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Lancaster, the city with a Plantagenet past

Posted in British Cities, Castles, Historical articles, Royalty on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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This edited article about Lancaster originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1048 published on 10 April 1982.

Lancaster, picture, image, illustration

The old coat of arms of the City of Lancaster with the new arms beneath and (left) an effigy of Edmund “Crouchback” in Westminster Abbey; the arms of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; Lancaster Castle and (right) the Ashton memorial. Pictures by Dan Escott

Many cities have a landmark that is a part of local history, some scene or building that manages to find its way on to thousands of snapshots taken by visitors each year. Lancaster, the county town of Lancashire, can claim two such features. To the west it is dominated by the grim bulk of its castle, while on the eastern side of the city stands the Ashton Memorial, an extraordinary building raised in Victorian style between 1906 and 1909. It is a classic example of what is known to architects as a “Folly”.

Lancastrians have to thank Robert of Poitou, a Norman nobleman, for the castle. He built it to keep back invaders from the north, and down the centuries it did its job well, although during the course of various battles the town at the foot of Castle Hill suffered badly.

In fact so much of it was burnt, or knocked down, that today there are hardly any buildings to be found that date back much before the 18th century.

The castle apart, this looks at first sight like a Georgian town, even though the street plan is still recognisably medieval. In the centre, around Market Street, there is still a maze of small alleyways that link the main streets, small thoroughfares where interesting shops and eating places are waiting to be explored.

There is now an up-to-date, new shopping complex and a multi-storey car park in the city centre, and, while such developments certainly give a feeling that Lancaster is keeping up with the times, the old parts have a fascination that is all their own.

Commanding though it is, Lancaster Castle does not look particularly Norman, probably because it was extended frequently until the 15th century and altered even more only a century ago. It has a long history as a prison. Witches were burnt within its walls and lunatics were chained in the dungeons – dark happenings that may account for the fortress seeming to be more forbidding than most.

Lord Ashton may be remembered for a folly, but in life he was sensible enough, heading the firm of linoleum manufacturers that brought a valuable trade to the city. He was also a generous citizen, presenting Lancaster with a new town hall in 1906 and also a memorial to Queen Victoria, which may not be a thing of beauty but which certainly catches a visitor’s eye.

It is not unlike London’s memorial to Prince Albert in its sheer “busyness”, for it features not only the Queen herself, but also the Prince Consort surrounded by the greatest British scientists, writers, artists and politicians of the day.

When Lord Ashton’s new town hall was completed, the earlier building became the city museum. It is well worth a visit, not only to study the exhibits but because it is built in a once locally quarried stone known as freestone.

This stone is brown in colour, curiously marked with splashes of grey and black, and contains a considerable amount of silica. It is no longer quarried, because its dust is considered too dangerous, and it is a grim thought that in Victorian times so frequent was death by silicosis among stonemasons that only exceptionally lucky ones lived to be more than 30 years old.

Linoleum and textiles had a good deal to do with Lancaster’s growth as a commercial centre, but for a long time furniture has been made here as well. It is an industry that had a strange beginning. If you walk along the bank of the River Lune (Lancaster means “the fortress on the Lune”) you will notice the old Custom House and also the great stone warehouses. These date from the 18th century and the days when this was one of the main ports of the west coast, trading prosperously with America and the West Indies.

The Lune has long been silted up, but, in the days when it was navigable, ships returning from the Indies without a full cargo of goods would have their holds filled with logs of mahogany as ballast.

Someone – quite possibly a member of the famous cabinet-making family of Gillow – decided that this fine, free wood might well be used to make attractive furniture. It was not long before the Gillows were conducting a thriving trade with the Indies, exporting fine furniture to the rich planters and importing rum and sugar in exchange.

A feature of Lancaster that fascinated the Victorians, and is still well worth a visit today, is the famous aqueduct constructed by John Rennie across the Lune. This was during the great days of canal building, when hundreds of kilometres of man-made waterways were dug to link Britain’s great rivers.

The object of Lancaster’s aqueduct, in effect a bridge carrying a waterway instead of a road, was to make a canal that would cross the River Ribble at Preston and link up with other canals to the south.

Unfortunately the cost of bridging the Ribble was found to be too expensive and so the project never got further than Preston. It was never of great value commercially, but it is now used for leisure cruises, while the Lancaster aqueduct remains a major feat of engineering and a memorial to the bygone age of waterways.

Today, Lancastrians claim that their latest industry is higher education, for there is a new university set on a hillside five kilometres south of the city. Many local people still feel that it would have been better had this exciting new centre of learning been sited closer to the city, perhaps making use of the fine but derelict warehouses which stand on the banks of the Lune.

Instead, it has become a separate and inevitably rather isolated community, having little contact with Lancaster itself. Most people would agree that, architecturally, Lancaster University is impressive. But it certainly seems to turn its back on its historical heritage in a way that makes the five-kilometre distance between itself and the city seem a good deal greater than it really is.

If you are visiting Lancaster, you should visit the famous sands, which are traditionally so dangerous that even centuries ago the Duchy of Lancaster paid a “trusty man” the then quite generous salary of £20 a year to make sure that travellers kept to the safe path.

But Lancaster’s top attraction is probably still the memorial that Lord Ashton built to his first wife. Designed by Sir John Belcher, it cost £87,000 – a vast sum then. Open to visitors, it is famous as one of the most magnificent buildings in England, and one for which no use whatever has been found.

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