Letters from Lancaster

I began writing ‘Letters from Lancaster’ soon after returning to live in Lancaster after fifty-six years away, for friends who did not know the town. I wrote them quickly, usually one a week, in the first year, to record the return of a changed person to a changed place. And I used them to begin to establish a new relationship with the area. They are a mix of observation, experience, research, reminiscence, opinion and imagination. They record what a returning native was drawn to, after an adult life away, in the place of his birth.

They are here in the order they were written. Access the list of Letters through the dropdown menu above, or the menu in the sidebar, and click on the Letter you want to read. Enjoy.

Letters from Lancaster 27

The Street that Disappeared

St Nicholas Street, where I lived from 1948 to 1960. 

This horse shoe, let into the crossroads at the top of St Nicholas Street. Either: thrown by the horse of John of Gaunt, as he rode in triumph, having been made Duke of Lancaster in 1362. Or: the sign of a horse fair. Catching the dual nature of Lancaster before the maritime trade from 1700 [Letter 25]: county town, with a statement castle, seat of the Duchy of Lancaster (rarely sat on – John of Gaunt, Shakespeare’s “time-honour’d Lancaster”, never came), with its Assizes at which all crown court cases for the county were tried; a local agricultural and market town benefiting from its location on a cattle- and horse-trading route south.

The name St Nicholas Street was first recorded in 1360, but probably dates from Pope Nicholas’ 1292 Indulgence relating to the saint’s feast day. The saint was a noted gift-giver, especially to children. A child-pope was elected on 6 December, and children ruled for the day. In the Netherlands he was Sinterklaas: the rest is history. Lancaster’s veneration is illustrated by the candle that was still burning for him in the parish church in 1564, years after Elizabethan law forbade such idolatry. 

An ancient street, leading down from the crossroads on the Roman road to an ancient well, with a pump, a pond, and a village-green-like area around it. (17 on Speed’s 1610 plan. Stone Well is 11.)

The majority of the population – under 1500 – cultivated the open fields around, but barned their animals in the town: this would have been their watering place. And for the horses in the several stables in St Nicholas Street marked on a 1684 map. Illustrated grimly in 1643 when the royalist Lord Derby, having failed to take the castle, laid waste much of the town: ‘all burned: dwelling houses, corne, hay, cattell [meaning all domestic animals] in their stalls’. Parliament awarded £8000 in compensation. Never paid.

The street was on the route from the castle – court house and prison – to Gallows Hill on the Moor above the town. The condemned passed on their way to execution, with the crowds, friendly or hostile, accompanying them. Including sixteen Catholic martyrs, several drawn and quartered. And two dozen ‘witches’, including the Pendle Ten, scapegoated victims of prejudice and revenge. As well as the numberless victims of the Bloody Code of exemplary punishment –‘men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen’ – which by 1800 listed 220 capital offences. Lancaster was known as the Hanging Town, passing more death sentences than any other court outside London. The twice-yearly Assizes brought wealth to the town, as judges, lawyers and spectators turned them into events in the social season. The scaffold was moved to the castle in 1800, the executions still public: the master of the nearby Free School, later the Grammar School, witnessed 168 executions, and encouraged the boys to attend with a half-day holiday. 

This 1810 painting shows Stonewell as still surprisingly rustic, unpaved, with thatched houses, decades after much of the town had been rebuilt in fine Georgian style on West Indies’ profits. [Letter 25]

By 1905 the pump and pond had gone, the area was cobbled and paved, the stream a covered sewer, and Stonewell was the terminus of the horse-drawn tram service to Morecambe. St Nicholas Street had settled into a town centre street.

Fifty years later little had changed: the same two pubs, Unitarian chapel, ironmonger, chemist, two hairdressers, two newsagents, a draper, a clog maker, and a tripe shop – not ours. The corn merchant had become a pet shop, the hosier was now a haberdasher. And our tripe shop [Letter 13] had arrived. Or had been left out of the 1905 Directory, number 25 absent from its listings.

From age 3 to 15, my world.
Marbles on grids between grumbling feet, eyes down for coins and Turf packets, paper boats in the gutter plunging to Australia, nimbly between heavy-shod hooves to collect soft droppings, the peaceful flutter and coo of pigeons in eight-high wicker panniers on their way to the station, next door for a haircut, Brilliantine smell, razor stropped for a single terrifying nick above each ear, men’s overheard conversations, ‘something for the weekend, sir?’, next door but one, tinkling bell, bacon smell, Mr Cornthwaite emerging dabbing his chin, our comics, Beano and Dandy, Lion and Tiger, Wizard and Rover, then he onto Disc, me to Eagle, the parting of the ways, floral and polish smells in the gloomy drapers’ opposite, wading in an agony of self-consciousness across the parquet floor under the shop girls’ X-ray gaze, a clutched button, ‘four of these, please’, running errands, always running, eager, past greengrocer boiling beetroot, grocer roasting coffee, to the warm bread smells, soft white loaf and the promise of thick slices, helping in the shop after six, counting the coins into piles of fours, tens, twelves and twenties, an army arranged in battalions, standing on the marble slab, cleaning the window in the evening sun that poured in from the empty street, filling me with light, my wiper-blade arm signalling the far off. Out, into the empty town, all life departed, the town mine to possess, every plate-glass window the entrance to an imagined world. Each component in the bike shop window transferred onto my bike, and I am Fausto Coppi, Il Campionissimo. Mannequins to fall in love with and sweep away as in Hollywood movies. Cyril Washbrook bat, carried through the innings, the match saved; and then, a couple of years later, the linseed oil transferred magically to paint as I entered the Art School for the first time. 

