Forget the Romans. The Vikings can wait. You can have an entertaining time in York becoming an expert on the

vacuum cleaner at the Castle Museum's exhibition Every Home Should Have One. This collection of 20th-century domestic appliances traces the development of modern living and technology, based largely on the processes of cleaning, washing and cooking.

You can follow the vacuum cleaner through from the model from the early century that blew the dust off surfaces but neglected to collect it, through to the Nineties and the spherical Constellation which hovers along behind you.

There are typical kitchens and larders through the

decades where you can wonder at the poverty of post-war

groceries, and there is even a celebration of the development of the loo allowing kids to

snigger in disbelief at an original farmhouse two-seater.

The Castle Museum also offers a full-time reproduction Victorian street - unnecessary when there is so much real

history outside.

It's beautifully done, but the shops are full of Victorian relics that are clearly old, not new. There are interesting comparisons: some of the pottery,

silverware and jewellery could be contemporary, but the apothecary's dubious potions would raise some eyebrows.

When you look at the

candlemaker's workshop, with its rows of strings dripping with tallow, it seems incredible that only 100 years ago we relied on burning wicks for light.

York is a manageable city, small enough to explore on foot, yet containing a richness of historical interest and a thriving contemporary community. It is easy to reach from London - less than two hours by train - and the surrounding countryside offers stately homes, ruins, sea, moors, dales and rocks.

The city is defined by the creamy-white and crenellated 13th-century walls which encircle it almost completely, providing a roof-level walkway. The looming bulk of the Minster, the largest Gothic church in England, dominates every view.

York Minster is under repair - for renovations rather than the fire damage from 1984. Inside the vast edifice are many treasures, not least the ingenious chapter house roof, intricate stone carvings, and the rebuilt Rose Window. The great east window, installed in 1408, covers some 2,000 square feet. You are grounded in the past: the Undercroft Museum below your feet contains relics of the site's Roman and Saxon past. Looking up, from the nave to the roof, is heaven on earth. Even further above, the tower provides

panoramas over the city and all three Ridings.

York's other tall viewpoint, Clifford's Tower, is a cylind-rical keep perched on a grassy mound near the River Ouse. The body of Roger de Clifford, a Lancastrian leader executed in 1322, was dangled in chains from the tower.

Climb to the top these days and the greatest threat is to dieting chocaholics: on the skyline in the north west, the Rowntree factory is clearly visible, while Terry's in the south-east provides a sweet symmetry.

The name Terry is not only important in chocolate circles. Noel Terry amassed a collection of 18th-century furniture which now resides harmoniously in Fairfax House, a 1760s town house beautifully restored by the York Civic Trust.

There is no finer combination of house and contents open to the public. Nothing is roped off: you view the paintings as closely as you please.

In the late 10th century,

Jorvik (as York then was)served as the Viking capital of the North of England, an important port and trading centre and 1,000 years later the Jorvik Centre opened, to great acclaim.

Rather than look at a series of exhibits in glass cases, you are carried along a realistic reconstruction of a Viking street.

It's not some fanciful notion of a street either, but one built on the site unearthed by the York Archeological Trust digs in the late Seventies. On the way through you can see an area only partially uncovered,

clearly showing the timber frames of the buildings preserved in the damp clay. The mode of travel is a little four-seater car, like a golf cart, which glides silently along a magnetic strip in the floor. The slick presentation begins as you are drawn backwards, to symbolise the journey back in time; only when the illustrated layers of history have fallen away do you turn to face the front again, to trundle down the Viking main street.

It's an assault on all the

senses - special smells recreate the atmosphere of the fish merchant, the leather workshop, and of course the luxury privy, where a Viking sitting over a pit has some soft, strong and very long moss in hand.

You may appreciate the personal commentary from Viking expert Magnus Magnusson, piped into little speakers near your head.

Apart from confectionery and tourism, York makes a

living as the railway hub of the north, and the huge National Railway Museum is a fine monument to the tracks of history, from the Rocket to the Channel Tunnel. Even those who would cross the street to avoid a train-spotter cannot fail to be impressed by the size and awesome beauty of the steam locomotives.

As well as visiting the tourist set-pieces, just wandering the streets of York is a pleasure. With so many pedestrian areas and outdoor entertainments, the atmosphere is carnival-like - unhurried and relaxed.

Don't miss the Shambles - a well-named rickety little street of shops and houses, each one outgrowing its meagre plot so that, famously, it is possible to shake hands out of the upstairs window with someone across the street. At the eastern end is a tiny passage, Whip-ma-whop-ma-gate, with (at No one-and-a-half) a delightful tea-room. And if you've still some time to kill, many of

the high-street shops offer interesting displays of late 20th-century householdcleaning appliances.

Getting there: By rail from King's Cross

(071-278 2477); 1hour 45minutes; Apex return (book at least seven days in advance on 0800 450450) pounds 33, Super Saver (off-peak) pounds 45. National Express coach from Victoria Coach Station (071-730 0202); four hours; standard return pounds 25, or pounds 17.50 booked seven days in advance.

Attractions: Clifford's Tower, York Castle, Tower Street (0904 646940), open April-October daily 10am-6pm, Nov-March daily 10am-4pm; adults pounds 1.50, concessions pounds 1.10, children 75p (English Heritage Members free).

Castle Museum, opposite Clifford's Tower (0904 653611), open April-October

Mon-Sat 9.30am-5.30pm, Sun

10am-4pm; adults pounds 3.95, concessions pounds 2.85, family tickets (two adults and up to four children) pounds 11.

Fairfax House, Castlegate (0904 655543), open Feb 20-Jan 6, Mon-Sat 11am-5pm (Closed Fridays except in August), Sundays 1.30pm-5pm (last admission 4.30pm); adults pounds 3, concessions pounds 2.50, children

5-16 pounds 1.50.

Jorvik Viking Centre, Coppergate (0904 643211), open April-October 9am-7pm (last admission), November-March

9am-5.30pm; adults pounds 3.95, children pounds 2.

National Railway Museum, Leeman Road (0904 621261), open Mon-Sat 10am-6pm Sun 11am-6pm (last admissions 5pm), closed Dec 24, 25, 26; adults pounds 4.20, concessions pounds 2.80, children 5-15 pounds 2.10, family tickets (two adults and up to three children) pounds 11.50.

For further information contact the York Tourist Information Centre,

The De Grey Rooms, Exhibition Square, York Y01 2HB

(0904 621756); open Mon-Sat

9am-5pm (6pm from July 25),

Sun 10am-1pm.

(Photograph omitted)