The Shambles, York England

The Shambles Audio Guide

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The Shambles Quick Facts

  • The Shambles is a narrow, cobbled medieval street that was used to sell fresh meat under the shade of almost touching buildings.
  • Animals were slaughtered in the back yard that were taken from nearby York Cattle Market at Walmgate.
  • The almost touching upper stories above the cobbles served a purpose. They were designed this way to shield the fresh meat from direct sunlight as there were no electric freezers during this period of time.
  • The Shambles comes from Danish ‘fleshamels’ which denotes fresh meat and the window ledge shelving the meat was sold upon.

Where to Find The Shambles

York Shambles is one of the most photographed streets in York, if not in the whole of England. Shambles is an old Danish word that comes from “fleshamels” which denotes a street of butchers. Raw, fresh meats were sold on the street and the “flesh” was the meat whereas the “amels” was the large window ledge where the meat was sold. 

Freshly slaughtered meat was sold down The Shambles upon window ledges shaded by the almost touching roofs above.
Freshly slaughtered meat was sold down The Shambles upon window ledges shaded by the almost touching roofs above.

One of the extraordinary things about The Shambles in York is how the top of the houses nearly meet in the middle to the point you could handshake with your neighbours out of the upper windows. You might think that this is a flaw in construction but in actual fact they were especially designed this way. Its purpose was to shield the meat being sold below from the direct sunlight. Of course, meat was as fresh as it came as the animals would come from York Cattle Market in Walmgate. Horrifically, animals were slaughtered in the back yard with a channel containing their blood running through the street. Offal was left to rot, no doubt prompting the plagues during the 14th and 15th centuries. 

Mind Your Head! 

The term “gardez l’eau” carries a warning. If you were to hear this cry from above you, you would need to move very quickly. This is because gardez l’eau means that someone is emptying their chamber pot out into the street below. Of course, today York has indoor plumbing! 

At the foot of The Shambles you will notice a wooden framed building across the road.  Up until recently this was a shoe shop. It originally was occupied by Sir Thomas Herbert who was a personal assistant to King Charles I and even attended him at his execution in the capital city. After the execution, Sir Thomas Herbert was now jobless and he retired back to York. It is thought that King Charles gave him his pocket watch. This is of particular interest because it is the first recorded account of a watch being given as a retirement gift! 

Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate 

Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate is the shortest street in York and ironically possibly has the longest name!
Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate is the shortest street in York and ironically possibly has the longest name!

Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate is the shortest street in York comprising of only 3 properties.  However, the numbers of the properties are 1, 1a, and 1 and a half. The property identifier never reaches 2.  You will find this street between Colliergate and Fossgate and it intersects The Pavement and The Stonebow. 

At the foot of Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate you will notice a church in the direction of looking towards the town centre. This is All Saints Church and it has a somewhat unusual tower. This tower is in fact a lantern that was lit at night. Its purpose was to guide travellers back to the city. It is worthy to remember that in medieval times, the surrounding countryside was a vast woodland known as the Forest of Galtres.  This woodland was certainly not a place you would wish to spend time in at night due to robbers and wild animals.