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 …?

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 13

Swans on the River

I don’t know where they came from. I saw the last one arrive, descending with an easy parachute grace, its great wings cupping the air as its splayed feet touched the water, entered, so it landed with barely a splash, folded its wings, settled with the others, afloat. There are twelve, dazzling as light, delineated as if cut from tin, their long necks flexible as snakes. Feeding, always feeding, their hose necks deep in the flow, bodies still as white stones, legs and feet working invisibly to keep them still, white islands pointing upstream that the river cuts around like bridge piers. Always feeding, as if they are storing up for some grand endeavour. And always the sense that, along with their vivid presence here, they have a bigger life, somewhere else.

I saw a swan take off from this river sixty, seventy years ago. I’m not sure I’ve seen one take off since, but so clear is the memory that it might have happened a moment ago.

It was the root, that taking off, the metaphor at the heart of a song of my youth, a song of liberation and loss: the ‘fair and perfect’ swan, ‘a living curve of whiteness, and so effortlessly free – but held down by the legs that you can’t see. So she hisses out in anger when she feels herself endangered, when you come too close for comfort and she feels herself less free.’ The swan about to fly, ‘as she leans into the water, her wings are beating faster, her feet are pounding madly and she’s straining to be free … and awkwardness the only thing you see – but the beauty of a creature that’s not swimming now nor flying yet, but reaching for the vision she can be.’ The swan in the sky, ‘the air all around her, the earth far beneath, her wings in perfect motion and her head stretched to the sun – and you’re thinking to yourself, what has she done …?’ And never knowing if she did, that girl, reach her vision.

And it was the root, the pivot point, that taking off, analogue for a story of the journey to the mid-point of life, where there is the possibility of passing from the given life to the discovered life, told as the tale of a swan that put all its energy, focus and actions into learning to fly, in a world in which swans did not fly. Pounding across the water, ‘his feet were suddenly released from the gluey grip of the water and the wind swept under his wings and he was in the air. A door opened and he passed from a small dark room into a golden world of limitless possibility – before hitting the water with such a crash that the old swan had to drag him out. “You started to dream, didn’t you?” he smiled. “Your attention must never waiver. Flying is not a pleasure to be enjoyed but a condition that can, at first, only be maintained by absolute concentration. It is freedom: not freedom from, but freedom to do. It happens when you become responsible for yourself.”’

Years without rivers, without swans. And then, old, on Delos, the island around which the Cyclades turn, I heard the myth of the birth there of Apollo, god of the bow and the lyre, who kills from afar and heals, who sends disease and leads the chorus of the muses, who is the god of a beauty ‘that is the beginning of a terror that we are just able to endure, and we adore because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.’ At the moment of his birth, the wandering island put down golden roots, the streams ran gold, and swans flew seven times round the island singing his praises. The same swans pulled his chariot through the sky to exile in Britain, where he was worshipped ‘in a circular temple’.

Metaphor, analogue, myth. Where they come from, where they go to, the bigger life of swans that I will remember when I watch them, their life, here. And hope that I will see one take off.

Note: the quotation, about beauty being the beginning of terror, is from Rilke’s First Duino Elegy.

Letter from Lancaster 9

Thomas Harrison’s Towers

Lancaster has its share of towers, spires and domes: the castle gatehouse and Priory church, of course; then the Ashton Memorial folly, the grandiose clock tower on the (new) Town Hall, the sublime skyrocket of the Catholic Cathedral, and the Prussian helmet on the Storey Institute.


But my favourites bring me back to Thomas Harrison, architect of Skerton Bridge. (See Letter 7.)

From a standing start as a 38-year-old who had built nothing, Harrison quickly developed a busy practice, designing the Bridge Houses, laying out Green Ayre for housing, designing bridges in Derbyshire, Westmorland and Lonsdale, and a mansion for a plantation-owning, sugar-processing, and bank-owning local man: together with an ongoing programme of work to remodel the castle as a modern prison, in which for the first time men and women, felons and debtors were separated. By 1785 he had moved to Lancaster, married a local woman, and started a family.

