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Keeping faith: York's Quaker community

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: View over the city from York Minster (photo © Borna Mirahmadian / dreamstime.com).


The city in northern England is well known for its important role in Anglican affairs, and many visitors also recall York's association with Catholic martyrs. But York has long been home to many dissenting traditions, and the spirit of the dissenters is today embodied in the Quaker life and spirit that plays so important a role in modern York.

There is more than one York. There is the walled city so beloved by tourists who throng the narrow lanes in the heart of York. Whip-ma-whop-ma-gate — what a fabulous name for a road — is not for the faint-hearted on a summer afternoon, when visitors jostle for space. The York of the tourist brochures is a city full of inviting footpaths (locally called snickelways), contorted gargoyles, ancient walls and — seen from the tower of the Minster — one of Britain’s most appealing roofscapes. It is a city famous for its chocolate and its trains.

And there is another York, the one of which most visitors to the city are hardly aware. That is Quaker York, for the city on the River Ouse boasts one of Europe’s largest Quaker communities. York’s Quakers have kept faith with themselves and with the outside world for well over three centuries.

The York beyond the Minster and the city’s other landmark buildings is the York of the mind, the York of the spirit. The city that boasts two universities and a hundred churches is a city of ideas, and Quaker thinking has played a central role in the evolution of modern York. Quakers (also known as members of the Religious Society of Friends) have underpinned York’s development as a city of business and a city of learning.

The finest introduction to Quaker York is not at the city’s grand railway station with its remarkable curved Victorian train shed, though the North Eastern Railway, which built the station, was a thoroughly Quaker enterprise. And successive generations of Friends held key engineering and management roles with the North Eastern. Nor should the visitor in search of York’s Quaker roots start at the cocoa factory on Haxby Road, though chocolate and Quakers are natural partners. Think Cadbury and Rowntree. Better a taste for chocolate than an addiction to the demon drink.

The Quakers have always been the perennial lone travellers on the highway of dissent, and the student of York’s Quaker history must forsake the main tourist trails and head out east towards Heslington to find the most remarkable gathering of York Friends.

Take the bus up to Thief Lane where, despite the name, you will not find pickpockets aplenty. Instead you will come to the Retreat, a place for those with troubled minds. We shall return to the Retreat — for are we not all troubled in one way or another?

Walk past the austere Georgian façade of the Retreat, and through the gardens beyond. The path leads on beside a bowling green and past farm buildings to one of York’s most remarkable hidden corners — a beautiful Quaker burial ground still used by the York Meeting of the Quakers today. There is no grand gate to the cemetery. Instead the meadows and coppice woodland merge imperceptibly into the graveyard. It is humble, understated and simple — so typical of the Quakers.

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