Oct. 7th, 2012

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A brief diversion now, by way of Lancaster Castle, infamous for the role it played in the trial of the unfortunate Pendle Witches...

Now, as some of you might remember, I am particularly fascinated by sites which show evidence of consistent use over long periods.  Churches and cathedrals are a good example: many of our early ecclesiastical buildings are still performing the same role in the wider community now as they did a thousand years ago...  Another example I think I featured was Fort George: a Hanoverian barracks which still houses a working regiment of soldiers.

Here's another one: Lancaster Castle, which occupies the site of a Roman fort and which has been in almost constant use for the same basic purpose ever since, namely a focus for administration and the dispensation of justice (however flawed that justic might be, as I'm sure the Pendle Witches would be keen to argue...)

Lancaster Castle was used as a prison until the early years of the 21st century, and is currently in limbo while its owners (the Duchy of Lancaster) decide how best to deal with it. It may, for instance, find itself reborn as luxury holiday let accomodation,,,

Anyway, when we stayed in Lancaster on our way down to Wantage, we jumped at the chance to have a good look round this excellent example of a kind of building which usually isn't open to casual inspection.  And Lancaster Castle really did not disappoint.  It was a brilliant example of a palimpsest, where layers of meaning are overwritten and superimposed and the 'reader' has to disentangle all the different elements to create a meaningful narrative.

Most of the buildings are of 18th or 19th century build.  But within this later gothick confection, earlier elements survive.  The earliest surviving part of the castle is the Well Tower, which is pictured below:-


The Well Tower evidently dates back to the 11th century, and is highly unusual for various elements of its design which appear to bear similarity to Irish defensive architecture of this same period.  Please don't ask me what these where - as you can imagine, we weren't exactly allowed open access around the place, though it amused me to see that one of the medieval chambers had been adapted into an extremely well-secured and fortified (!) bicycle shed.

Another very early survivor is the keep, the massive crenellated structure with the little windows (seen below).  Our guide suggested that it may have its origins in some building works carried out by none other than our very own King David I of Scots (he who brought us Scots parishes, planned burghs and feudalism...), who evidently made it this far south on occasion and undertook some castle-building in this neck of the woods.  An interesting suggestion indeed....


Throughout the centuries, the castle suffered greatly through the predations of beseiging armies - it was, after all, a castle, and as such a potentially defensive structure.  It had a particularly hard time during the Civil War...  But its fabric was also transformed by generations of occupants whose attitudes to crime and punishment changed throughout the centuries (we'll cover that in another post!) and who reworked the architecture to accomodate these changes.

Sitting next to the well tower we have the 18th century Governor's House.  Built in the aftermath of a seriously bad outbreak of disease which took out the previous governor (presumably cholera or similar), its high chimneys reflect the desire of the next incumbent to avoid the fate of his predecessor by ensuring the good circulation of air throughout the prison buildings by the use of large flues which drew heated air up from the low levels.  This was, of course, a means of combating the foul miasmas which  - as any inhabitant of pre-mid 19th century Europe will earnestly tell you - spread disease through bad air...  

Of course, having lots of fresh air and a bit of heat to circulate it probably did a lot to help improve the inmates' (as well as the governor's...) health and well-being, if you don't factor in the almost inevitable overcrowding, that is....


During the Victorian era, much of the prison was rebuilt again in a more modern style.  At this time, the prison housed both male and female prison populations, and operated both as a debtors' prison as well as housing a wide range of felons and miscreants....

Here's a view into the Victorian prison blocks and exercise yard, and we'll take a look at some of the cell blocks in my next post:-


And there you have it.  Never say that this blog doesn't provide you with a wide variety of historic buildings and monuments!


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