York Castle Museum: One of the Best Museums in the Country

by eHeritage Blogazine
December 8, 2021 | 10 min read

York Castle Museum: One of the Best Museums in the Country

The front of York Castle Museum

I realised recently that it had been a while since I last visited York Castle Museum – or any museum for that matter! This blog has largely focused on historic houses and castles of late, but other than a visit to Cadbury World last year, I felt I needed to do more to support our awesome museums.

Whilst spending a few days in York with my daughter Oaklie, I decided to take her to York Castle Museum. Often considered one of the best museums in Yorkshire, and one of the best in the country, York Castle museum takes you on a self guided interactive journey through York’s fascinating history.

I was sure I was going to find something here to keep this excitable 2 year old entertained

As usual, I wanted to have a nice day out with my daughter, and having visited the Castle Museum a number of times myself in the past, I was sure I was going to find something here to keep this excitable 2 year old entertained (at least for a few moments!). If your looking for a family day out in Yorkshire, or just want to learn more about our fantastic city, then the Castle Museum might just what you’re looking for.

About The Castle Museum

Situated almost in the centre of York, the Castle Museum occupies part of the old court and prison complex – an area known as the ‘eye of York’. This central position in York is easily identifiable by the presence of Cliffords Tower, the last remaining part of York Castle. In fact, the museum, along with Clifford’s Tower, and the current Crown Court building, all sit within the inner bailey of what was once York Castle. The eye of York literally oozes history, and as such feel like you have stepped back in time before you even enter the 1970’s style museum entrance.

A birds eye view of York Castle Museum and the Crown Court comples

A brief history of the Castle Museum

Much of the castle was demolished in the Eighteenth Century, to make way for the prison and court complex, which now largely houses the Castle Museum. The castle museum is thus an integral part of York’s history, as not only does it tell they story of York, it encapsulates part of York’s history in the historic buildings it occupies.

The Castle Museum is largely split into two main areas. There is the section to the left which houses the bulk of the museum exhibits, and the popular ‘Kirkgate’, and the section to the right which houses the prison, the 1960’s exhibition, and the outside section (which we will get to later). These two sections of the museum are joined in the middle by a large reception area which also contains the museum shop and cafe.

Exploring the museum

As you can imagine, a museum such as this one is always going to be popular with school children. We attended on a Wednesday and on our arrival there were a couple of school groups congregating in the reception area, waiting to go in. This gave the impression the museum was going to be quite busy (it actually wasn’t).

I proceeded to explain to Oaklie what it was like growing up without mod cons in the 90’s, then I realised I was only 34 and I sounded like my own dad!

York Castle Museum Prices are fairly reasonable. Entry to the museum costs £10.90 for adults (£12 with gift aid), and £4 for kids aged 5 – 16. As a tight Yorkshire man, I was pleased to find I didn’t have to pay for Oaklie, as under 5’s are free! I was naturally keen to get in before the school group, and we quickly made our way past the excitable children, and up the steps to the first section of the museum.

Dr Kirk’s bygones

The first section you enter is a small exhibition room which displays bygones collected by the museums founding father, Dr John Kirk. This area also contains a number of fully furbished period rooms, which depict home settings in the Georgian and Victorian periods. I always find this particularly fascinating, as you can really get into the zone, and imagine what it must have been like living in days gone by.

I proceeded to explain to Oaklie what it was like growing up without mod cons in the 90’s, then I realised I was only 34 and I sounded like my own dad!

Toy stories

I could really relate to the next section as it served as a shrine to toys from the past 150 years. Kids of today will never understand the frustration of having to wait several hours (days?) for a Commodore 64 game to load, only for you to die instantly and have to repeat the whole incredible process all over again!

The Toy Stories exhibition at York Castle Museum

Shaping the body

The next area you enter is the main exhibition hall. I have seen many different exhibitions on show here over they years, but at the time of writing this is ‘shaping the body’. The Castle Museum describes this as an exhibition which charts the way fashion, food and fitness have shaped the body over the last 400 years. This is a really lovely exhibition with plenty of interesting, colourful and flamboyant outfits and fashion accessories on display.

Shaping the Body exhibition at York Castle Museum
The Shaping the Body exhibition at York Castle Museum

A full sized recreation of a Victorian Street

As you progress through the next part of the museum there are plenty of other areas to explore, but the real jewel in the museums Crown is the utterly incredible Kirkgate. This is a full sized recreation of a Victorian Street. There are actors on hand, walking the streets and working within the various shops and businesses, and at certain times times the lights change to reflect different times of the day.

Its like exploring a film set, and its utterly captivating!