And yet by fifteen I was modern, imagination squashed under information, wandering corralled to a desk, approving of the redevelopment, the necessary car park, the new shops above in a pedestrian area, chains replacing local, the modern way. In our house, where we’d moved after the shop was closed, I didn’t notice the demolition, the digging down to the bed rock, the erasure, the building of ‘St Nicholas’ Arcade’, later, ‘St Nic’s’. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone …?

Thanks to Darren Webster for dating of St Nicholas Street.

Letter from Lancaster 26

The Lune through Lancaster (4): Below the last Bridge

Williamson’s Lune Mills

Below the last bridge (Carlisle Bridge, carrying the West Coast railway line) was: 

“the largest manufactory of its class in the world; and further we may say, without any fear of contradiction, that the mammoth works on the banks of the Lune are the most extensive in the universe that are owned and controlled solely by one individual.”

The factory was Jas Williamson and Son, largely forgotten; producing linoleum, almost obsolete; the individual, James Williamson (the son), Baron Ashton, the second richest man in Britain, hardly known. The possessive, Williamson’s, applied not just to the company but to the town which he dominated for fifty years, and influenced for forty years after his death.

From 1800 Lancaster stagnated, as maritime trade declined [Letters 15 and 25], and the canal [Letter 22] failed to connect the town to thriving south Lancashire. In 1800 the population was 11,000, Oldham’s 12,000; in 1861, 17,000 against 72,000. And the town might have continued as a genteel market town without the new industry of waterproof-coated fabrics – oilcloth, table-baize and linoleum – used as table and floor coverings. By 1911 the industry employed half the workers in the town that had grown to 41,000.
Table-baize was colourful, easy to maintain, and a step up from newspaper without the expense of linen. Linoleum had a century run from its invention in 1863 to its demise under the stiletto heel and the fitted carpet. Available in seasonally-updated colours and designs, in several qualities – and prices – it covered cold flags and draughty boards, carried a polish, and became a ready indicator of a household’s affluence, standard of housekeeping, and taste, as disposable incomes rose and ‘home furnishing’ became a mass market.

Such are the enigmas and paradoxes of ‘Li’le Jimmy’, the diminutive trick-cyclist (the bicycle his passion) behind the high walls of his modest estate in the middle of the terraced houses of his workers, that in this first pass over a character I’m sure I’ll return to, I will simply list credits and debits in a first accounting.

Born and educated in Lancaster, James took over his father’s thriving oilcloth business in 1879. Employment quickly doubled, then doubled again. And for the 4,000 it was a job for life. At a time before dole and pensions, he rarely laid men off in quiet times, and any employee, however old, who got himself in to the factory was paid a full day, even if he spent it leaning on a broom. He gave

Wiiliamson as portrayed in a Mayfair cartoon, ‘Philanthropy’

generously to local hospitals, schools, churches, and sports clubs. He bought out and cancelled the market dues. From his efficient office – daily tallies of sales, orders and inventory – he planned the orderly development of his greenfield site by the river, with its own wharf and railway line, space to expand and to store raw materials to weather price fluctuations. And with his careful marketing strategies, he dominated for half a century the cheap linoleum trade in Britain, Europe, Australia and South America. His financial support for Gladstone Liberals earned him the title Baron Ashton. He developed Williamson Park, created by his father in old quarries above the town, gave it to the town, and paid for its upkeep. He also paid for the town’s grand new town hall, and built, in the park, the Ashton Memorial, ‘England’s Taj Mahal’, for his late wife: Pevsner calls it ‘the grandest monument in England’. He died in 1930, leaving £600 million at today’s prices.

