After an interesting morning exploring the nearby town of Morecambe, we got the bus back to Lancaster to explore the historic city centre…
Status: City of Lancaster District, Lancashire, City, England
Travel: Virgin Trains (Preston – Lancaster), Virgin Trains (Carlisle – Lancaster)
Eating & Sleeping: Market Street Chippy
Attractions: Lancaster Castle, River Lune, Millennium Bridge, Slavery Monument, City Museum, Lancaster Priory, Lancaster Cathedral, Lancaster Canal, Judges Lodgings, Ashton Memorial etc
After our morning in Morecambe, we got the bus back to Lancaster just after lunch and spent the whole afternoon in Lancaster city centre. We only headed home late in the evening, after an interesting day of exploring the historic county town of Lancashire.
Lancaster is a beautiful old city and the historic county town of Lancashire, although most County functions were moved to nearby Preston. Lancaster was granted city status in 1937, as it has long been a property of the crown, along with most of Lancashire as part of the Royal Duchy of Lancaster.
I have been meaning to visit my ancestral seat for a long time and I couldn’t wait to get out and explore more of the city. The River Lune flows through the city from it’s source in Cumbria, and then out into the North Sea.
It’s not far from the station to all the main attractions in the city. One of the most prominent features is the Castle, which you can see on a hill on the way in on the train. On the way up to the Castle, which was our first major stop, we passed the Judge’s Lodgings, a town house from 1625. The first owner, in 1639 was Thomas Covell, who at the time was the Mayor of Lancaster and the Keeper of the Castle, and was also a convenient stopping point for visiting judges to the city.
When the Civil War hit Lancaster in 1643, the building was badly damaged, and changed hands in 1662 to Thomas Cole, the deputy Lieutenant of Lancaster. He did the building up, and extended it by 1675.
The final owner of the building was the County Magistrates in 1826, and judges stopped visiting by 1975, at which time it was converted into a fascinating museum, retaining the historic interiors. Exhibits include the Museum of Childhood and some very old furniture from the original building.
Just a few metres further up the hill, you reach the top and the commanding presence of Lancaster Castle can be felt. The Castle used to be a prison for Her Majesty’s Government. It is now closed but still has various functions.. The castle does have a visitor centre at the front with a small shop, and on the wall is an aerial shot of the whole complex, which is shown to be quite extensive.
Built in the 11th century to replace a Roman Fort on the side, the castle came under Royal Control in 1164. Two Scottish raids in 1322 and 1389 damaged the castle but Lancaster did halt their progress through England and they had to turn back. This was the last active combat the castle would see until the Civil War. It’s history as a prison began in 1196 when prisoners were first held here, and during the Civil War this role was expanded upon. It continued as a prison until 1916 when there just weren’t enough prisoners left, however it was put to good use in World War I when it held German Prisoners of War. After this it again ceased prison functions, but in the 1930’s it was used to train the local Police Force by Lancashire County Council. The Home Office took a lease out on the castle in 1954 and turned it into a modern prison, which closed in 2011, and the lease will expire in 2014, after which the Castle will become a permanent attraction open to the public.
If you walk around the whole of the outer walls, see if you can spot the hanging corner, which is where public executions were held until 1865. After this, the laws changed and people had the right to be executed in private so these functions moved into the main castle itself.
I love the Castle, it’s a fantastic monument and Castle’s are quite rare in Lancashire, so to have some a well preserved example in our most historic city is brilliant.
When you pass around to the Castle Gift Shop, opposite you is Lancaster Priory. Another medieval building like the Castle, the architecture is sublime. It’s history began in 1094 when the original building was constructed. It was extended in 1360 with the Nave being widened, and reconstructed in 1540 as it had been abolished by Henry VIII as it was part of the abbeys culture, and it became the Parish Church for Lancaster.
A new tower was built in 1759 after the first version had to be demolished due to its deteriorating condition in 1753. We didn’t go inside at the time as we had a lot left to see in the rest of the city but next time we are in Lancaster I would be interested in exploring it.