This is such a fantastic area to explore, and if you have a bit of time on your hands you can discover the back alleys, the school room, Police station, and other brilliantly themed areas. Its like exploring a film set and its utterly captivating! At the age of 2, I was suprised at how much my daughter loved Kirkgate. Oaklie loved meeting the actors, and they were so friendly and lovely to talk to.

Interestingly, just after our visit the street was shut for the filming a romantic drama called ‘Let There Be Love’. This major TV production is set to grace our screens at Christmas, and features Roger Ashton-Griffiths from Game of Thrones. It goes to show how well presented Kirkgate is!

The Victorian street 'Kirkgate' at York Castle Museum
The incredible Kirkgate Victorian Street at York Castle Museum. Possibly the earliest street recreations in the world!

I literally could have spent all day exploring Kirkgate, but we had to move on. Finding ourselves back in the reception area, we made our way through to the second half of the museum.

Dodging bullets in the trenches

The first area you enter is another brilliantly themed area. Dedicated to the men and women who died and lived through WW1, you begin by entering a train cart, before passing through into mock trenches. Kids will be keen to get hands on with genuine weapons and replicas, and the show cabinets containing military hardware and equipment will keep even the youngest minds interested.

An exhibition themed like a WW1 bunker at York Castle Museum
The incredible 1914 WW1 bunker exhibition

Raindale Mill and the castle gatehouse

Having escaped the trenches with our lives in tact, we entered the external courtyard, and passed through an old section of the castle walls in search of Raindale Mill. This lovely, operational mill, is staffed by passionate volunteers and if you attend at certain times of the day, you can see it in operation. From here, you can also view the section of castle wall you passed through on your way outside. I am personally fascinated by this section of wall as this once served as the gatehouse to York Castle, and other than Clifford’s Tower, is all that remains of the castle complex.

Raindale Mill at York Castle Museum

The swinging Sixties

Heading back inside, the penultimate area to explore is the brilliant sixties exhibition. This incredible space is jam packed full of colourful and iconic objects from this cultural decade.

The sixties exhibition and street at York Castle Museum.
The sixties exhibition is set within a street, complete with store fronts

Dick Turpin’s cell and the stories of the condemned

The final area though, like Kirkgate, is utterly fascinating to explore. The castle Prison represents a significant slice of the cities history, and is actually based within the original prison building. In fact, the cells and corridors that make up this incredible exhibition, are actual features of the Eighteenth Century prison. These dark and dingy prison cells are set up to tell the stories, of actual detainees of the prison – most famously Dick Turpin himself! Interactive TV displays and holograms projected onto the walls, tell the horrific tales of these condemned soles, and this really brings the history of the prison to life.

Dick Turpin's Cell at York Castle Museum
Dick Turpin’s cell at York Castle Prison

The once thing I would say, is that this area is pretty dark, so kids (and adults) of a more sensitive nature, might want to sit it out. My daughter didn’t appear phased by it, and was fascinated by the videos being projected onto the walls around the prison.

Final Words

York Castle Museum, is in my opinion, one of the best museums in the Country. I have been coming to the museum for years, and have continued to be absolutely captivated by the real life stories that has been so cleverly brought to life through excellent themed areas, and interactive exhibitions.

This is not your traditional stuffy museum. The Castle museum is something entirely different. What the museum does so well, is to bring the real life stories of York’s past character and residents to life, and it literally transports you back into the history of York. There are few museums that can make you feel like you have gone back in time, and the Castle museum does this to incredible effect.

this is not one of those museums where you have to stand around reading plaques

The museum is massive and you could easily spend the day exploring it all. Visiting with a 2 year old, it was not possible to stay in each area for too long. That said, this is not one of those museums where you have to stand around reading plaques if you don’t want to. You can experience the history by just being there. I would very much like to go back on my own, but I think my daughter really did enjoy exploring the different areas of this incredible interactive museum.

For families looking for a great day out with the kids, or things to do this weekend, or for anybody wanting to learn a bit more about the City of York, or Social History in general, the York Castle Museum is literally one of the best days out to be had, not only in Yorkshire, but in the country. With reasonable prices, and plenty of places to park, York Castle Museum represents a fantastic day out.

For more on York Castle Museum check out their website here.

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Any thoughts, tips or questions?

I’m Mikey Holden. I have a real passion for historical places. I’ve always loved visiting colossal houses and castles, daydreaming about the schemes that have been thought up within their walls, keen to discover the stories waiting to be told. I am a heritage travel blogger with a simple mission: To discover, explore and photograph historical places in Yorkshire and beyond.

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