On the other side. He paid wages far below the industry rate, and below the industries of south Lancashire. Helped by Lancaster’s isolation (20 miles north of Preston), and wage-fixing agreements with other local employers, he kept wages low. A contemporary records: ‘those poor lads used to walk down the Quay looking half-starved, pale, and smelling of all that used to come off the lino’. Fiercely anti-union among process workers, he had to accept them in skilled trades; but the few

Williamson as portrayed by a Lancaster activist

times they struck, they were quietly ‘let go’ in the following weeks. When an Independent Labour Party candidate almost won in Skerton ward (where he lived), he sacked all ILP members. Anyone sacked by Williamson’s would never be employed again in Lancaster. His ‘jobs for life’ policy was made easier because of the high turnover of workers. In 1914, hundreds quickly left to join the army. When women took their places, they soon left for the two munitions factories.
He ran a sophisticated intelligence system in which informants, ‘watchmen’, reported on conversations overheard in pubs, canteens and on the production line. Some of these reports survived the wholesale destruction of all records, on his instructions, after his death. It was still widely believed, when I was a child, that he had had a telescope trained on the works entrance, to check who was late.
The workers of the town were so cowed that after 1918 new industries were attracted to the town by the low wage rates and non-unionised workforce. It lasted through to 1970s when the last big factories in Lancaster closed.

Ashton died in 1930, intestate (the largest in British history), sole owner of the business and worth £600 million at today’s prices. No bequests to loyal employees, no benefits to the town. No succession-planning. As if he could not imagine a world without him. The main beneficiary, apart from his daughter, was the state, in death duties. Imagine the benefit of even a small amount of that to the town.
The same for the over-grand Town Hall, and the absurdly functionless Memorial. (Pevsner: ‘the folly to end all follies’.) Together they cost £24 million at today’s prices. Again, imagine that money better spent.
As to the Memorial being a ‘Taj Mahal’ for Jessy, his second wife, I think this unlikely. He had offered the Council a monument to Queen Victoria in the Park just before Jessy died. Immediately after her death he proposed instead a new ‘Structure’ in the Park, with no reference to Jessy. I suggest, rather, that the death of his no-nonsense wife freed him to build a monument to himself. (By the time it was completed, he had married again.) His housekeeper reports that he followed its progress keenly through the telescope.

And, reconstructing the view from his house – now obscured by trees and buildings – it is interesting to see how clearly the Memorial and the Town Hall stand out. Although he disliked being photographed, and avoided personal publicity, there was an anonymous grandiosity about him. As in the quotation I opened this Letter with, from a publicity article of 1894, which omits the name of this Uber-individual who “owned and controlled solely” this “mammoth works”, “the most extensive in the universe.” I imagine him, from his tower in the house, training his telescope first on the factory gate, and then on the edifices rising to celebrate – himself.

Ashton Memorial from Skerton
Town Hall from Skerton

Lancaster skyline from Skerton

Acknowledgement: Almost all the facts are from the comprehensive biography, Lord Linoleum by Philip J Gooderson. The speculations are mine.

Letter from Lancaster 25

The Lune through Lancaster (3): Between the Bridges

By one bridge is a green space, with a skateboard park. By the other bridge is a new residential and industrial estate. Between them, the heart of Lancaster, and the story and complex legacy of the town and slavery. 

Brockbank shipyard: The Trafalgar, being built, was a slave ship.

In the eighteenth-century the green space was the site of Brockbank’s shipbuilders, who for a hundred years built ships custom-made for the Lancaster slave trade, smaller than Liverpool ships as they picked up Africans on the difficult Guinea coast. On the estate, several of the new streets are named after Brockbank slave ships. There is also a Brockbank Avenue. Not deliberately offensive, but the result of the lack of openness about the detail of Lancaster’s economy, and, as I noted in Letter 15, the cognitive dissonance this allows.

Lancaster was the fourth largest UK slaving port. There were 200 sailings to Africa, and 30,000 Africans were transported across the Atlantic. There were also many direct sailings between Lancaster and the Caribbean, with furniture and luxury goods for the plantation holders, clothes, ironwork, dried fish and machinery for the plantations, bringing back sugar, rum, spices and mahogany. Shipbuilding and furniture-making were the two main trades in the town. Lancaster men also owned plantations directly, and their sons became factors and supervisors in Africa and the Caribbean.  Their families became wealthy, built substantial warehouses and fine houses, furnished them with mahogany furniture, and dominated the local economy, society, the Council and the Port Commission for generations. (The Port Commission was set up in 1759 by the local slave traders to improve port facilities.)  “The wealth derived from slavery and slave ownership in Lancaster shaped the establishment of a new class of powerful elites in England.” Prof. Imogen Tyler.

The Quay, Lancaster. Many warehouses survive, converted into flats.

But these generalities have been known for thirty years (see Letter 15), and acknowledged in the city museums’s displays. And yet have allowed the ignorance that resulted in the street names. Perhaps some details will say more.

Miles Barber of Skerton (where I live) developed on the Guinea coast ‘Factory Island’, and eleven barracoons where Africans in thousands were imprisoned in horrific conditions before being herded onto slave ships. It was the biggest such operation on the coast. He was a Port Commissioner in 1860s.

