Lancaster: Small City, Big Story

Venue: Lancaster
Date: 29 Jul 2014 - 30 Jul 2014

It was a north-westerly feast for the senses for Carrie Martindale and GTOs in the ancient city of Lancaster.

Double, double, toil and trouble”, screech the three witches in Macbeth. It was witches that first sprung to my mind when I thought of Lancaster; witch trials a-plenty and the Pendle witches.

Although the general consensus now is that witches were just innocent people put to death through sheer ignorance, the idea of witchcraft still invokes images of magic and mischief.

Lancaster was, and still is, full of magic. From the coffee creation that we watched being conjured up during our visit to J Atkinson and Co., to the ethereal fairy tale performance that we enjoyed in Williamson Park and the costumed jailors at the castle - a lucky group of GTOs and I were privy to some enchanting experiences as part of Group Leisure’s latest Reader Club trip.

The Hanging Town

Lancaster has a long and turbulent history, dating back almost 1,000 years. Once known as ‘The Hanging Town’ because more prisoners were sentenced to death there than at any other court in the land, Lancaster Castle, where it all happened, looms down over the town from its hilltop over the quaint cobbled streets. I was picturing it bathed in mist, cawing ravens perched from its battlements.

The castle has witnessed around 200 executions for everything from murder to stealing cattle. On display are instruments of torture, execution and imprisonment including branding irons, thumbscrews, Scold’s bridles and a chair that was used during hangings.

I was told that I looked visibly aghast during our tour guides’ demonstration of the hanging process, which might go some way in describing to you just how gruesome it was.

Until 2011 it was a fully functioning HM Prison. On our tour we were shown the juxtaposition between the modern day cells and the cells from hundreds of years ago, both of which we were allowed to go into.

Unfortunately I can’t show you any pictures of what we saw inside Lancaster Castle - as a working court it carries a significant prison sentence were I to do so, and I certainly don’t fancy being incarcerated after what I saw inside those thick stone walls.

Lancaster is putting its all into convincing groups that it’s not just a stop-off point for the Lake District. Suzi Bunting from Lancaster’s Business Improvement District (BID) was keen to show us all of the new (and old) delights of the developing city when she took us on a walking tour and lunch.

One such highlight was the Judge’s Lodgings, once the home of Thomas Covell, who was the keeper of Lancaster Castle, and now site of the Museum of Childhood.

“An interactive forest show with something for everyone”

So said The Guardian in its complimentary review of walkabout theatre event Hansel and Gretel that we were taken to see on our first night in Lancaster. The broadsheet wasn’t the only title with glowing write-ups of the show, and you can count Group Leisure amongst those.

Williamson Park is an emerald green retreat from the hustle and bustle of urbanity in itself, but add a magical theatrical performance into the pot and you really have stirred yourself up a recipe for success.

The park was laid out in the 1870s with serpentine paths leading through a craggy wooded landscape, at one point opening out to an ornamental lake with a waterfall. The Ashton Memorial standing proud on the top of a hill is a stunning example of Edwardian architecture.

Hansel and Gretel was a tour de force in outdoor theatre. And yet, to call it outdoor theatre doesn’t begin to describe the kind of experience that you are in for.

Sitting on makeshift seats or picnic blankets in different idyllic locations for each scene, the audience walks around the park with the actors throughout the performance, following piped music through woodland groves while immersed in twilight. It set my teeth on edge.

We were also fortunate to have had a local cheese and wine interval feast laid on for us within the Ashton Memorial itself; a popular bookable venue. Of course, groups won’t be able to see Hansel and Gretel anymore, but Duke’s Theatre’s next summer show in the park will be Oliver Twist, which you can book now.

A taste of Lancashire

It would be boorish not to mention the gastronomic delights that the group and I were privy to on this trip; we were fed at almost every twist and turn. On the first morning, an exhibition of area highlights held at the superb Lancaster House Hotel included humungous cakes and pastries, and delicious canapés from the Fenwick Seafood pub in the nearby Lune Valley. I was glad I had skipped breakfast.

After lunch there was more sustenance (namely a cream tea) at the Maritime Museum on St George’s Quay. I didn’t take tea but I did have the opportunity to dress up in some ridiculous attire.

And if that wasn’t enough, it was on to the Wagon and Horses a few doors along for a soupcon of what they could offer a hungry group. The mini fish and chips in replica newspaper were delicious.

Am I making you feel hungry yet? A pre-theatre dinner at the The Borough didn’t fail to impress, and neither did its groups set menu which is generously priced.

On our second day we were treated to an eccentric display of coffee wizardry at J. Atkinson and Co. a coffee roasters, shop and merchants where you can see, smell and buy a miraculous melange of different teas and coffee beans. I loved it, and I don’t even like coffee.

Our final meal was provided by the Lancaster Castle team and held in the NICE restaurant around the corner - a great groups’ venue. It was entitled ‘A Taste of Lancashire’ which of course was what the entire trip had been all about.

My hot and cold seafood platter was utterly delicious and my mouth is watering now thinking about those Morecambe Bay shrimps. Filled with a burgeoning desire for the Bay (and a bursting waistline) I left Lancaster for home. And a diet.

Lancaster has an ‘official anagram’ - ancestral - something that we all discovered to our delight when Roger from Bay Tourism challenged us to solve the conundrum. I have to agree with Roger in that ‘ancestral’ sums Lancaster up very nicely; a place with a long and fascinating story to pass on to posterity.

Planning a group trip to Lancaster?

To arrange a ‘meet and greet’ in Lancaster and help with planning your itinerary, contact Lancaster Unlimited – Lancaster’s Business Improvement District (BID).


Useful contact:

Bay Tourism Association:

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