The view from up here is fantastic, looking into the valley and the surrounding hills. On the left you can see the Headless Memorial which was once of a beautiful woman, until vandals knocked the head and the hands off.
We found a little path leading down and we followed it to see if we could get a clearer view of the river. It was here we found something unexpected, and another chapter in the cities long history.
These are the remains of a Roman Bath House, thought to date to 367 AD. It was only discovered in the 1970’s, and subsequently excavated. It is thought that it was part of a large courtyard belonging to a grand house, probably that of a Roman Official. They were demolished in 340 AD and a new Roman Fort replaced it, which itself was replaced by the Castle.
There are a few walls on the ground as well as one wall rising much higher at the edge of the site. There is no charge to visit it, it’s completely open and you can visit any time of day. It’s a nice little find, in the middle of a little field as we were exploring. It’s things like this that make travelling so interesting, you never know what you are going to find.
We had a break from hill climbing, and wandered through Lancaster Marketplace, past the beautiful Lancaster City Museum, housed in the above building. This is the original Town Hall, designed by Major Thomas Jarrett in the late 18th Century, and later built between 1781 and 1783. It is similar in design to the current Town Hall, although it’s slightly smaller. Extensions followed in both 1871 and 1886, before all functions were moved to the new building in 1910. It became a Museum in 1923, and contains the King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) as well as information about the city itself, including an old Roman Tombstone, found here in 2005 that is thought to date back to 100 AD.
Off to the left of the Old Town Hall is Lancaster Library, a stunning building that blends in perfectly with the old surroundings of the Square. A large stone in the side of the building states that it was laid by the Mayor of Lancaster, Councillor J.Hodkinson on the 9th of June 1931, giving a good date reference for the building.
The main shopping centre in Lancaster is called the Marketgate Shopping Centre which was built in 1995. Close to this is the St Nicholas Arcade (1989 – 1990) shown above, which has an odd layout, as there are two entrances along this street. If you enter one and follow it around you emerge at the other entrance, back onto the road you just left, so you have to cut through Boots to get to the main road behind it where the Town Hall is. It is well decorated inside however, and surrounded by the local pedestrianised streets which contain all the usual shops you might expect in the typical city.
Our next destination was Lancaster Cathedral, and we passed the old Royal Albert Hospital from 1870 which is now a school.
We passed over the Lancaster Canal and decided to head down and explore it. It just so happens it was good timing that we did, as the rain started up again and it thundered down, and we took refuge under one of the bridges over the canal. When the rain receded, we emerged and got a great view back down the canal with the spire of the Cathedral rising above it. The Canal itself extends to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal further south into Lancashire, whilst North it extends into Cumbria.
The Cathedral was completed in 1901, work taking nearly 50 years from the ground breaking in 1857. It looks much older but is relatively recent compared to other Cathedrals. It began life as a parish church, not becoming a Cathedral until 1924. Unfortunately the Cathedral was shut that day, so we moved on.
Another rain burst followed, so we sheltered on the steps of the Town Hall, a fabulous old building with columns around the entrance. As we waited here for the rain to ease up, we got a great view over at the Queen Victoria Monument situated in Dalton Square directly opposite us. The monument was the 2nd gift to the city by James Williamson, 1st Baron Ashton (1842 – 1930, British Businessman), and given in 1906. Queen Victoria passed away 5 years previous in 1901. The monument is topped by a Statue of Victoria, with a lion at each corner of the monument keeping guard on the square.
When the rain let up we nipped into Dalton Square to get a picture looking back at the Town Hall itself which was also a gift from James Williamson in 1909, to replace the existing Town Hall in the Market Square, now the City museum. The Architect responsible was E.W. Mountfield who also designed Sheffield City Hall.
The next leg our of exploration of the city took place at the riverside, where we found the Slavery Memorial. Sadly in the 18th century Lancaster was the fourth largest slave port in Britain with over 200 ships leaving here to capture slaves. In 2005 the Memorial was unveiled to pay tribute to anyone taken by the city.
Moving on, we crossed the Millennium Bridge built in 2000 in to commemorate the Millennium Year. It forms a Y shape with two entrances on the city centre side coming into the main section which then crosses the river.
