Lancaster - A city full of surprises

PUBLISHED: 11:31 26 June 2012 | UPDATED: 11:41 22 August 2014

Shoppers in Lancaster

Shoppers in Lancaster

There are lots of landmarks in Lancaster but there's much more to the city than meets the eye, as Amanda Griffiths reveals<br/>Photography by John Cocks

Lancaster is well known for its magnificent castle and Priory Church which keep a watchful eye on the city below. Then of course, there’s the iconic Ashton Memorial which rises splendidly from the beautiful setting of Williamson Park. Combine these with the ultra-modern Millennium Bridge which crosses the River Lune and it seems Lancaster is a pretty perfect fit on the tourist map.

However, the city isn’t content to rest on its laurels and is hard at work to make sure there’s plenty on offer, not just for tourists but for residents, students and businesses.

Oh yes, there’s much more to Lancaster than meets the eye. Who would have thought for a start that its library is a hive of activity when it comes to the music scene? These gigs aren’t just local teenagers, jamming with and entertaining their mates, they feature some top stars including actress Juliette Lewis’s band and UK chart topper Adele. The Lightning Seeds’ Ian Broudie and James Walsh, of Starsailor, appeared there last month.

The ‘Get It Loud in Libraries, project was designed specifically to give people, especially young people who love modern rock and pop, a great time in a library and re-set their preconceptions about what we do and what we stand for,’ says Stewart Parsons at Lancaster Library. ‘It’s a route back in for those people who have lost the library habit, or who never had it to begin with.

‘Get It Loud In Libraries’ is less concerned with preserving the dusty past than presenting the future through live music. For example, Adele played the library 12 months before her
debut album was released. Then she became the ‘face and voice’ of 2008. The same situation has arisen with Florence and the Machine acclaimed in the Critic’s Choice section at the Brit Awards in 2009. Florence played a sell out show at Lancaster Library in November 2008.

The idea, in fact, has become so popular that libraries in Burnley and Skelmersdale are holding their own gigs. Last year alone saw 3,097 people attend the Lancaster gigs, 1,692 of them were new visitors to the library.

It’s good to see such innovations but they don’t stop with the library gigs.

December saw the official launch of The Storey Creative Industries Centre in Meeting House Lane, which has seen a £3.5 million refurbishment of the Storey Institute, including the Storey Art Gallery. Along with the gallery, people can now find a contemporary bar and restaurant, visitor centre and there’s business units on the upper floors for the city’s ‘innovators’.

‘Part of what we’re doing here is helping find future innovators a home,’ says Neil Simpson, chief executive of the Storey Creative Industries Centre.

‘The way I see it, innovation is the future. Everything’s becoming more web based, look at things like Google. Innovations like that have a home somewhere, why not Lancaster?’

Businesses who have taken space in the centre include digital marketing business FatMedia, who teamed up with the centre management for the official opening.

‘The building opened 130 years ago as a centre for arts, culture and education, by Thomas Storey, for his workers because he believed innovation was the key to economic success,’ says Neil.

‘We believe in the same things today. It’s been a real labour of love over the last 14 months to make sure the whole thing comes to life and now my job is to make sure other people fall in love with it too,’ he says.

The Storey Art Gallery is a hidden gem of Lancaster and well worth a visit as it offers something completely different to the other, more traditional galleries in the city.

‘We pride ourselves on challenging our visitors,’ says John Angus, director of the Storey Gallery.

‘Our programme is by contemporary international and national artists. We work with the Tate and the Henry Moores Foundation to bring quality art to Lancaster and Lancashire. We don’t want people to have to go to London or Manchester to see this art and that’s exactly what our visitors say, that it’s nice to be able to see this type of art in Lancashire.

‘The building had been left by Thomas Storey for use in culture and education, but in the mid 1980s there were plans to turn the building into a hotel or halls of residence,’ says John.

‘So I got together with a group of artists to save the building. In 1991 we put on an exhibition, really to draw attention to this wasted resource, then we did another and another, now we’re on our 100th plus,’ he says.

The next exhibition links to the university and a year long programme they’re doing on ‘the culture of experimentality’ which he hopes will feature all sorts of things from the arts to science, including some interesting scientific equipment he found in storage at another museum.
Another hidden gem re-opened to the public last year is St John the Evangelist Church, which has been closed, except for a series of lunchtime concerts in the summer months for the last 30 years.

Mandy Holten is custodian there: ‘I felt it was a crying shame that we had such a large venue in the centre of town that wasn’t being used,’ she says, so working with The Churches Conservation Trust, who own the building Mandy has introduced a whole new year-round programme of events at the church.

‘At the moment we’re probably averaging about two events a month but in time I’d like to think we might be able to open even more,’ she says.

‘There’s a lot of affection for St John’s in Lancaster. We get a lot of people coming in saying their parents or grandparents were married here.

‘It was actually built by merchants 250 years ago when the town was becoming richer and expanding. The main church then would have been the Priory, St Mary’s, but that was becoming full and the merchant classes weren’t very happy there, so they built this as their place of worship. The salmon on the weather vane symbolises the wealth they made from the Lune.

‘Unfortunately church closures are becoming more frequent these days.
A lot are being converted but I was anxious this didn’t happen to us. I believe if we’d turned the church into something specific like a theatre
we couldn’t compete with other similar venues in town, but by leaving
it as a church we are much more flexible as a venue. It can be a concert hall, a theatre or used for talks or exhibitions.

‘We’re currently looking forward to an amateur theatre group production in January,’ says Mandy. ‘They’ve written their own play, Wartime Memories and The Grand Theatre is going to lend them a lot of the props and the lighting they need.’

Ironically the only thing the venue can’t be used as is a church, with no wedding license currently (although this may change as more people are asking about the possibility of being married there). The only religious ceremony the church currently holds is on St John’s Day in December.

All about Lancaster

Lancaster is found from junctions 33 or 34 off of the M6 motorway, or from the A6 north from Preston.

There’s plenty of long and short term pay and display car parks well signposted in the city. However Lancaster also enjoys great rail and bus links too.

What to do:
Visit Lancaster Castle and The Priory Church, the City Art Gallery. Down on St George’s Quay there’s the Maritime History Museum, while some may enjoy a walk alongside the river or Lancaster Canal. Williamson Park is beautiful and the Ashton Memorial also boasts a butterfly house with lots of exotic inhabitants. At night see a show at The Dukes or The Grand.

Lancaster has something for everyone when it comes to shopping with two retail centres, most of the top high street names you could want and plenty of little independent shops for those looking for something a bit different.

Eating out:
During the day there’s lots of little cafes or plenty of pub grub to choose from. Lancaster however has recently seen lots of contemporary restaurants opening to suit all tastes and pockets.


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