You can't tell from the photo above, but in the middle of the day, this cobblestone street is packed. Throngs of tourists peer into store windows and pop into shops to buy picture postcards, jewelry or slabs of fudge. Walking tours wind through the crowds valiantly attempting to keep their group somewhat together.
What is this place and what's the big draw? It's the Shambles, a narrow street in York, England. This street is so old that it's mentioned in William the Conqueror's eleventh century Doomsday Book and is considered to be one of the best preserved medieval streets in Europe. In more recent memory, the Google Street Team named it the Most Picturesque Street in Britain, and it was part of the Olympic torch relay route in 2012.
Buildings dating back to the 1400s line the street and are sometimes so close that a particularly tall person like my hubby could stretch out his arms and touch both sides. A few of the timber framed, wattle and daub structures have overhangs that get wider and wider with each story so that only a few feet separate them at the top from the building across the lane. No need for binoculars to spy on the neighbors!
The longer version of the street's name is "The Great Flesh Shambles." Nice! Between that moniker and the Doomsday book mention, you might mistake it for the setting of a horror movie. (Quick history lesson: The Doomsday book is an invaluable historical document considered the final word of the ownership and value of all the lands in England at the time of the survey. It's not some hit list for Dr. Doom.) "Shambles" comes from the medieval Anglo-Saxon word "shamels" which means "shelves." Flesh shelves? These buildings used to house butcher shops where livestock was slaughtered in the back, and the butchered meats were displayed on shelves and hooks along the street.
I suppose that long before it was a tourist hot spot, it must have still been crowded with all the townspeople doing their shopping for the day's meal. A record from 1872 shows that 25 butcher shops were located along the Shambles. So instead of the smell of fresh fudge wafting out of shop doors, people would have smelled blood and guts. I bet it was an offal smell. (See what I did there?)
What I originally thought was a narrow street lined by sidewalks is actually an extra wide gutter. A few days each week, butchers would fling buckets of water across the ground in front of their stores to wash away the blood and offal into the giant gutter where it would flow away and be someone else's problem.
As I said, it's quite the tourist place-to-be during the day. Come by in the evening when the shops are closed and only a few cafes are open, and the people are scarce. It almost felt like a movie set. If I had to pick what fictional setting it may have inspired, I would say it is Harry Potter's Diagon Alley come to life.
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