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Lancaster is gearing up to be a fun-packed location for Christmas visitors

PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 November 2017

Anna Saczek, Richard Cogger and Anna Webster practise their salsa moves for the CancerCare Santa Salsa in Lancaster

Anna Saczek, Richard Cogger and Anna Webster practise their salsa moves for the CancerCare Santa Salsa in Lancaster


Sue Riley discovered a city full of Christmas spirit

Rachael Wilkinson, Lancaster BID Manager Rachael Wilkinson, Lancaster BID Manager

Lancaster has a distinctly international feel these days and never more so than at Christmas. This year, the popular International Food market is set to return, with dozens of stalls from across Europe selling festive treats. Locals already experience an array of French, Greek, Italian and Indian foods every Wednesday and Saturday at the city’s Charter Market and, during the rest of the week, there’s a wider variety of cuisine than ever before with three Chinese restaurants, two Turkish, a Hawaiian and a cocktail bar all opening in the past two months.

Rachael Wilkinson, manager of Lancaster Business Improvement District (BID), cites the number of overseas students in the city for the change in cuisine – for instance, the university has seen Chinese nationals increase by 50% over the past five years.

The bars and restaurants certainly add to the vibrancy of the city, complemented by the range of festivals throughout the year. A few years ago, perhaps more, Lancaster woke to the fact that if it wanted to attract visitors it needed to put on events. And that’s exactly what it’s done from the Music Festival and a chilli festival to a family friendly Dinosaur Day.

This month though, it’s all about Christmas – it’s got a Christmas market, reindeer, lights switch-on, animatronic snow lion, the return of the international food market, two Christmas shows, a craft market, carol services and a world record attempt involving salsa dancing Santas. Phew.

Peter McGarry of Lancaster Escape Peter McGarry of Lancaster Escape

‘We have a full campaign, something on every weekend before Christmas so people can shop here rather than going to the Trafford Centre!’ said Rachael.

The Santa Salsa in Market Square has been organised by one of the city’s charities, CancerCare, which has swapped its annual Santa Dash for something more exotic.

‘We are aiming for the Guinness World Record for the most people at a salsa lesson. We need 1,830 and there are prizes for people who have raised the most money. We like the idea of bringing a bit of warmth and sun to a Christmas event in the cold winter months,’ said CancerCare’s Anna Saczek. Anyone is welcome to join in on November 26 and the charity has lots of Santa suits which can be borrowed.

Lancaster Castle is also playing its part. For the third year running it is holding a Christmas market in its grounds, complete with Santa’s grotto, brass band and carol singers. The event attracted more than 9,000 visitors in 2016, although due to major construction work the Grotto will be in the Chapel Courtyard instead of the Well Tower this year. The building work which is Phase Two of the castle refurbishment is scheduled to finish in 2019.

Painter, Roy Smith and ceramicist Kathleen McDonald of King Street Studios 
(Large piece behind them is by artist, Ellie Moore) Painter, Roy Smith and ceramicist Kathleen McDonald of King Street Studios (Large piece behind them is by artist, Ellie Moore)

Arts & crafts

In the city centre, although the British Home Stores building is still vacant and one of Lancaster’s legendary shops, Fawcetts Country Sports, relocated earlier in the year, lots of new independent businesses have opened including the Freehold Yarn Company – set up by young Australian Amy Nowell who also designs knitwear – and HMV has returned to St Nicholas Arcades. ‘There’s quite a good arts and culture heritage so it’s good to see HMV back,’ said Rachael. New Street, once the place where the great and good would shop, has had a troubled few years with lots of empty units, but now it’s almost full with a glamorous beauty salon, a tattooist and various cafes and restaurants. There’s also a new art gallery on the one-way system – no longer constantly grid-locked since the £132-million link road opened.

It’s the idea of husband and wife Roy Smith and Kath McDonald, who rediscovered their love of art as mature students, opened the exhibition space this autumn and have already put on two shows. This month they are staging an affordable art show exhibiting contemporary pieces all priced under £100 at King Street Studios.

‘This is a space where people can enjoy the pleasure of looking at art and engage without the pressure of having to get their cheque books out. They can reflect and enjoy what they are looking at,’ said Roy. They also have a studio space which can be rented by artists and hope to hold drawing and painting workshops next year.

‘We want to promote local artists and also bring into the area good examples regionally of contemporary art. We also want something here which is supportive; a helping hand,’ said Kath.

Escape route

Lancaster Escape, the city’s first escape room, is also proving popular since it opened recentlyn. It’s the idea of father and son Stephen and Peter McGarry who saw a gap in the market.

This is Crystal Maze type interactive, entertainment experience that presents guests with three customised rooms each with a riddle that they must solve within a fixed time.

Peter, a physiotherapist, said they started planning it at Easter and then spent the next six months finding a property and designing the fiendish rooms, one of which is themed on the Pendle Witches (you solve the clues in a series of very dark, spooky rooms) and another a police interrogation room (Stephen is retired from the police force).

‘I had done several escape rooms around the country and said someone should open one in Lancaster. So I took mum and dad and family to an escape room in Manchester….we came up with the concept and the storylines,’ said Peter. After taking on seven members of staff, the escape room opened in mid October and within the first week had more than 70 bookings – many of them students from the city’s two universities.

Following the international theme, Lancaster University recently saw 90 students graduate at the first ever degree ceremony at its new campus in Ghana (the first UK university to establish its own campus in sub-Saharan Africa). It’s just one of many success stories at the university which this year was named University of the Year by the Sunday Times newspaper.

Lancaster is feeling upbeat and there are lots of plans for 2018 to keep visitors flooding in – it’s set to benefit from a £1m investment to encourage US visitors to discover the historic city; the popular Dinosaur Day is likely to be repeated in June, there will be a Pirate Day and there’s even talk of reviving Lancaster Carnival. Old and new mixing together in a city which is slowly getting its mojo back.

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