After crossing back over the bridge, we continued down the quayside and spotted the railway bridge carrying the West Coast Mainline from London Euston – Glasgow Central through the city. The Quayside is covered in benches so we had chance to stop and relax at this point whilst the weather held.
This railway bridge has steps up to the top and a walkway down the side that foot passengers can use, separated from the trains by a metal fence. From here we got the best view so far of one of Lancaster’s best known buildings.
This is the Ashton memorial, which is up on a hill just outside of Lancaster city itself. It is the closest point to the exact centre of the United Kingdom, the “Mathematical Centre Point”. It was built by Baron James in memory of his second wife, Jessy, who died in 1880. The building took three years to build, from 1907 to 1909, and has a copper dome and the outer walls are made out of Portland stone. A fire damaged it in 1962, and restoration work took until 1987. The monument was closed in 1981 to allow for this as it had become unsafe. The monument is open to the public, and at 150 feet tall it is the dominating feature in the surrounding area.
This is the railway bridge we were stood on, and we crossed it to the other side of the Lune to a look back across the city. The River has silted up since it was a major port,when Lancaster was one of the busiest ports in the country. The nearby coastal village of Heysham now serves as the main port in the area.
I get the train quite often from Preston up to Carlisle in Cumbria and this is my favourite view on the entire route as you get a view like this as the train crosses the railway bridge. You can see the old buildings along the quayside, the Ashton Memorial, the spire of the Cathedral, and the Dome/Clock Tower of the Town Hall. In the foreground is the Millennium Bridge, a footbridge that you can use to cross the Lune. The view is magnificent, and even better on a lovely sunny day.
On the way back to the station we passed another set of old buildings, one of which has a plaque on it identifying a distinguished visitor who once stayed there. This is the Royal Kings Arms Hotel, originally built back in 1625. A rebuild too place in 1879, leaving the building you see today. The plaque on the side states that:
“Charles Dickens stayed here in 1857 and 1862. ‘They gave you bride cake every day after dinner'”.
He certainly sounded impressed with his stay, and Dickens (1812 – 1870) is of course one of the great literary writers of England and the Victorian Era, and fondly remembered for such classics as “The Old Curiosity Shop – 1840-41”, “A Christmas Carol – 1843” and “Great Expectations – 1860-61”, amongst many others.
He would also have stayed then in the previous version of the building, and he even went on to write about it in one of his books, called “The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices – 1857” and the quote on the plaque also comes from this story. He visited in 1857 with Wilkie Collins (1824 – 1889), with whom he wrote the novel.
Across the street from the Royal Kings Arms is “The Storey” a large building which contains a Tourist Information Office, Cafe and Exhibition Spaces.
It is another grand Victorian Building, and was built between 1887 and 1891, as part of the celebrations for Queen Victorias Golden Jubilee in 1887. As the name suggests, it was paid for by Thomas Storey, Lancaster Mayor for the Jubilee Year. The building was called the Storey Institute in 1891, and contained various features including a Gallery, School of Art and a Music Room. Another Royal event allowed the building to be extended between 1906 and 1908, when King Edward VII (1841 – 1910) came to the throne, as a celebration. It was once again paid for by a Storey, Thomas’s son Herbert. In 1968 the Art collection was moved into the City Museum and new artwork was eventually established here in the 1990’s, before becoming just “The Storey” today with the features I listed at the start of this section.
So that is Lancaster, a beautiful city, with lots of history, sights and adventure. I love visiting the city, and as a proud Lancastrian it feels fantastic to walk around the most important city in the county, full of history, grand buildings and great experiences.
It is well connected, with the M6 running directly past the City (North for the Lake District, Carlisle and Scotland, South for Preston and Birmingham) as well as the West Coast Mainline running through the town towards Carlisle, Glasgow and Edinburgh from London, Birmingham and Preston.
Lancaster is a very pleasant city, and the historic county sea of my beautiful home county of Lancashire, which makes it a special city to me. So check it out, and have a great time.