11 October 2013

North Street, York - Past, Present & Fictional

I’ve always loved maps, and the various Ordnance Survey maps of Britain have been a source of fantastic research detail for a lot of my fiction. I’m currently writing The Bull At The Gate, the second in the Torc of Moonlight trilogy, set in modern and Roman York, and managed to get my hands on a map which superimposes Roman finds on the street detail of modern York. Manna from heaven.

One particular road caught my eye – North Street – in what would have been the Roman town of Eboracum sitting opposite the fortress across the river. Why would a street that runs more or less east-west on the south side of a river be called North Street?

At its western end the road junctions with Tanner Lane – yes, there were Roman tanneries in the area – but this lane was once twice its width, being the main Roman road from the fortress, across its piered bridge, cutting through the colonia of Eboracum before striking south to Calcaria (Tadcaster).

The river was wider then and although modern North Street was lapped by water, the later site of All Saints’ Church was not. There doesn’t seem to be any records of a religious house prior to this Norman-built church, so it’s difficult to ascertain what is beneath its foundations.  As well as having spectacular stained glass windows detailing ‘The Pricke of Conscience’, it has two fragmented Roman columns helping to support a roof that was extended at the end of the 12th century. 

All Saints' Church, North Street, showing the different columns detail

Do I take from this that Roman masonry was still lying around to be recycled? The columns are only slim, nothing of the size of the column from the fortress found beneath York Minster and now re-sited outside its southern door, so they could have come from a small temple or a private dwelling.

For the novel I needed to site a fictionalised Temple of Luna close to the river. What better place? To find that the current All Saint’s Church has a shrine to St Mary and, before the Reformation tore it down, an anchorhold for a visionary anchoress who dispensed wisdom… what more could I ask for?

And who knows? There's an awful lot of 17-19th century York sitting on top of unexcavated Eboracum. A Temple of Luna may yet turn up. I wouldn't like to lay a bet against it.

Often the best place to start research for a novel is with a map.


  1. You're right, Linda. And how else would a writer convincingly convey a sense of place when using a real location? Glad you made the discovery. But don't go digging up bits of York, will you? The authorities may take a dim view...

  2. Google's Steetview is also wonderful for visual detail, and as a reminder. But no, I don't wander the back-alleys (sorry, snickets) of York with a trowel & paintbrush in hand. I get enough strange looks as it is. LOL!

  3. You're right about maps. I suspect a lot of novelists can get positively geekish about them. Oh and I don't believe that stuff about the paint brush and trowel. You know far too much about what lies just a trowel's length below ground. I reckon you're digging up bits of old England every chance you get.

  4. Oh Penny, I'd *love* to dig up bits of Olde England, but it's the olde knees, y'know. Since Celtic dwellings were discovered when flattening the land for a playing field at my new school (I was 11) I've never got over the awe of realising that we walk and do where others have walked and done before us.