The Shambles

The Shambles 2008

When in York visiting the Shambles is a must.  ‘The Shambles’ is sometimes used as a general term for the maze of twisting, narrow lanes which make York so charming.  At its heart is the lane actually called the Shambles, arguably the best preserved medieval street in the world.  It was mentioned in the Doomsday Book of William the Conqueror in 1086.  Many of the buildings on the street today date back to the late fourteenth and fifteenth century (around 1350-1475).

The Shambles was a street of butchers’ shops and houses, many complete with a slaughterhouse at the back of the premises, ensuring a ready supply of fresh meat.  The meat was hung up outside the shops and laid out for sale on what are now the shop window-bottoms.  It is still possible to see some of the original butcher’s meat-hooks attached to the shop fronts.

Lacking modern-day sanitation facilities, there was a constant problem of how to dispose of the waste produced by the slaughter of animals in the city.  The pavements are raised either side of the cobbled street to form a channel where the butchers would wash away their offal and blood twice a week.

In some sections of the Shambles it is possible to touch both sides of the street with your arms outstretched.  The architecture which now appears so quaint had a very practical purpose.  The overhanging timber-framed fronts of the buildings are deliberately close-set so as to give shelter to the ‘wattle and daub’ walls below.  This would also have protected the meat from any direct sunshine.

Why ‘Shambles’?

The name is thought to derive from ‘Shammel’, an anglo-saxon word for the shelves which were a prominent feature of the open shop-fronts.

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