He employed the Hodgson brothers of Caton, who took over the running of Factory Island, and used their profits to set up the first cotton mill in this area. The mill used children from Liverpool orphanages and workhouses as cheap indentured labour – a report in 1797 said that “the small and nimble fingers of children” were essential for the efficient use of early cotton machinery. The children were locked in dormitories between their 12-hour shifts.

John Bond owned Lancaster plantation in Guiana (Guyana), described in 1785 as “distinguished” by “its inhuman treatment of slaves”. He lived in Dalton Square, where ‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstrations were held. In 1837 his son received £29,000 – almost £3 million today – from the Slave Compensation Act, for the loss of his ‘property’. The slaves received nothing.

The Satterthwaite family had a black servant, Frances Elizabeth Johnson. Her grave bears one date, that of her baptism (baptism the only certain way to cease to be a slave). Her hand was cut off and preserved in the family, as a memento of her service, as the paw of a favourite dog was often preserved in that period. It was finally buried in 1997. 

The Customs House,
now the Maritime Museum

Gillows was a well-known Lancaster maker of high-quality furniture for 200 years. It was founded by Richard Gillow, who sailed as ship’s carpenter in a Satterthwaite slave ship, and returned with the first mahogany in 1720. As well as importing slave-produced mahogany, and selling furniture to the plantation owners and local slave traders, three-quarters of his ships and 40% of profits were from the slave trade: this was long concealed in the company accounts. His son, Robert designed one of Lancaster’s finest buildings, the Customs House, on the Quay, and continued the business.

After slavery was abolished across the British Empire in 1833, The Slavery Compensation Act 1837 paid £20 million – £2.4 billion at today’s prices, the largest ever government payout – to 40,000 owners of 800,000 slaves. Over a dozen local families benefited. The money fuelled the Railway Mania of 1840s as the beneficiaries sought replacement income.

But there are signs of change.

Research at the universities of Central Lancashire and Lancaster, led by Alan Rice and Imogen Tyler, is revealing more and more local detail.

“Captured Africans”
by Kevin Dalton Johnson

In 2005, the Slave Trade Arts Memorial Project secured the commissioning of “Captured Africans” by Kevin Dalton Johnson, still the only quayside-located monument in UK to transported Africans, and a focus for ‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstrations.

The Rawlinson grave, the most elaborate in the Priory  churchyard, was recently tagged ‘Slave Trader’. The vicar said that while he couldn’t approve the action, he acknowledged its truth, and the need for the church to be more open. (Clergy received an equivalent of £46m from the compensation payout.)

A “Slave Trade and Fair Trade Map of Lancaster” has been  produced, and recently updated, giving a route from the past of slave trading to the future of fair trading.

The City Council, the Priory Church, and the local museums have promised to revisit their public spaces and displays to take better account of Lancaster and the slave trade.

Professor Tyler has connected the Lancaster Assizes sending branded and chained convicts to forced labour in the Caribbean and North America, with the slave and plantation system, the investments from slaving profits in child-exploiting cotton mills, and their use of slave-produced cotton.

And perhaps I have to continue the connections, to arrive at my personal responsibility: to the post-war mass-import of sub-continent workers to East Lancashire mills, then their abandonment when the industry was off-shored, resulting in racial tensions. And further, to exploitative third-world conditions producing clothes I buy without thought. Or to sweat-shops in Leicester, and the ‘fast-fashion’ of synthetic fabric clothes, effectively one-use plastics. And maybe I need to follow all such connections, to what I consume and how I live.

Note: Essential viewing is Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, David Olusoga’s brilliant account of the slave trade and the Compensation Act. Available on BBC iplayer.

Letter from Lancaster 24

The Lune through Lancaster (2): Skerton Weir

Skerton weir is the boundary between river and estuary. Although the corn mill was demolished in 1950s, the weir continued as a popular place of relaxation and play: to sit beside its pond-stillness and patterned cascade, to swim placidly or racily behind, walk adventurously along, slide riskily down, fish from, a place of informal gathering, social experience, rites of passage, where local kids did their growing up, Skerton beach. It was rebuilt in 1970s, “a nasty piece of engineering”, “extremely dangerous”, “lethal at high tide”, definitively separating two worlds, of Environment Agency and Port Commissioners, crossed only by diminishing numbers of salmon and the occasional errant jet skier. No one goes near it.

The average water level is 3 feet. At 12:15am, 6 December, 2015, it rose to 13 feet. A foot of rain had fallen in 24 hours, and the flow was the highest ever recorded on a UK river. Storm Desmond.

This evening the swans float perfectly reflected. Long ago, when everything was taken for granted, and looking back everything had significance, I watched one take off, and ‘a door open as it passed from a small dark room into a golden world of limitless possibility.’ [Letter 13.]

On the opposite bank 16 herons stand in a row, like grey and white umbrellas stuck in at the points, sometimes grooming, the occasional wing adjustment, but mostly standing still, as if time does not exist. In the trees above 20 cormorants, black as absence. They pass my window each morning, heading for the sea, flying fast, eager commuters.

