Back to the River, Pt 1: Coney Street and the River Ouse

When walking along Coney Street it is easy to forget that it runs along the River Ouse. But in the past, the street and river used to be far more closely connected. In the second of our York Civic Trust workshops, we explored these historic connections, and considered the ways of reconnecting the street and river.

Historically, the Coney Street and the Ouse were physically connected by three passageways, called water lanes. The only one that still survives today is under the Guildhall: its entrance onto the riverside is still visible, but until the 1850s this passageway used to lead all the way up to the street.

The entrances to the 'Water Lanes' on the River Ouse. Common Hall Lane, under the Guildhall, is the only one that survives as a passageway today.

The water lanes were used to take people and goods to and from jetties on the river, helping to ease the traffic crossing the Ouse Bridge (until 1863 this was the only bridge crossing the Ouse in the city). The water lanes also supported life on the street - they were used by people fetching water from the river, as well as depositing household waste to be carried away by boat. Unlike our experience of the alleyways on Coney Street today, in the past, these water lanes were essential to life on the street.

The Ouse itself was different too. Its banks were wider, and prior to the building of the lock at Naburn, it was also tidal. As a result of the tide, there was also a tidal bore on the Ouse, which was a rushing wave caused by the incoming tide. The bore on the Ouse was known as the “Aegir”—the Old Norse word for a sea giant–and it was reported that its roar could be heard for miles around.

Although it is common now to see leisure boats on the Ouse, in the past, the river was also a commercial bloodline into the street and the city, with boats and barges carrying materials directly to businesses on the street, such as newsprint for the Yorkshire Evening Press.  This practice continued well into the last century.

Signwriter, Jim Pinder, on a newsprint barge. Yorkshire Evening Press, 1982.

Despite these past connections, there is no way of escaping the fact that today Coney Street has turned it back on the river. But there are several ways of reforging connections.

One of the main options could be through a riverside walkway. Although other suggestions have been made,  one of the most feasible ideas was put forward by Lord Esher in the 1960s. He argued for a riverside walk that passes in and out of buildings, perhaps with breaks for garden spaces. This would be a key way of making sure that the new walkway wouldn’t bypass the city, but instead bring interaction with businesses on Coney Street, and likewise preserve, and project out, the distinctive character of the street.

The view down to the River next to the City Screen Picturehouse cinema.

Another point of connection to revitalise could be the areas running perpendicular to the river, that is to and from the Ouse. The current alleyways could be spruced up through simple changes of paving and lighting, and how and where bins are stored. These small changes could dramatically change our experiences of these areas.

In turn, our glorious views down to the river (such as that over to North Street) must be prized and protected, rather than casually disregarded. More deliberate cultivation of these existing connections will not only help to reconnect the street and the river, but also help to celebrate the amazing heritage assets we already have.

But there are other options for making reconnections. For further inspiration, we turn to the participants in our workshop to provide further suggestions. To read about some of these, check out this blog.