Lancaster offers the visitor masses of history and a little bit of mystery, plus great modern food, drink and shopping, all in some of England’s best urban landscapes
Say ‘North West England’ and most people think of Liverpool, Manchester and the Lake District. But by road or rail it’s an hour or more from either city to the Lakes - what’s in between? Only the whole glorious county of Lancashire; and the jewel in Lancashire’s crown is the historic county town, Lancaster.
Lancaster is a compact city, but also a far-reaching administrative district with few equals for sheer scenic diversity. It takes in the lush Lune Valley, wild heather moors, limestone crags, and – just to confuse matters – a slice of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, rising to well over 2,000 feet and including parts of some major cave systems. At the other extreme, Morecambe Bay is a vast reach of shifting sands and channels, fringed by wooded hills, with the Lakeland Fells for backdrop. Lancaster itself is a city by ancient right but a town-sized one, its wealth of history and architectural interest all in easy walking distance. But where to start?
If you come by train, the answer’s easy: the station could not be handier for Castle Hill, the heart of the historic city and a principal reason for its existence. Take a turn round the grim old walls of the castle, enjoy the view over the town (dominated by that mysterious dome) and look into St Mary’s Priory Church. This is mostly 14th century, a triumph of the English Perpendicular style, and a quick peek may easily stretch to an hour.
You may or may not be able to see inside the castle. Most of it is in use as a prison, the rest for law courts. When the courts are not sitting there are tours of this part, including the Shire Hall with its vaulted ceiling and hundreds of heraldic shields. Also around Castle Hill you will find a Cottage Museum and the beautiful 17th-century house known as Judges’ Lodgings, which now houses both the Gillow Furniture Museum and the Museum of Childhood. The Tourist Information Centre is nearby too, in sight of the Castle gates – though soon to relocate across the road into a rejuvenated Victorian building known as The Storey, which is developing into a major hub of creative arts.
You might carry on down from here into the town centre and perhaps find your way across and up the hill (a fair hike, and buses are infrequent) to investigate the copper-domed ‘structure’ – as older locals still call it – officially known as the Ashton Memorial. This Portland stone building, which has been called ‘the grandest folly in England’, was built a century ago for Lord Ashton, who made a fortune from linoleum and all but owned Lancaster, in memory of his wife. Today it hosts exhibitions, occasional concerts and weddings. Surrounding Williamson Park developed from quarries, which yielded much of the town's building stone; today its crags are half-smothered in rhododendrons and exotic trees and it makes a magical setting for open-air theatre in the summer.
But go there on a clear day and everything else may play second fiddle to a quite magnificent panorama, over the city and the shimmering sweep of Morecambe Bay to the staccato skyline of the Lakeland Fells; it’s best of all on a summer evening when the sun sets behind those hills. Connoisseurs of great views dare not miss this one.
Back on Castle Hill, a narrow path leads down from the west side of the Priory Church. Intriguing humps in the fields on the left have never been properly excavated, while to the right are the remain of a Roman bath-house and one fragment of wall – worth a brief detour, perhaps, but to be honest they are hardly spectacular. Carry on down to emerge near the striking Millennium Bridge, a boon to pedestrians and cyclists, then swing left along St George’s Quay.
This is the old port area of Lancaster, and you can still get a very good idea how it must have looked in its 18th-century heyday. Its centrepiece is the old Customs House, an elegant little building of 1764, its four pillars each hewn from a single block of stone. It now houses a fascinating Maritime Museum. Many original warehouses, now converted into desirable apartments, still line the Quay, not to mention two comfortable pubs.
These are just two of many. Lancaster has an enviable line-up of pubs, bars, cafes, restaurants, clubs... One reason must be the presence of the University, founded in the 1960s and now highly-rated. Students, staff and ex-students (a quite astounding number come for three years and can’t bear to leave) bolster a terrific social and cultural scene, with pretty much every taste catered for, whether it’s Gregorian chant or drum’n’bass. There’s professional theatre at The Duke’s and a high standard of amateur performance at The Grand, one of England’s oldest working theatres; it’s allegedly haunted by the ghost of Sarah Siddons; take the fascinating backstage tour to find out more.
The food and drink scene is equally rich and diverse. Personal favourites include award-winning traditional fish and chips at Hodgson’s on Prospect Street (takeaway only). There’s a great selection of street food at the Charter Market, which fills the streets every Wednesday and Saturday. If you need to sit down, seek out the Sun Cafe, tucked away down a quiet side street, for sophisticated snacks and meals, or stretch your legs to ‘top o’town’ and find the multi-award-winning Water Witch, an ever-popular pub beside the canal. Last but not least, the Sultan of Lancaster is a top-notch Indian restaurant in a former church; no lager louts here and, indeed, no lager either. In the daytime its undercroft is a cool combination of food-court and art gallery.
The mention of art galleries leads on to shopping, and there’s plenty of that too, with three or four more independent art and craft galleries leading the way. In fact, Lancaster has a great selection of independent retailers and simply wandering the traffic-free streets of the town centre will lead you to most of them.
Where to stay
Best Western Royal Kings Arms: fine period building and very central: unbeatably convenient but some traffic noise.
Lancaster House Hotel: stylish and welcoming; slightly out of town but right by the University so bus service is excellent.