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.