…I grew up in a suburb. So when I came to Lancaster I was gobsmacked. Lancaster was proper old. Like lots of towns it had a proper river, a proper train station, a canal, hills, views and the seaside, but what really impressed 18-year-old me was the architecture. There are Roman remains, a medieval priory church, a medieval castle gate and keep, and more than 200 Georgian buildings from when Lancaster was one of England’s largest Atlantic ports. To top it off, there’s a massive Edwardian Taj Mahal-style mausoleum towering over the town. This place is a sight for sore eyes.
It punches way above its weight for culture. Lancaster University attracts big names from classical music and theatre. There’s a permanent gallery dedicated to John Ruskin. There’s a thriving writing scene, including a literature festival, and a local orchestra, the Haffner. There are two theatres which between them offer almost every kind of live entertainment. And of course, everywhere you go there’s history: the Pendle witch trials, Jacobite invasions…
It’s wonderful to wander around the town drinking all this in. But it’s even nicer if you live here.
1. Best View(s)
Quasimodo had the bells, the bells, and Lancaster has the views, the views. Stand at the top of Castle Hill, the core of the old Roman settlement, and you see the town stretching away towards the Ashton memorial. Stand at the memorial and you see the town stretching away to the castle and the priory church. And beyond that, you see right out over Morecambe Bay and the southern fells. Come up the motorway and you see the full Gothic glory of the former local asylum. Which is better? Sundown across to Lord Ashton’s folly, when all the house windows up to the memorial are glowing as they catch the light? A clear winter’s day in Williamson Park, looking right over the Bay to Barrow, or north at the snow on the Westmorland peaks? We don’t have to throw one out of the balloon. We’ll keep them all, thanks.
2. Best Festival: Light Up Lancaster and Lancaster Music Festival
Festivals in fields are all very well. The mud on the boots, the near-total irrelevance of your email, the fresh air (once you’ve held your breath past the portaloos). But for taking your everyday places and transforming them, you can’t beat an urban festival. For ages afterwards it all looks different, the way it does after you’ve seen it covered in snow. A tip of the hat then for transfiguring iconic Lancaster venues to the dark nights festival Light Up Lancaster, which synchronizes projections and installations of all kinds with the town fireworks display.
But even that pales in comparison with this year’s 46-venue, 200-plus gigs Lancaster Music Festival. Sure, it’s not a big name do. Most of the bands are local, though this year they also came from that there London, that there Sweden, that there NYC, and that there Brazil (incidentally, kudos to Brazilian band The Skrotes for the best unintentionally-funny-to-a-Brit band name of the year). The variety is ridiculous, swinging from brass bands through the usual pub genres and out the other side with improvised environmental percussion and an attempt on the world record for longest audience drone (that’s ‘holding a constant note on any instrument for an hour’ btw). Some venues are pretty much given over to the festival full-time, others only host a few gigs. But for the dedicated flâneur with ears as well as eyes, it’s difficult to beat that October weekend when can’t you walk around town without constantly bumping into music.
3. Best Walk: Lancaster Tourism Literary Guide
Maybe wandering around town looking at great architecture isn’t quite your thing? Maybe you’re one of those I-read-books-me types? You’re in luck. Lancaster Tourism sells a Literary Guide to the town. In it you can find out what Dickens wrote after visiting the local asylum, what Romantic-era travellers made of the views over the bay, and how a Lancaster-born poet came to write For the Fallen, the poem still quoted on Remembrance Day.
4. Best Shop: Single Step
I hold my hands up. I’m a veggie, and for the past 35 years I’ve been getting my beans, pulses, unsulphured apricots, halvah, and mildly funny lefty postcards from Single Step. It’s a non-profit workers’ co-operative, and has more yummy, healthy, ethically-sourced stuff than you can shake a stick at. However, as a sign in the shop helpfully reminds you, you do need to bring your own stick.
5. Best coffee shop: Atkinsons Coffee Roasters
I really do mean coffee shop. Atkinsons have being selling tea and coffee since the year Queen Victoria came to the throne. The current century-old shop is a step back in time, complete with weighing scales and old-school tins. The roasting kit is comparatively youthful, dating back only to the 1930s. Chosen for the vibe, and being hands-down winner of the most evocative Lancaster smell. That’s a pleasant smell, just to be clear; for many, the most evocative Lancaster smell would be the reek from the euphemistically-named and thankfully defunct ‘Nightingale Hall Farm’ plant. Never would you hear so many windows shutting at once as when that place began its operations.