But it was his clock tower and church tower that drew me as a child, knowing nothing of architecture or aesthetics, finding them, ‘friendly’, ‘reassuring’, regarding them with ‘affection’. And, later, admiring their beauty, while knowing nothing of their history – they were just ‘there’.

The new (now old) town hall had been built in 1782, overbearing in the small

IMG_5189Version 2 Version 3

 market square with its double-height Doric columns, and heavy pediment. Harrison was commissioned to add a clock tower. He created a tall, intricate, light structure that draws the eye up, lifts weight from the facade. An octagon contains the clock, from which rises a rotunda with eight tall, slender Ionic columns around the bell chamber, above this a low dome decorated with garlands, capped with a little dome. It has such lightness that I see it in a landscaped garden of the time, a temple dedicated to the muses of music and dance.

For his next commission, a tower and spire for the solid, austere St John’s, home chapel IMG_5191IMG_5188 IMG_5190

of the borough Corporation, he matched the solidity and austerity of the chapel in the square clock tower to roof level. Then, in three cornice-separated phases, he took off. First is the belfry, a Palladian cube, lightened with wide openings and Tuscan aedicules (triangular-topped ‘houses’). Then comes a rotunda, shorter and more robust than on the Town Hall, with eight Doric half-columns and a frieze, open through and airy. Then a low dome decorated with garlands is the launch pad for a slender spire, with eight concave sides – something about the concavities accelerates the eye up to the pinnacle point. From four-square cube to the vanishing point of the tip of the spire, in three stages, that both transforms the existing church, and is itself an aesthetic delight from wherever in town I see it, reassuring in its beauty.

And, as with Skerton Bridge, behind his assured judgement and good taste was a knowledge of Classical models, and an ability to adapt them appropriately. Both towers are derived from the 4thc BC Choragic Monument to Lysicrates in Athens.Version 2
It had been ‘discovered’ in 1751, and a copy built in Staffordshire in 1771. But Harrison was the first British architect to use it as inspiration for new designs, rather than simply copying it. As seen in these very different structures. As with is other buildings in Lancaster, the Classical vibrates within, echoes through, connects them, through his good taste and great learning, to the root of European architecture.

Lancaster did not keep Harrison long: having added remodelling Chester Castle to his portfolio, he fell out with the Lancaster magistrates, and in 1795 moved to Chester. All his subsequent buildings are in Cheshire and South Lancashire. But at least he got his start in Lancaster, and we still have his buildings.

Note: All the facts above come from: ‘Thomas Harrison, Georgian Architect of Chester and Lancaster, 1744 – 1829’, by John Champness, an exemplary account of Harrison’s training and work.

Shaftesbury Fringe Festival

GMcardI’ll be introducing In Search of France’s Green Meridian, my new book, at Shaftesbury Arts Centre on Saturday 30 June, 3pm for 3:15pm.
See http://www.shaftesburyfringe.co.uk.

The interview I gave is at https://soundcloud.com/user-856659193/keith-walton-shaftesbury-fringe-podcast.

Here’s my publicity blurb:


In Search of France’s Green Meridian:
A serpentine cycle ride from Dunkirk to the Pyrenees

In 2000 the Paris Meridian was designated la Méridienne verte. Millennium markers were put up along it, 10,000 trees (that’s one every 100m) were to be planted, cycling and walking trails made. 

Intrigued to find out how this ‘green spine’, this new knitting-together of France marked by trees now fifteen years grown had developed, I cycled it, from Dunkirk to the Pyrenees.

I visited cathedral cities and battlefields, the broad fields and villages and soft-flowing rivers of la France profonde, barren uplands, to the burning South, and returned at last to the smallholding where, forty years ago, I tried to live a rural dream … exploring the birth of the Gothic, the many Centres of France, the sources of Le Grandes Meaulnes, the Albigensian crusade, and much more, on a 1350-mile road trip through the richness and variety of this ever-fascinating country. 

Please join me as I talk about some places, incidents and reflections on my journey. You’ll be able to choose what I talk about, and there’ll be plenty of opportunity for questions and discussion.

Shaftesbury Arts Centre, Saturday 30 June, 3:15 to 4:15pm.  Free.

My book of the trip will be available at the special Fringe Festival price of £5.