Lancaster has a dark and Gothic history that reflects in the architecture and stories of old times. A slave trade, witch trials, prison tales and quicksands where travellers or fishermen have disappeared are all part of the town’s colourful history.
Literary Lancaster, a booklet put together by Dr. Penny Bradshaw, gives an overview of the famous author’s impressions and their connections to the area. The book is structured as a self-guided tour of the literary significant and inspiring locations.
Lancaster and a mystical crossing of the Sands was appreciated by such famous authors as Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth (a Romantic poet whose home-museum I had a chance to visit in the Lake District), Carol Ann Duffy, Elizabeth Gaskell and Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe whose works are mentioned in Jane Austin books on multiple occasions.
“In September 1857 Charles Dickens set out on a Northern tour with his fellow novelist Wilkie Collins. The purpose of the trip was to gather ideas for a story which they might write together. The product of their excursion was The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices which was published in Household Words in October 1857.”
“Literary Lancaster” by Dr Penny Bradshaw
With the help of “Literary Lancaster” and my own curiosity, I venture around the town and the surrounding area during my visit to Lancaster over a long weekend.
The Lancaster Castle
The fortification in the center of the town is among its main attractions. As a testimony to the dark past of our law enforcement, it’s a creepy reminder of the horrors that human ignorance has caused. Also, it’s a really neat, nicely gloomy experience. The kind one might get from reading one of Stephen King novel; you know you are safe and it will (probably) turn out all right but it still gives you these creepy shivers down your spine.
The castle was, until recently, used as a prison and is still in use as a courthouse. Consequently, it’s not possible to roam around on your own, but as a tour is part of the entrance fee and the guide turns out to be knowledgeable, I don’t consider it a great loss.
Elaborately decorated courtrooms form a sharp contrast with the horrid factoids we are told along the way. For example, there is a hand clamp and a branding iron for a first time small offenders. Have you ever wondered why people raise their hand when taking the oath as seen in courtroom dramas? That’s where the branding iron would leave a mark, saving some trouble of keeping previous offender records.
Any theft over 12p was a hanging offense. To put that in perspective with inflation, records show that one prisoner was hanged for stealing a handkerchief that was valued to cost exactly 12p.
Probably the best known historic incident is the trial of the Pendle witches. A man having what probably was a stroke triggered a witch-hunt that led to the hanging of ten people. The whole process took only a few weeks and the main witness was a child made to testify against her own family.
Among other factoids from history, we learn the difference between the short-rope and long-rope hanging. It boils down to a duration of the process. Thankfully the preference has been towards the faster solutions.
By the end of the tour, we are offered a chance to experience the situation of prisoners. With some giddiness and a self-daring expression, almost half of our group crowd into a bare cell, to have the door closed on us for 20 seconds. With ten of us in here, the population density is told to be pretty realistic. Standing in the dark with others only a few centimeters away, there is one simple question in my mind, “where did they go when they needed to go?” I really don’t like the obvious answer my mind presents me with.
My next visit is to a period house across the street from the castle, the Cottage Museum. Narrow staircases, tiny rooms, and archaic washing facilities make me inquire if this the way that poor people lived in the 18th century? The lady who is a volunteer for the day smiles at my question and explains that, no, the family would have been well off, even possibly had a servant. Trying to see how a large family could comfortably fit here, I conclude that the term middle-class has changed a lot since Victorian times.
City museum and A History of Magic Exhibition
It’s still early in the day and I continue my way along the crowded central street to the Lancaster City Museum. The permanent exhibition is an overview of Lancaster history starting from the stone-age, through the Roman and Viking era to the Victorian and more recent times.
It appears that the laundry theme is also strong here (as in The Castle and the Cottage museum). Reading through the description of this extremely labor-intensive task fills me with gratitude towards the inventor and producers of modern washing machines.
Turns out that in addition to the permanent collection, the ground floor is taken up by British Library’s Harry Potter: A History of Magic Exhibition.
The exhibit includes familiar articles from the Harry Potter films as well as the history of alchemy, etc. The neighboring room has a collection based on witchcraft in history and popular culture. Among other artifacts is the first edition of the “The Lancashire Witches” by William H. Ainsworth that is still in print and read by many, even after 169 years.
Such is the human nature that an exhibition that was sold out in the British Library is nearly empty here. Despite the free entrance (or because of it), I have the room for myself to enjoy.
Williamson Park and the Aston memorial made another nice half a day of exploration. The day was windy and sky clouded, adding a bit of a mystical element to a view of the town. A small way from the center (about 1.7 km) and on the top of a hill, the memorial itself is visible from the town. I take transport up and later walk back. Both turned out to be a good choices, it’s pretty steep hill but a lovely walk back to the center.
The memorial itself, the magnificent, green-domed structure overlooking the whole town, is open for a visit and will give you a chance to climb even higher to get the best view of the town and surrounding area.
Next to the memorial is a butterfly house, a small animal zoo and a nature trail with well-written information. A myriad of butterflies, goldfish, turtles and even a chameleon live in the airy white domed building. A nice change from the day’s windy weather.
Once up the hill, the park itself is an easy walk with wide paths, plenty of greenery and fountains. Altogether a lovely day out for a solo traveler or a family.
With more time on my hands, I try to fit in some time in the countryside. Nature reserves are usually a good combination of smaller crowds and yet interesting things to see. Reserves in England are, as a rule, well maintained and have good information signs.
Leighton Moss with its wide range of wild birds confirms that you can occasionally allow humans close to nature and get some decent results.
It’s a great place to walk around, learn about birds and enjoy some lovely views. When we were about to leave, a little robin came to say hello. It turns out they are every bit as friendly and charming as the stories tell.
Bowing my way out, fresh bread and a second life
On my way to the train station, I notice something on one of the windows. It’s solid, has a mechanical look to it and is fire-engine red. On closer inspection, it appears to be a cast iron device and the window belongs to a bakery. My intrigued glances have been noticed inside and I’m being waved to enter.
The warm smell of fresh bread is a lovely contrast to the near-storm conditions outside. The wind is not as strong as it was uphill but the day is far from being mild.
The curly haired lady behind the counter who waved me in chats with her customers while keeping her hands busy. Setting crusty loaves to the rustic rack, adjusting flatbreads or rearranging things.
It turns out that she is a linguist by education but decided to follow her passion for baking instead. She explains the origin story “I don’t eat mediocre bread but in this town, you couldn’t find even that!“
As I continue toward the train station, munching on my second breakfast (an authentic British scone), I contemplate the meetings I’ve had with people who took risks to follow their dreams.
The scone in my hand is warm and has a nice crunch outside with a soft hint of sweetness and an occasional raisin. Sometimes things done with passion can carry an energy of their own. Even if only for a short while you get a feeling that world might occasionally make sense.
*I was a guest of The Visit Lancaster. I’m proud to be an honest and transparent blogger. Any opinion expressed is a result of a personal experience.