6. Best Theatre: The Grand
I’m going to hedge on this one. The best theatre comes from The Dukes, including its award-winning shows in Williamson Park. But the best theatre is The Grand. The oldest bits of it predate the formation of the United States, making it the third oldest theatre building in the UK, and pretty much every big name from the 19th century played there at one time or another. Now what you see is an Edwardian theatre, mostly hosting touring shows including big-name comedians like Eddie Izzard and Bill Bailey. But the real reason to love The Grand is that it was saved from demolition in the 1950s by local theatre group Footlights people, and the place runs almost entirely on volunteers, producing five Footlights shows including the ever-popular pantomime each year.
7. Most Northern Deli Name Ever: Potts’ Deli ‘n’ Pies
The Lovely Eggs singer, Holly, was not wrong when she told Northern Soul that in Lancaster everything’s cobbled or covered in pastry. Exhibit A: when respected local pie shop Potts recently decided to branch out a bit, they didn’t want people to forget they still did the pies. In the process they gave us the Most Northern Deli Name Ever.
9. Best Bakery: Filbert’s Bakery
This being Lancaster, of course, Filbert’s Bakery does very well with the pastry. Sticky, fruity, pastry. Mmmmm.
Sorry, where was I? Ah yes, and also sensible vegetables-inside-pastry contraptions. Still not sure if they are pies or pasties or something else. They have explained it to me, nicely, more than once. Seasonal is a big thing. Customers bring in surplus fruit and veg which is turned into tasty stuff. It’s a small, family-run business, started from nothing a few years ago. There are usually around six different kinds of bread to choose from, and pretty much everything is baked in the shop, so you sometimes have to shut the door behind you to make sure you don’t knacker the dough in. It’s friendly. Recently I casually moaned about the horseradish infesting my vegetable plot and walked out with loads of recipes to try after ten minutes of top plant-based banter. You don’t get that in Greggs.
10. Best only-funny-when-you’re-on-a-night-out thing
Lancaster’s very own enchanted statue. By day, a mild-mannered statue of Queen Victoria blending into Dalton Square outside the Town Hall. By night, after a magic potion or two, the spell takes effect and the silhouette of this celebration of imperial dominion subverts itself, becoming in the process the funniest thing you have ever seen.
11. Best pub
Ooh, this is hard. I’ve been drinking here for 35 years. I know most of the town pubs by the names they had when I pitched up as a student. How can you untangle all those good times from one another to pick a winner? How can you not feel guilty about the ones you haven’t even had room to mention? How can you only talk about beer in these multiple-botanical days? It’d drive you to drink, as my mother would say. So, in no particular order apart from height above sea level, here’s some, but not all, of the great Lancaster pubs.
For history, summer vibes and great beer, it’s got to be The Three Mariners at the start of the quay. For proper old-school with great beer, live music and last-drink-of-the-condemned associations it’s got to be The Golden Lion next door to The Dukes, on the way to the old town gallows. For great pizza and, whaddayaknow, great beer, the local Borough Brewery’s latest, The Britannia, halfway to Williamson Park, is the real deal. But just now my desert island pub is The Yorkshire House near the bus station. Because it can’t be arsed having a website, because it does great beer but its idea of doing food is pork scratchings, because it supports the local music scene whichever scruffy, eyelinered direction it goes in, because it has a proper landlady, because, just, table football!, because it’s where my old uni mate met a lad half his age even more obsessed with The Damned than him last time he was in town, because the Velvets’ Pale Blue Eyes was playing on its peerless jukebox the last time I walked through the door. And when those bloody floods knocked it off its feet, this place winked at the ringside seats, scribbled a rude word on the canvas, and got right back up again.
12. Best Town a (brisk) hour’s walk away: Morecambe
A bit ticklish, this. Small towns are funny about their neighbours. But you’ve got to admit it, one of the best things about living in Lancaster is that you’re really near Morecambe. It’s a bit under four miles from the centre of Lancaster to the Midland hotel. And Morecambe is a whole other thing. Do fish and chips or ice cream ever taste better than at the seaside? Where Lancaster has Georgian, Morecambe has art nouveau and deco. It’s got its own festivals, like Vintage by the Sea and Splendid Day Out’s Steampunk Festival. There’s some great public sculpture, the best of which is probably Shane Johnstone’s Venus and Cupid. I do like to stroll along the prom, prom, prom – so good they named it thrice. OK, some of it is a bit neglected, and you can get better views of the Bay from the hills, but still. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Morecambe Bay.
And of course, presiding over it all is the statue of a certain Mr Bartholomew, bringing you sunshine. Even if it’s raining.
(Main image: City of Heritage Credit NWDA. Image courtesy of Lancaster Visitor Centre, Lancaster City Council)