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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, March 28, 2008
    From Golgotha to the Prison, to the Temple on the hill
    Lancaster; a place you bypass on the M6 rumble north to the Lakes or beyond, or where you sit in snarling traffic on the jammed A589 headed out to Morecambe Bay. Lancaster; the stop before Oxenholme on Richard Branson's creaking West Coast Main Line. Used to be the capital of Lancashire before Preston sneaked in. Used to have a university and now it's got two.

    Like anywhere, you won't really know much about Lancaster unless you walk it. So, in driving rain today, that's what Jim, Dave and I did. At the entrance to Williamson Park you're immediately aware that this city, sloping down to the wide River Lune, is dominated by the exploits of one James Williamson (1842-1930), 1st Baron Ashton, who made his millions in the manufacture of linoleum, connecting the large proportion of Lancaster's population who worked in his riverside factories with the people of Staines and Kircaldy (hosts, respectively, of the world's first and largest lino factories in the industry's late nineteenth-century pioneering days).

    We would end our walk by slogging up to the Ashton Memorial, but began with a rapid descent through the tidy white stone terraces of Golgotha into the modestly impressive Market Square (Museum steps running with rain, we shelter beneath its gigantic pillars; impressed with the sympathetically rebuilt Market Hall we ogle the costumes in the party hire shop at the entrance). Through more streets dripping with yesterday's history and today's preoccupations (MERCHANTS INN 1688, SPORT SHOWN ON 3 PLASMA SCREENS) we make the ascent up cobblestones to the mouth of the Castle, as the condemned and their condemnors have done for the past thousand years.

    Site of the notorious Pendle witch trials of 1612 and many 18th century Australian transportation sentences, it's still a prison, HMP Lancaster Castle, with up to 243 Category C inmates held within its grim sweeping walls. We pass by without breaking step, ready for lunch in the Cathedral cafe, stopping only to notice a giant crane dangling a large red hook over the castle wall and wondering if we may be witnessing an audacious prison breakout.

    Blessed with beans on toast and warmed by the radiators and the Cathedral staff's welcome we head downhill, under lightening clouds, past a Roman Baths, beneath rows of shambling old quayside buildings and the impressive Custom House, all on St George's Quay. With its roadworks, HGVs, skip lorries reversing into spaces beside houses being cleared for refurbishment, and people stepping in and out of tiny jazz pubs this riverside road still retains a sense of the commercial bustle it's had since it was at the heart of Lancaster's eighteenth-century golden age as a sugar, cotton, rum and mahogany port.

    The Lune holds pleasures, especially for those, like us, impressed by bridges. The Millennium Bridge ripples playfully over the Lune, for the pleasure of pedestrians and those whose riverside apartments look out on the scene. Thomas Harrison's 1788 Skerton Bridge is a delight on the eye with its five elliptical arches and stormwater channels running through the masonry, and further upriver the Lune Aqueduct carries the Lancaster Canal over the river and the violent A683 Caton Road, its stonework inscribed 'To Public Prosperity'.

    On the canal path walk back into town we greet and are greeted by numerous cyclists, Dave exchanges a high-five with a passing (frighteningly athletic-looking) jogger and fishermen mingle with dogs of assorted sizes and moods. It feels friendly, even as we pass three hooded youths loitering at the back of Coniston Road, sharing a sly spliff. Leaving the canal the route becomes a slog uphill, but the sky has cleared and ten minutes inside peaceful Saint Peter's Cathedral clears our heads and prepares our knees for the ascent to that which has dominated the skyline all day: James Williamson's preposterously generous tribute to his late wife Jessy, the gigantic Ashton Memorial.

    We enjoy the tea and cake served to us by the friendly girls in the cafe, climb the Memorial's stairs to be disappointed to find the viewing gallery closed, so instead end our walk at the nearby Temple Shelter, which looks back towards the marvellous Memorial. Here, Dave imagines James Williamson sitting and looking with the same wonderment we have, across the beautiful parkland towards his unique architectural creation, and thinking fondly of the beloved woman in whose honour he had it built. Disregarding all the comforts his wealth could have bought him, Williamson would have wished he simply had Jessy with him there again; but like us today, instead he found solace in his gentle, generous Temple.

    See all pics from this walk at Flickr
    Map of this walk at Google Maps