If you hear the word Lancaster, what does the word conjure up? It's a well-known word, one often associated with style or class, or something in history maybe. It's the name of many top-notch hotels, characters in Shakespeare, high class ladies' toiletries, warring medieval families and of movie stars or numerous towns around the globe. All these names have the same origin if you go back far enough in time - the city of Lancaster, in Lancashire, England. Part medieval, part Georgian, part Victorian, why it remains off the tourist trail of many is a mystery, but that is also its attraction.
The most arresting feature of Lancaster is the castle and Priory perched above, almost on top of the town. The present priory has been standing for nearly 600 years and used to be a leading mark for trade ships coming up the River Lune estuary. The legacy of these prosperous times is obvious along the now quiet quayside, or the tree lined Castle Precinct. Grand Georgian properties surround you in this tranquil part of town as you walk up the steep cobblestone streets, but the most imposing feature blocking your view, almost looking down on you is the impressive Lancaster Castle.
Although its origins are older, the building dates back to the 12C. The Romans had a camp, or "castre" on the River Lune here, or "Lune Castre" you could say. The pronunciation of the current name of Lancaster is not too far removed. The castle was held by Bad King John from his brother Richard the Lionheart. It imposed the sentence of death by hanging, drawing and quartering on the Catholic "English Martyrs" during the reformation and has been host to the founder of the Quaker movement, George Fox, who languished inside after his unorthodox views didn't go down too well. The castle was also the scene of the infamous witch trail in 1612, when ten unfortunate folk were convicted and hung. The most important evidence against them was given by a 9 year old child and amongst those she convicted of hanging were her own mother, brother and sister!
The royal links of Lancaster are impressive and are not only limited to history. The "Duchy" of Lancaster was formed as a result of land seizures from rebellious barons in the 12C and the Earl of Lancaster - by the 14C Duke of Lancaster - was a powerful man.
The son of John O' Gaunt, Shakespeare's "time honoured Lancaster" eventually became King of England as Henry IV in 1399. Since that time, the monarch is also Duke of Lancaster, including the present Queen Elizabeth. It was her father, George VI, who bestowed the title of city on Lancaster on the morning of his coronation in 1937.
The castle precinct is made so much more pleasant by the absence of the tourist hoards usually associated with such an impressive historic monument. It's owned by Elizabeth II, but is only a residence for prisoners - it is still a jail and a law court. This goes someway towards explaining the dearth of clicking cameras however, a significant part of it is open to the public on a refreshingly interesting guided tour.
Above the silhouettes Victorian Town Hall and spire of the Catholic Cathedral flanking the town high above on the hill is the green copula of the beautiful Ashton Memorial. Facing the castle on the other side of town it seems to lend a regal air as it watches over the towns inhabitants.
Ambling through the town streets presents a pleasant selection of architecture and shops. The horrors of 1960's planning didn't befall Lancaster anything like the other towns of North West England and the lack of foreign visitors leaves you in peace to explore and mingle in a "real city".
This is apparent outside the city too. The countryside is charming and unspoiled, and as Lancaster as a city is small, the undulating patchwork of green fields is surprisingly close at hand. The area as a whole is off the beaten path and has something to offer most tastes. The sense of community and real frienliness of the people is to be found exploring the backroads, many traditions are still practised with vigour and a beautiful absence of commercialism. When many tour operators seem to offer the "real England" but actually serve up an itinerary of stereotypically twee, over-visited honey pot destinations, you would be a lot better of coming here - but keep it to yourself!