The young man is walking by the river hand in hand with Angela. It is 3am. He has been to the Friday night dance in Morecambe with his brother, the only time, for they inhabit different worlds. His brother introduced him to Brenda and Angela, bouffant hair, petticoated dresses, stiletto heels. He danced with Angela as never before or after, she sparkled on the dance floor as if illuminated by the spinning mirror ball, light on her lightning feet, turning and swaying in perfect balance, leading all the time while moving backwards and appearing to be led, avoiding his mistakes adroitly and turning his errors into stylish moves, navigating them around the dance floor and between shuffling couples unerringly, round and round in a breathless whirl, as the music stops a big smile.  She is a burler and mender, a skilled trade. The guest group was the Beatles. In two weeks they will release “Love Me Do” and change music. In two weeks the young man will go to university and his life will change. His brother has shown him the panther he carved. It took his breath away. The curved surfaces he had to follow with the touch of the prints of his fingers, the muscled limbs tensed for action, the backbone taut as a bow, sinuous as a snake; motion stilled, distilled; a frame from a film and the whole film in that frame; ferocity caged and yet innocent energy; vitality trapped and yet freedom expressed. His brother should go to art school. At Christmas he will get engaged to Brenda and continue as a joiner, an excellent tradesman. The young man is walking with Angela, between weir and bridge, over the memory of the cottages they demolished to build the flats, Wimpey’s contribution to the International Style, ‘less is less’ commented his art teacher. ‘My Nan had one of the cottages,’ Angela says. ‘Just here.’ She stops. ‘I loved the river. Always different. We girls’d wade over when it was low, like now, skirts tucked in our knickers, for a dare, getting shouted at from the bridge, birds on the islands, sea birds I suppose, black and white, darting movements, long pink legs and sharp red beaks, as if they’d been rummaging in a corpse, we’d scare each other, ‘look out, you’re going to step in it!’ Next week full, like sliding lead, hardly getting under the bridge, going round the bend like a racing car, carrying tree trunks like battering rams, birds perched on them, expecting to see houses with people clinging to the chimneys, “Help! Help!”, like at the pictures. Sometimes it’d come through the cottage, in through the front out through the back. Never deep, we’d sweep it through, no lino, Nan quite liked it, “keeps the flags clean”. Broke her heart when they moved her into the flats. Tenth floor. Didn’t live long. On my own. Fourteen. Waking from dreams, looking out at – no, for – the river. Once, just once, in that luminous moment of just waking, caught it full to the brim, still as mercury, in the deepest silence of the night, at the moment it arrived at its highest point, like a breath held, before it let go, the beginning of its long flow out. I imagined myself lying on it, looking up at the full moon, being carried away to … Just once.’ Her voice far away. Her hand warm. They walk on.

Letter from Lancaster 23

The Lune through Lancaster (1): The Lune Aqueduct

The last weir is above Lancaster, between John Rennie’s aqueduct (1797) and Thomas Harrison’s bridge (1788) [Letter 7] .


Built to power a corn mill, the weir created a three mile lake. William Bradshaw objected to the building of the aqueduct, fearing it would affect his salmon and trout fishing. But built it was. And on a grand scale.

The canal heading for Kendal had followed the 72ft contour from Preston; it is the longest lock-free canal in UK. It was built to generous dimensions, often 30 feet wide, taking barges of 14ft beam, as against the 7ft narrow boats of many canals. The plan was to cross the Ribble at Preston and run south to the Leeds – Liverpool canal, connecting Lancaster to the port, commercial and industrial South Lancashire, the Wigan coalfield, and the national network. There would be aqueducts over the Lune and the Ribble. The Lune aqueduct was built 1794 – 96. It was a disaster.

What? Grade 1 listed, “the finest and largest masonry aqueduct in UK”, “the outstanding aqueduct in NW England”, “John Rennie’s best work”, a disaster?

Economically. Costing £48,000 instead of the budgeted £18,000, it almost bankrupted the company.

 Why the cost overrun, when Skerton Bridge, the same length, the same five stone arches, cost £14,000, and the contemporary Poncysylite aqueduct, half as long again and twice as high, was built for £47,000?

The first mistake had been strategic – to choose to push the canal towards Kendal and risk running out of money instead of linking across the Ribble to the southern section then under construction, which would have generated income. Perhaps the worthies of Lancaster, used to their privileged eighteenth-century life of twice-yearly assizes and sea-born wealth, were not ready to throw in their lot with the industrial toil of south Lancashire.

The second was perhaps vanity – 9 of the 11 on the canal committee were from Lancaster, and the prospect of a fine prestige project, within walking distance of Lancaster – along “Ladies’ Walk”, no less – to match the great buildings of the town’s prosperity, was too much to resist. It is said that Rennie proposed brick. Such an idea! Having settled on Rennie’s “decidedly monumental” (Pevsner) design, building began.

