There are few things more relaxing than sailing on a canal boat on a fine day. With average speeds not exceeding 4 miles per hour on English canals, slowing right down – in every sense – is almost mandatory. I’ve enjoyed a lot of boat trips over the years with sightseeing from the water often being on my itinerary when visiting new towns and cities. Today’s little journey took me along a short stretch of the Lancaster Canal in my home county of Lancashire.
We boarded the generously proportioned Kingfisher at the WaterWitch Pub which is just a short walk from the centre of Lancaster. KingfisherCruises operates a range of excursions throughout the year and more frequently during the summer season. We had opted for a short sail which would take us just a couple of miles outside the city but taking in a very significant landmark.
The heavens opened as we boarded, making it necessary to stay under cover for the first part part of the journey. I was lucky to have a seat near to the front of the boat and was quickly outside as soon as the rain stopped.
The boat meandered serenely through the tranquil water, lush green banks on both sides.
Our destination came into view: the Lune Aquaduct.
Completed in 1797 to take the Lancaster Canal over the river Lune, the Aquaduct has grade 1 listed status. It is over 200 metres long and spans the river 16 metres below. Built from sandstone, five arches support the water trough. Designed and constructed by John Rennie and Alexander Stevens respectively, the structure cost nearly £50,000 – more than twice the estimated budget.
The sun was shining as we approached the Aquaduct, so the skipper decided it was safe for us to disembark to better enjoy the scenery.
A group of children was getting ready to enjoy a kayaking session, their bright multi-coloured vessels like an art installation against the sandstone.
It would have been nice to spend more time on the Aquaduct but it wasn’t possible to moor there for more than 10 minutes, and another trip was to follow after ours. It was time to turn the boat around and sail back.
I spent yesterday afternoon in Lancaster, one of the most historic locations in the north of England. It’s a small city which has held onto its medieval character, and though it has the usual high street names within its modern shopping arcades, it has avoided the towering presences of high rises and industry. The only towers in Lancaster belong to the churches and the Castle.
Lancaster Castle sits on a hill overlooking the city, a key strategic position of power. Almost 2000 years ago, the Romans settled their first garrison in a perfect spot to keep an eye on the Scots and Picts to the north, and to have access to the river Lune and from there to the sea.
The current grade 1 listed building dates back a thousand years to the Normans, though the structure has been changed many times over the centuries. Until 2011 Lancaster Castle was still in use as a prison. The notice remains in place near to the ancient door, and barbed wire is still intact on the ramparts.
English monarchs, entitled as Dukes of Lancaster, have owned the Castle since 1265.
The Castle offers fascinating guided tours; a chance to visit the damp dark cellars where the dingy cell walls display the centuries-old scrawlings of prisoners awaiting their fates. Amongst those imprisoned and later executed in turbulent and intolerant times were the Lancashire witches and 15 Catholic priests. Many ordinary Lancastrians were also tried at the castle court. There were over 200 executions at the site known as hanging hill close to the Ashton Memorial at Williamson Park. You can read about my visit there if you click here . A Castle tour wasn’t on yesterday’s agenda for me, but based on previous experiences I can recommend it.
Despite the blue sky and the bright sun it was windy and quite nippy on the hill so I was glad to head for the warmth of the Priory Church which is just behind the Castle. I admired the swaying congregations of spring flowers in the Church grounds.
If I were a betting woman, I would have wagered that if there was just one day in the week when a church would be open, it would be Sunday. Not so. Incredibly, the doors to the splendid ancient building were bolted shut. I was disappointed not to see some of my favourite misericords, and to gain some temporary respite from the chill. I grumbled for a few minutes with another thwarted visitor before taking a turn around the grounds.
I noticed a sign pointing to the remains of the Roman bath house and decided the follow the path alongside the burial ground.
You can see the posts which would have supported the bath house floor, kept warm by under-floor heating. This is believed to be what remains of the the last of three Roman settlements in Lancaster.
From the ruins, I headed back up the east side of the hill and back to the Castle grounds to seek out my next destination.
On the way I passed the former premises of Gillow & Co, cabinet makers, founded in 1727 by Robert Gillow who had started out as an apprentice joiner. Some fine examples of Gillow workmanship were on display where I was headed next.
Lancaster Judges’ Lodgings is the city’s oldest town house. It was originally home to Thomas Covell, Castle Keeper and notorious witch-hunter. From 1776 it was used as a residence for judges attending the assize courts at Lancaster three times each year as part of their circuit of the northern counties. It continued to provide accommodation for the judiciary until as recently as 1975. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was usual for two judges to be in residence along with their families and even their servants.
The building is now a museum with the first two floors reconstructed authentically. Below, we see His Honour getting ready to leave for work at the Castle Court.
This is a very small museum and there was a member of staff in almost every room available to answer questions if visitors were to approach them, though there was little in the way of information displays.
