A short article about my home town of Lancaster, an historic English city.
|Have you ever spent a few minutes or hours looking at holiday brochures and thinking ‘I wish I was there’? Or read a battered paperback copy of a Bill Bryson book and longed to travel in his footsteps? Maybe you’ve got one of those antique effect globes, and as you twirl it round you notice a small corner of the world you’ve never noticed before that you’d give anything to visit? I’ve done all of these. The places I like usually have beautiful scenery, things to see and do, and steeped in centuries of history. One day it dawned on me that I live in just such a place. It’s a common failing to look for answers far away when they are just on the doorstep. |
“Lancaster – An Historic City”. That’s what it says on the signs as you drive in, and Lancaster has as much claim to this title as any city I’ve visited. It’s a small city tucked away in the north west of England. To the north lies the rugged fells and picturesque scenery of the Lake Disctrict; to the east there are the Bowland Fells and beyond them the Yorkshire Dales; to the south lies miles of country roads, then the industrial heartland of Lancashire; to the East is the cold, windy Irish sea.
Lancaster is a city made of stone, and the stones themselves must have great stories to tell: the events they’ve witnessed, the thousands of people who have passed by, unaware that history itself watched down upon them. Much about its past is lost in time, but some buildings give up their history more easily. Around every corner there’s a heritage plaque on the wall, telling a little snippet of information about a bygone era.
Today it is a crisp, cold morning, the sort that heralds the turning of the seasons from autumn to winter. There’s not many people about, but the atmosphere of the city is all around. A short way along the main road that loops round the city is “Penny’s Hospital”. It was a hospital and almshouse built by the philanthropist William Penny. Set back slightly from the main road is a stone archway with a black wrought iron gate. On the stones above the gate a faded plaque reads “Anno 1720” and a Latin inscription. The gate is open, and a couple of steps up leads to an enclosed courtyard. Inside, flower beds fill the middle of the courtyard. Running along both sides of the courtyard are low, single storey terraces with bright blue doors and at the far end of the courtyard is another arch, with a small bell hanging from the top. Early on this cold autumn morning there are no clues as to its present use, the only person about is an old man stood in the courtyard, hugging his coat closer to himself for warmth. It’s not that this place is special that is so surprising, it is the fact that it isn’t. There’s no brash sign announcing it as a place to visit, there’s no museum, no gift shop or tea rooms. In Lancaster, it is just another building.
Next door to Penny's hospital is the 'Assembly Rooms', built in 1759 to provide revenue to assist in the continued running of the hospital. A lot of people must have passed through the doors of this building over the last 250 years, a lot of events and meetings must have taken place here. Today it functions as a market for books, antiques and assorted other bric-a-brac, with a cafe in the back.
Further down the street on the corner is the large bookshop I used to love spending time in as a child. I still do, but I don't go in there often enough these days - my bookshelves are already groaning under the weight of volumes still to be read. There's no little blue plaque on this building to give an indication of what it used to be but it surely hasn't always been a bookshop, and even if it had it would have once looked very different inside to what it does today. Round the corner from the bookshop, the next building is the Kings Arms Hotel. It's obviously existed as a hotel for a long time, as the plaque on the wall is testament to.
"Charles Dickens stayed here in 1857 & 1862 and said 'they give you bride cake every day after dinner'."
Dickens, the great Victorian writer, must surely have said something else more interesting about the place, but if he did those words are lost forever.
Further on up the road is the 'Castle and Priory Precinct', arguably the oldest part of Lancaster. On the corner before you turn right and start to walk up the hill, a few steps up from the pavement lead to a partially walled courtyard. Plain wooden benches line the inner walls of the courtyard, as well as a few small tables and chairs. At the back of the courtyard is a set of low wooden doors, black with a few flecks of paint peeling away to reveal the bare wood. A sign above the doorway reads ‘The Merchants 1688’. It is a pub which is very popular with the student populace, including myself when I was a student at Lancaster University. As you walk in it takes a little while to realise that the pub is actually underground, as it is set into the side of the hill. The place itself if made up of three long, rounded bays, which rumour has it used to be tunnels originating from the castle. How true that is though, I cannot say. It does a few good ales though, and the food isn’t bad either.
Back outside, the gradual upward incline leads on to Castle Hill, and on the left hand side is the imposing feature of Lancaster Castle. Originally built around the year 1200 atop the ruins of an ancient Roman fort, it is made entirely of stone. There is no moat or drawbridge now, just a steep grassy slope and a wide cobbled driveway leading to the main castle gate. The giant black wooden doors are shut and locked, though the portcullis is permanently raised. Unlike many others, Lancaster Castle isn’t a ruin, it is in fact the last fully working castle in England containing a prison and a magistrates court. You can still have guided tours, they just don’t let you in to see the prisoners!
Walking along the side of the castle gives you a good sense of just how big it is as it takes a minute or two to reach the end. Once past the castle though you come across its next door neighbour, Lancaster Priory & Parish Church. The Priory is even older than the castle, dating as it does from the 11th century. A church has stood on this site since at least 630AD, and possibly longer – Roman remains found under the Chancel give credence to that claim.
From the steps leading up to the Priory there are good views over Lancaster: in the foreground is the city centre, beyond that is the many rows of old stone terraces and then the Ashton Memorial, sat proudly on the hill opposite looking down over the city. A slight turn of the head reveals the River Lune and the quayside, once one of Britain’s busiest ports, its route to sea now long since cut off.
Lancaster has many more tales to tell, it has so far only shown us a brief glimpse of its past in a small corner of this historic city. But those stories will have to wait. For now.