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.
The Lune through Lancaster (4): Below the last Bridge
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
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
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.
Acknowledgement: Almost all the facts are from the comprehensive biography, Lord Linoleum by Philip J Gooderson. The speculations are mine.
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.
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.
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 A 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.
“Heysham has one of only two possible examples of pre-Roman labyrinths in Britain”, wrote Dr George Nash, Bristol University archaeologist, in 2008.
An ancient labyrinth? At Heysham? I’m interested. I like labyrinths. I’ve written about a labyrinth in Crete1, a labyrinth in Amiens cathedral2. A friend made a turf labyrinth in Dorset that we walked.
A labyrinth is not a maze.There are many ways through a maze, you can get lost in it: it is a puzzle to solve. There is only one way through a labyrinth; it combines circle and spiral in a path that meanders but is purposeful: it is a path to follow. At Chartres it is called the Road to Jerusalem, the Road to Paradise. As a meditative practice it is the road to the self. As a religious artefact it is the portal to another realm.
From their origin in Crete (the Theseus and minotaur story is accepted to be a Greek distortion of a Minoan labyrinth ceremony conducted by a bull-masked priest), they spread along the Bronze Age trading routes the Greeks took in search of tin, to Iberia and then to the British Isles. Pytheas wrote of his 4th century BC journey to the Orkneys– it is likely that the Ring of Brodgar is the ‘circular temple’ in which Apollo was worshipped. [Letter 13]. The other British labyrinth is at Tintagel, close to Cornish tin mines. And Heysham is on old Irish Sea trade routes – St Patrick is said to have visited, and the hogback stone in the church [Letter 10] is thought to be the grave marker of a Viking trader.
The Heysham labyrinth was discovered in 1996 by a local reporter, and a photograph printed in the Morecambe Visitor.
Working from the photograph, Nash concluded that the labyrinth had been pecked – rather than carved – consistent with pre-Historic petroglyphs. But when he visited in 2008, he found it smoothed and eroded. It was fading away. Time for me to find it.
It isn’t easy to find. I have a couple of photographs, but there are acres of sandstone ledges on the headland, pavements and cliffs, and I am looking for a faint carving eight inches across. It takes two visits. On my first visit I find a boat engraved into a rock face. On my second, from reference points on the photographs, I find the place. It is on a flat outcrop of rock, at high tide level, that would be submerged by the highest tides. It is on a wide ledge, next to the engraved boat. Is the labyrinth here? I see it. I don’t see it. It is only when I photograph it that I fix it. But when I bring a friend the next day, neither of us can see it. It is in yesterday’s photograph. But I don’t see it now. Is it there?
What to do with this story? Perhaps it is from pre-History, having a significance, long covered but revealed by an exceptional storm, and we have from 1996 to the moment it finally disappears to resolve our relationship with it? Perhaps it is a hoax, like crop circles, created as bait for New Agers to fit into their theories? Perhaps it was created by a group as their talisman, a group I should be seeking out …? Or this:
‘On the day Ship arrived [Letter 10], she saw the identical figures facing away from each other to different worlds, and realised that he would go far, naming, and doing great things; while she would stay, come again and again to experience the sea and sky cupped in the steel hull, and listen for what the wave says …
The day he leaves, wandering the shore, she finds the engraved boat. And close by, as if directed to it, the labyrinth. All the times she and he clambered over, sat on, swam from this ledge, without seeing the boat, the labyrinth … This day, and from now on, the boat represents him; the labyrinth is hers.
She studies the labyrinth, each curve, in minutest detail. She wets her finger, touches the labyrinth, tastes the sandstone, the salt. She follows the curves with her fingertip, the involutions and evolutions, in to the centre, out to the edge. And sometimes, at the centre, through. Eyes closed, her fingertip reads the story, like braille. So many stories. Eyes closed, the walls of the groove rise high on either side as, like the needle in a vinyl record, she brings into existence its song. So many songs.
On sunny days at low tides she sits beside it and looks out over the vast tawny pelt of the Bay, smooth as chamois, and inscribes words, makes patterns, creates worlds upon the pelt.
On moonless nights at high tide she stands over it, the dark water lapping at the ledge, aware of the limitless surging ocean, is drawn to dive in; instead draws the ocean into herself, encompasses it.
The labyrinth in the stone fades. Her finger continues unerringly to follow its curves. The labyrinth in the stone erodes away, is erased. But it is there, she feels it, knows it, touches it, holds it to herself. While she lives, the labyrinth lives.’
Notes: 1Dionysos’ Island, p147-164. 2In Search of France’s Green Meridian, p43.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.