The building’s top floor houses the Museum of Childhood, rather incongruously, I thought. Not staffed, and very different in tone and content to the two lower floors, it felt as though there had been a left-over space that ought to be made use of. To my mind, it would have been ideal for exhibits relating to some of the cases that the judges would have tried, and for information about the assize courts system, trial and punishment throughout the ages.
Instead, there were several showcases of toys from the Victorian era up to the 1980s, including some of the most sinister-looking dolls imaginable. The lighting was poor throughout, so the photos are not the best.
Some of this bizarre collection of curiosities and horrors on the judges’ top floor looks more like the stuff of childhood nightmares, but I’ll leave that judgement to you.
Lancaster was only made a city in 1937 but its story can be traced back to the Romans who established their ‘castrum’ or fort by the ‘Lon’ or river Lune.
I am familiar with Lancaster but until very recently had never visited the city Museum, a modest building which one could easily walk past without noticing. It isn’t grand or ornate, but typically of Lancaster buildings it is constructed from stone and blends in with its surroundings. Ironically, it came to my attention on my most recent visit due to the scaffolding, plastic sheeting and forlornness which surrounded it. Thinking it had closed, I carried out a closer inspection, and at the bottom of a polythene walkway found a way in and a warm welcome. There began an hour long exploration of kings and castles; Saxons and stone carvings; industry, craftsmanship, culture and conflict.
This Roman milestone stands in a somewhat incongruous position at the top of the staircase where the chintzy curtains and electrical wires appear at odds with this object of antiquity. It was made during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (builder of the border wall between England and Scotland) between AD 127 and 138 and informs onlookers that it is four Roman miles to Lancaster from the spot in Caton where it was found in 1803. Here are some more relics of Loncastrum life….
Moving on a few strides and several centuries we find ourselves in Lancaster of the middle ages. There are many examples of Celtic and Saxon crosses in ancient church yards all around England, especially in the north. The two below were found during excavations of Lancaster Priory Church.
Most interesting to me were the informative displays about Lancaster during the industrial revolution, and its development as a centre of stained glass manufacturing.
The skill of glass making flourished in Lancaster from about the 1870s in response to the growth in church building and the number of prestigious homes which boasted luxurious stained leaded windows.
James Williamson, Lord Ashton, was a leading industrialist and one-time mayor of the city whose family firm produced linoleum (see my blog on Williamson Park). Some fine examples appear in this display cabinet. A few of these fine specimens have cool retro appeal. Oilcloth and linoleum were big business in Lancaster for over a hundred years from the 1840s until the second world war and at the industry’s height it employed over half of the city’s work force.
Examples of the city’s metal trades are also showcased
What local museum is complete without a badly turned out mannequin or two…or three…or more…? Lancaster has not fallen short and my particular favourite is the lady below undertaking wash day duties. I have early childhood memories of my own grandma having a dolly tub in her out house, decades after it had seen its last load of laundry.
Lancaster has a proud military history and a section of the Museum celebrates this. I was very interested in looking at the various exhibits which had belonged to real men who had fought in the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, some who died and others who survived to tell their stories. Some of their personal possessions have been donated by family members still living in the Lancaster area.
I was fascinated by the fabric and sewing detail on these uniforms and the fact that some of them looked so small, clearly worn by slim soldiers. It’s difficult to gain a sense of the proportions from this photo.
More mannequins model military attire and weaponry of different eras. In the first picture a kilted Scottish rebel awaits his fate.
This little museum has no cafe, gift shop or any of the multi-media and interactive attractions we have become used to nowadays, but it’s well worth a look if you’re in the city and want to learn more about the story of Lancaster.
Brief Encounter is one of my favourite films – and I’m not alone. It ranks in second place in the British film industry’s list of 100 greatest films. Directed by the much-celebrated David Lean in 1945, the film was based on Noel Coward’s 1936 screenplay Still Life. Filmed at various locations in England, Brief Encounter is set in 1938 and relates the love that grows between Alec, a doctor, and Laura, a middle-class housewife. They meet by chance at a fictional train station, Milford Junction, where Alec comes to Laura’s rescue and gallantly removes some grit from her eye.
A profound yet unconsummated passion develops from that meeting. It’s a very British film of the times; its respectability and restraint make it all the more intense.
There was no big budget and the cast included no A list actors, but Brief Encounter is credited as one of David Lean’s greatest works and was met with wide critical acclaim when it was released. It has gone on to achieve world-wide iconic status.
Carnforth Station sits less than ten minutes outside Lancaster on the scenic line which winds its way along the Cumbrian coast. Designed by architect William Tite and opened in 1846, there is nothing particularly striking about this station, nor – it must be said – about Carnforth. The Station’s claim to fame is that it was chosen as the site of the railway platform scenes in Brief Encounter. Its rural location enabled night time filming to take place whilst avoiding the war time blackout which was necessary in England’s towns and cities.
The Station’s now iconic clock appeared in Brief Encounter, and it is that same clock which today tells the time to passengers and visitors to the excellent Carnforth Heritage Centre. Step inside and you will be transported (pardon the pun) back in time to the heyday of steam travel.
