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 town centre 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 Lancaster. 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 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.