What then went wrong? Although a noted engineer, this was Rennie’s first bridge, and, being cautious, he overbuilt. And perhaps the weir was the key. While Harrison had low tides and a daily near-dry riverbed to access the site, Rennie was building in a lake. It needed constant pumping with inefficient steam engines to drain the coffer dams. And rushing to be prepared for winter floods, work went on round the clock. The aqueduct completed, the money gone, work on the canal stopped. But not before a plaque was carved on the aqueduct, “To Public Prosperity”. As a report in 1819 stated, too much had been wasted “in ornamenting the town of Lancaster with a grand aqueduct upon which the water has lain stagnant for over 20 years”.

It meant the Ribble aqueduct was never built. Instead an inefficient tramway over the river was cobbled together. It soon fell out of use, and the canal south of Preston incorporated into the Leeds – Liverpool. Instead of a direct connection to the growing economies of south Lancashire to compensate for the town’s decline as the maritime trade and enterprising sons moved to Liverpool [Letter 15], it was left a ribbon lake, the “Black and White”, carrying coal north, and limestone south. Lancaster stagnated for 50 years. Until an entrepreneurial genius was born in the town. [Subject of a future Letter.]

For John Rennie it was career-making, and he became a trusted bridge builder. But his bridges carried a Lancaster imprint. Having studied Skerton Bridge, he adopted Harrison’s flat roadway and semi-elliptical arches on Kelso Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, and London Bridge. In his Waterloo Bridge, described as “the finest large masonry bridge ever built”, “the noblest bridge in the world”, and in London Bridge (now crossing a canal in a retirement village in Arizona), it is impossible not to see echoes, even images, of Harrison’s masterpiece.








London Bridge                                                             Skerton Bridge


Letter from Lancaster 22

That day the river moved, just a little. How long had it been? There had been weeks of non-stop rain, weeks of sunshine every day. An equinox and a solstice, certainly. And several full moons. He had unpacked pictures and hung them. And set out his brother’s sculptures on a shelf.Version 2

He had painted two Van Gogh paintings, paint-by-numbers, 25 colours, 5,000 colour cells, “Don’t be intimidated eyeful of lines and colours”, the Instruction Leaflet had counselled; methodically he had built, colour by colour, over many tranquil hours, a simulacrum of the facture of Vincent’s paintings – themselves painted quickly, urgently, even desperately in the St Remy Asylum, each of the simulacra having a surprising vividness and vitality.

Version 2IMG_6879

He had read The Voyage, in which on p459, “The Voyage Begins”. One journey had been cancelled. And then a second. He was going nowhere. He had read, “did you ever think that roads are the only things that are endless? They are the serpents of eternity.” But now the serpents looped back on themselves, ate their own tails. He had read A Tour Around my Garden, in which the author, envious of a friend leaving on a grand tour, resolves to make his garden the world, and 58 letters later sees his friend return, “and before I have half finished my tour.” He had read Journey Around my Room, in which the passage from bed to chair becomes a grand adventure. He had read Espèces d’espaces, the first word “Space”, and he had fallen in and the space had grown around him so that there was only space, large, and himself, small, and all was still and silent. Then music had entered the silence, music like water rippling over glimpsed realms, like clouds forming ever-changing worlds, music entirely itself and flowing through him, restoring him to himself. That day the river moved, just a little.

The Voyage by Charles Morgan.
“Serpents of eternity” from Where There is Nothing  by WB Yeats.
A Tour Around my Garden by Alphonse Karr.
A Journey Around my Room by Xavier de Maistre.
Espèces d’espaces by Georges Perec.
Music: “Biesy” from Esja by Hania Rani.

Letter from Lancaster 21

Gray’s Seat, Crook o’ Lune, an Hour before Sunset.

It is a stiff scramble up from the river to the road, then another climb, but this with form, a progress, a path curving intriguingly up through woods between a drystone wall thickly-velveted with bright green moss, and a palisade of upright flagstones, slender menhirs. Up, the path, towards a blank wall – then it curves suddenly left and opens into a small arena, a viewing area, with a semi-circular seat faux-rustically constructed from quartered tree trunks and morticed upright planks, facing, looking out over – trees. The view lost behind trees. Gray’s view, that I slighted in Letter 20, I now yearn for.
“Ingleborough, behind a variety of lesser mountains, makes a back-ground of the prospect: on each hand of the middle distance, rise two sloping hills; the left clothed in thick woods, the right with variegated rock and herbage: between them, in the most fertile of valleys, the Lune serpentizes for many a mile, and comes forth ample and clear, through a well-wooded and richly-pastured fore-ground.”