A fantastic team of volunteers works 360 days a year to keep the museum running. Visitors come from all over the world to experience their own brief encounter with British film-making at its best, though they form more of a steady trickle than a flock. I chatted with two Canadian ladies in the gift shop who had digressed from their holiday in the nearby Lake District to see where their all-time favourite film was made.
The Heritage Centre isn’t just about Brief Encounter. In what was once the main waiting room which is now used for presentations and educational activities, a film runs on loop which shares a potted history of the Station and the wider context of British rail travel in the decades before the end of steam.
Authentic artefacts are displayed throughout the Centre’s various rooms and a lot of time and trouble have been taken to create a vintage feel.
Head towards the gift shop and you will see an array of Brief Encounter themed items on the shelves. I was greatly amused by the boxes of fudge and biscuits, some of which are to be included in suitcases bound for Canada. I bought a mug and ‘far too nice to be used as a tea towel’ tea towel.
From the gift shop can be heard a melody familiar to fans of the movie: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number 2 – the soundtrack. Tucked away round a little corner is a tiny cinema where visitors can sit and watch Brief Encounter from proper plush picture-house seats, perhaps whilst nibbling on some of the gift shop fudge. This is a lovely touch and a nod to the plot, as Laura and Alec initially meet innocently once a week to watch a matinee together.
The Heritage Centre includes a year-round David Lean exhibition which celebrates the director’s life and work.
At the heart-breaking end of the film Laura and Alec, having decided to put their families and responsibilities before their doomed love, meet for the last time in the same spot where they had that first encounter; the Station’s refreshment room. Those scenes were filmed in a studio, but the set bore a strong resemblance to the refreshments room at Carnforth Station. Though now enjoying modern facilities, it still has a vintage charm.
It is run by lovely friendly staff who serve a splendid pot of leaf tea; just the ticket on a cold January afternoon whilst waiting for a train back to the 21st century.
Lancaster is the county city of Lancashire and is a place steeped in history. It’s only a small city but has many buildings of historical interest. The city is on a hill, and that, along with access to the river Lune (and from there to the Irish sea) made it an attractive prospect to the invading Romans who bestowed upon it its name – the fort near the Lune. Looking down on the city from near to the top of the hill is the Ashton Memorial, instantly recognisable on the Lancaster skyline even on a grey day in December.
The Ashton Memorial has been compared to the Taj Mahal, not necessarily suggesting that it is grand or exotic, but because it was built as a shrine in remembrance of a much-loved deceased wife.
James Williamson, or the Lino King, was a very rich and successful business man and philanthropist from one of the city’s most eminent mercantile families. He was also one-time Mayor of the city. The family firm specialised in producing oilcloth and linoleum which they exported all over the world, hence the moniker, The Lino King. Another more formal title bestowed upon James Williamson was that of Lord Ashton. The granting of this baronetcy was always controversial as rumours ran rife that the great man had oiled not just cloth, but the palm of the then Prime Minister to secure the title. Williamson always strongly denied this, but the mutterings continued throughout his life time, leading him in the end to fall out with his home city and become a rich hoarder recluse in London.
Lord Ashton commissioned the 150ft folly to be built after the death of his wife, Jessie, Lady Ashton. It was designed in the Edwardian baroque style by architect John Belcher and construction started in 1907. Ironically, by the time the Memorial was completed two years later Lord Ashton had remarried.
The grand copper dome of the folly can be seen from far and wide; you are sure to spot it when travelling north on the west coast main line or driving northbound up the M6 motorway. Around the outside of the dome are sculptures which represent commerce, science, industry and art, whilst the same are represented in the form of allegorical paintings on the inside. Unfortunately (for me, not for the people within), an event was taking place at the time of my visit, so I couldn’t peer in through the windows to take photographs of the interior. The folly is a popular venue for weddings and exhibitions, though it wasn’t clear what was taking place on this occasion. I can confirm that though my view was restricted, I didn’t spot any lino whatsoever on the floor.
The Ashton Memorial affords wonderful views of the city of Lancaster spread out below, and of Morecambe Bay beyond.
These wonderful views would have been the last thing on the minds of the many convicted criminals who were sentenced to hang on the gallows which stood on the same spot centuries earlier when it was moorland. Long before James Williamson’s time, this place was known as ‘Hanging Hill’ where saints and sinners alike were taken to their fates after trial at Lancaster Castle. Some of those hanged here during the 17th century include the Pendle witches and Catholic martyrs who were later made saints such as Edmund Arrowsmith and Ambrose Barlow. There is no notice or tribute near to the folly, though one exists at another location outside of the Park grounds.
Williamson Park is a popular place for relaxation and recreation and includes a butterfly house (which I didn’t visit), a café and lots of lovely pathways through wooded areas and lush gardens. The estate was eventually bought by the city of Lancaster for the enjoyment of residents and visitors like me. I find that quite fitting as the land belonged to the city long before Lord Ashton and it’s a lovely place to spend some quiet time.