uncovered Roman and Norman remains that attest to the site's ancient history. One of the most extraordinary finds is a Roman culvert , still carrying water to the River Ouse. The treasury houses 11th-century artefacts, including relics from the graves of medieval archbishops.

The crypt contains fragments from the Norman cathedral, including the font showing King Edwin's baptism, which also marks the site of the original wooden chapel. Look out for the Doomstone , a 12th-century carving showing a scene from the Last Judgement with demons casting doomed souls into Hell.

Improved access and new exhibitions planned for the undercroft are scheduled to open some time in 2013.

Tower

(adult/child £6/3.50, combined ticket incl Minster £14/3.50) At the heart of York Minster is the massive tower, which is well worth climbing for its unparalleled views of York. You'll have to tackle a fairly claustrophobic climb of 275 steps and, most probably, a queue of people with cameras in hand. Access to the tower is near the entrance in the south transept, dominated by the exquisite Rose Window commemorating the union of the royal houses of Lancaster and York through the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, which ended the Wars of the Roses and launched the Tudor dynasty.