In my fore-ground, a dense barrier of dark trees. While through it in haloed fragments, and around it and above it at this magic hour, the air is expansive, the light golden. I imagine the hill to the right vivid emerald, to the left shadowed viridian. I imagine Ingleborough gold becoming pink, mauve then blue, and the river transmuting from gold to silver as day fades into night … Chop down the trees! Restore the view!!

Because my argument was with the fetishising of the view as static, framed, fixed, as against that come upon on one’s motion through the landscape and taken into the self. The artists of the Views would not just fix, frame and enclose in the eye, they would bring their Claude glasses and, sitting with back to the view, draw or paint the image reflected in the mirror.

For the mass market visitor to the View, there was the ready-made, the postcard. And with the coming of mass-market cameras, each could take their view that, when it was returned days later from the chemist, would displace the fading memory, become the view. With the digital camera, the image could be viewed immediately – but was quickly buried under the deluge of promiscuous clicking. Perhaps the polaroid was the one copy that enabled the symbiosis, the feedback relationship, that could enrich both; but the polaroid was always expensive, specialist. With the smart phone and the selfie, the maker again stands back to the view. But now the view is not the subject but a backdrop, like one of the painted backdrops in Victorian photographic studios, representing aspiration, a hoped-for destination. In the selfie, the figure is the subject, as in the Victorian studio portrait; the view represents arrival.

Ps. Gray was an advocate for and populariser of the Claude glass. “On one sightseeing trip he was so intent on the glass that he fell backwards into a “dirty lane” and broke his knuckles.” Wikipedia. Prefiguring the jokes (and in some cases the reality) of selfie-takers walking backwards over cliffs.

Letter from Lancaster 20

Walking the Lune: Lonsdale

At some time in the Ice Age the Lune emerged from the Gorge into a wide-spreading landscape, and onto the relict mile-wide bed of a great river that had flowed two million years before. Across which it now curves and meanders. It is like the track of a post-apocalypse tribe wandering on the lost highway of a great civilisation. On the geological map it is a blue line wiggling across a yellow stripe.

The Romans, with their thread of road and beads of camps and milestones – still there – followed the valley as their route north. As did the Normans, with their motte and bailey castles – also still there. But at some time the main road migrated west, to what became the A6, through Kendal and Penrith, instead of slipping up the Lune valley and through the Gorge, as the railway and M6 did later? I’ve no idea.

Anyway, it left Lonsdale – the name for the lower Lune valley – to pastoral farmers, and to wealthy incomers: dukes, bankers, industrialists, who amassed large estates and built big houses.



So this landowner can regulate passage along a seven-mile stretch of the river – groups only, no individual paddlers, ‘no access or egress is permitted to the river bank’, ‘Paddlers must not stop or play on the river’.








And this bridge, the most elaborate on the whole river, was built to connect the Hall to the estate fields, nothing else, while half a mile upstream farmers and villagers had to ford the river.IMG_6048

Since my cycling days here, the farming villages, like pearls along the thread of the Roman road, have been substantially gentrified, with many houses, even the smallest cottages, done up, and shops and pubs either closed or delicatessened and gastro-ised … but this is so everywhere.

And at some time in the eighteenth century the Lune emerged from the Gorge into consciousness. Or, rather, into our consciousness of landscape as an object to be viewed, and consumed, aesthetically. To be located within the shorthand of the Picturesque, the Beautiful and the Sublime. “Examine the face of the country by the rules of picturesque beauty,” William Gilpin commanded.

So in 1769, Thomas Gray, at Crook o’ Lune, three miles from Lancaster, wrote: “Here, Ingleborough, behind a variety of lesser mountains, makes the back-ground of the prospect: on each hand of the middle distance, rise two sloping hills; the left clothed with thick woods, the right with variegated rock and herbage: between them, in the most fertile of valleys, the Lune serpentizes for many a mile, and comes forth ample and clear, through a well-wooded and richly pastured fore-ground. Every feature which constitutes a perfect landscape of the extensive sort is here not only boldly marked, but in the best position.”

In 1820’s ‘L.E.L’, (Letitia Elizabeth Landon), the foremost popular poet of the day, wrote a celebration to accompany an engraving ‘Vale of Lonsdale’.

In 1875, Ruskin wrote: “The valley of the Lune at Kirkby Lonsdale is one of the loveliest scenes in England – therefore, in the world. Whatever moorland hill and sweet river can be, at their best, is gathered here; and chiefly seen from the steep bank which falls to the stream side from the upper part of the town itself. … I do not know in all my own country, still less in France or Italy, a place more naturally divine, or a more priceless possession of true ‘Holy Land.’”

But disengaged, from theorising and Views and from my unease at ownership possession and access, it is glorious walking upstream from Crook o’ Lune, moving through the landscape. Here the river winds in wide shining sweeps of freehand curves that I cannot resist in haptic echoes inscribing in the air. Here the river glitters over shingle as if alive with feeding fish. Here the river passes dark and slow under me as I scramble through the hanging woods, ancient woodland fragments from lost times, stilled with slowed time and yet alive with the after-vibration of outlaw rides, a place for adventures.

And all the time, seen or unseen, depending, but always there, Ingleborough. As distinctive as Mont St Victoire or Mount Fuji. Walking towards it I imagine a Cézanne accumulating image after image of it in every nuanced condition of weather and light; of a Hokusai depicting it unchanging in picture after picture of different landscapes. And, in privileged moments, as it is, Ingleborough.


Letter from Lancaster 19


1. The Picturedrome/Rex. 1911.IMG_6167 Lancaster’s first full-time cinema, converted from the Victoria Hall roller rink. The first film was The Siege of Calais, a French film (no need for sub-titles or dubbing, just change the intercaptions. My father recalled the jumble of voices as the slow readers spelled out the words and the literate read out the captions for the those who couldn’t read). Released in a colour-tinted version – did Lancaster see one of the first colour films? The cinema owner’s wife, Mrs Atroy, accompanied the films at the piano. Sound was installed in 1930. By the 1950s it was so rough we called it the Bug Hut. In 1958 it was renamed The Rex, and showed art house movies – mostly excuses for nudity, like Isle of Levant, but I saw Jazz on a Summer’s Day there, spinnakers like curved white steel, sunlit sparkling ocean, Anita O’Day, that hat, that voice, vulnerable, defiant, on a wet Wednesday when I should have been at Games, the only other person in the cinema a teacher from my school pretending not to see me. What if we had spoken, as two people…? It closed in 1960, became a Bingo Hall, and was demolished (along with our tripe shop) to build St Nicholas Arcade. It is now the entrance to the car park.


2. The Palladium. 1914. IMG_6159The town’s first purpose-built cinema, ‘The Palladium Picture House and Café Rendez-Vous’, with a dance café upstairs. I saw Seven Brides for Seven Brothers there, having missed it on its circuit release. Loved it – MGM colour! The barn-raising scene!! Julie Newmar, the future Cat Woman!!! But how did they find seven actors with red hair? I didn’t understand these things. The crippled man who sold The Lancashire Evening Post outside gave me a bread roll from inside his shirt, I said, ‘thank you very much’, went round the corner and threw it away, and felt guilty without knowing why. Closed in 1960, it became the Rio Bingo Club. In 1980 it was gutted for WH Smith’s, and now includes the Post Office.


3. The Hippodrome/County. 1923.IMG_6164 Built in 1798 as a Catholic church, converted to the Palatine Hall by the Abstinence Society in 1859, in 1906 became ‘The Hippodrome and Opera House’, with live acts and short films. 1923 became a full-time cinema, ‘The County’. Sound installed in 1930. What film was showing, what soundtrack was audible through the wall as Dr Ruxton murdered his wife and maid next door? His house was empty for years. The cinema closed in 1956. It is now Council offices, once more The Palatine Hall.


4. The Palace. 1929.IMG_6163 Opened as ‘The Palace Theatre’, but with no fly tower it was pure cinema. The first in town with sound. In 1937 it became an ABC cinema, one of the national chains. It had the ABC Minors on Saturday mornings, but it was too rough for us. I remember waiting outside trying to get into an ‘A’ picture – ‘Will you take us in, Mister?’ ‘Aye, if you pay for yourself, and don’t sit anywhere near me.’ We’d smuggle in bottles of squash, because cartons of Kia-Ora was too expensive; once I dropped the glass bottle, it smashed, and I ran and ran. It closed in 1974, became a disco, a bar, a children’s play area. It is now empty.



5. The Odeon. 1936.IMG_6161
One of Oscar Deutsch’s large, opulent, art deco cinemas (its name: ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation’; in fact the name for a Greek theatre, and a common name for cinemas in Italy and France), designed to attract the middle class. My parents would go to no other cinema in town, for years went every week, regardless of the film. Taken over in 1941 by J Arthur Rank, he of the gong and the rhyming slang. I saw all the Cecil B de Mille epics on its vast Cinemascope screen – the screen widening before my eyes – and some 3D films, dodging the arrows. I went every week to Saturday Morning Pictures. (My two regrets on going to the grammar school: no soccer, and no Saturday Morning Pictures, because we had classes then. Both part of the project, I realise now, to separate ‘intelligent’ working-class kids from our roots, to co-opt us. But that’s another story.) Galloping home on Trigger, suddenly realising that the world I was riding through was more real but less meaningful, unsure what that meant but sure that it was important. In 1971 the stalls became a bingo hall, the circle was converted into two screens. Closed in 2004 when the multiplex opened. Demolished in 2010, replaced with a Travelodge hotel.

For all the decline in cinema-going, there are more films shown each week in Lancaster (15 this week at the Vue multiplex and Dukes Theatre) than ever before. What has gone is cinema as event.