The train station is castellated. Who can resist cheap fake concrete castle especially when you can look up and on the hill, see the real crumbling ancient artefact, somewhat embarrassed as if it has a really rubbish tribute act.

Lancaster is a city that can be whatever you want it to be-it has a veneer of middle class respectability-walking past houses with harps in the window is not uncommon but a house can be purchased in the ‘wrong’ side of town (all of ten minute away from the centre) for about sixty grand-there is an expensive olive stall in town which seems to rub along with the ten lighters for a quid and the nastiest cheapest cards known to humanity stall. Junkies and school kids congregate by the museum steps and shout. I have to avert my eyes from the hog roast stall-the empty eyed pig slowly being shaven of flesh stinks of ammonia.

It’s polar opposite is the Whale Tail in Penny street, a vegetarian café filled with happy /posh/hippy parents dressed in Monsoon or tie-die. Free range children run amok, adverts for mooncups with biro’d exclamations of delight as to their comfort and capacity adorn the rather grotty toilet doors and the menu seldom changes. It is always busy.  But so is the Wetherspoons up the road-elderly men dressed in suits and ties sit still and alone at island like tables with straight backs and ties in front of a pint at 9.30 am.



Architecture wise, Lancaster is mostly Victorian grey and looming with the occasional swing into sixties modernism, eighties wrongness and sudden ancientness. The Job Centre on a cobbled winding street winding down from the castle looks like it is from a BBC adaptation of Jude The Obscure.  The quay is superb, eighteenth century warehouses in various stages of decrepitude line the muddy river Lune and The Millennium Bridge raises lofty prongs to the sky in an eternal two-fingered salute to the purists who hated its modern skeletal design. But it is elegantly tall and ambitious and reminiscent of the great boats that once sailed up here. Of their slave cargo we shall say no more.  One of them, ‘Sambo’ is buried at Sunderland Point, an isolated windswept projectory at the tides mercy-a lonely figurehead such a long way from home battered by cold foreign elements for an eternity seems worse somehow than a quick miserable slide into mud and oblivion. But maybe it makes us just feel uncomfortable to remember.

Lancaster changes, has peaks and troughs, a living city, not one frozen by expectations of tourists or rent asunder by industry. Not anymore anyway. It is a ghost city-people not from it know of it, have vague fond memories-it is not emblazoned on the memory with the majesty of Edinburgh, the Georgian antiquity of Bath, the cloisters of York. An independent shop selling glorious slutty dishevelled clothing for under twenty quid a pop makes me decide I will be very happy in such a place. I move into my spartan new home and bang, the shop is gone, another to let sign in its place.  There are many.  It is local and international due to the university (the university known for excellence and high suicide rate) isolated yet an hour away from about five major cities, the disputed centre of the UK. People dissipate; gather here, some throngs remain the same, transient yet stable. An enigma of a city. And it does not feel like a city. The cathedral pops humbly up a hill on the outskirts that only the locals walk up. It is not a centrepiece. TK Maxx is. Literally.

Lancaster is students who keep to their Yellow Door houses. I always think of Jews and the plague when I see these doors (also a ludicrous open invitation to thieves who can burgle many people at the same time)  and people who get cabs for half a mile to the same few clubs. Like living at home in a small town but minus suspicious parents. Homely but minus home. They do not seem to mix much, keep to their loud circles in pubs and rarely chat to the stranger huddled up in a corner, reading the paper but actually eavesdropping and conjecturing wildly, lambasting, critiquing and bitching. Sorry.

The canal is often mentioned in the Lancaster Guardian as a place to walk along to get accosted by tramps living on ‘our taxes’. I have walked along there on my own to be accosted by tramps concerned about me walking on my own. I can never see how people get so angry about this that they have to write the obligatory letters to the Lancaster Gazette bemoaning and hating the people who sit, drink and chat with their dogs all day as the army planes swoop over, as the media drips with murder, as the property developers flats stay empty whilst their pockets drip with money and as people with money desecrate the town.

And so people sit and write venom filled letters to weekly papers about other people who have no homes.  And also people on bikes and dog shit-both of which appear to have equal footing in local paper’s letters pages-a particular highlight was when someone wrote in to complain not just about the amount of dog shit in the street but the actual size of it along with a published photo showing a large coiled turd and a twenty pence piece which has been carefully placed next to it for scale. I often think about this when receiving change.

‘Luxury’ developments along the same canal have bikes or washing draped on the tiny patio or on spindly fake designer chairs and tables who no one ever ever has brunch or beam gaily at each other over a glass of chardonnay as they do on the faded ads.  The For Sale posters read ‘sexy in the city’ in the same font as ‘sex in the city’ –ironic as the bird has flown in both cases. We are in a recession, it is 2009 and the occasional solitary light twinkles, lonely across the canal from a little box with no neighbours or garden.

An apartment in central Manchester with Philippe Starke taps can be had for £500 a month-an old stone two bed terrace here is around £450 a month. With a garden. There are no hoards of loft space desiring gays with labradoodles in Lancaster or laughing rich blonde friends-they have moved to a real city apartment or a real home.  Lancaster is for children and solidity, sensibility and good common sense. Not so many jobs here you see.  It is a houseboat or a house. I like the houseboats, always so merry and jolly looking with bikes and plants on the roof and a general aura of bygone simple happiness. I could probably stroll past one as someone was being murdered within with a gentle smile and a whimsical gaze.

Williamson Park is the pinnacle of the north. Every time I read a national paper extolling a vague pleasure for something god forbid, out of W1, I look for Williamson park and it makes me angrily evangelical because it is a simply spectacular place. Were it in the South, there would be books about it, Oasis would play a gig in it for BBC2, things would happen. But this is Lancaster where important people don’t live. And thank fuck, neither do Oasis.

But it is a dream. Huge parkland with woods high on a hill overlooking the world, where the Lake District beckons hazily above a blue cold sea, where the Trough of Bowland, a wilderness of moor which makes Dartmoor seem like Soho stretches to infinity reaches out forever in the other direction. Out on top of the world here.

The Williamson Memorial is a beacon on top of this. A white soaring pillion in the middle of the park, stairs and stairs and stairs stretching to a room to which to contemplate the view. Far better a way to remember a life than a dark underground memorial. Surely better to reach to the sky to remember a life once lived than to mourn a worm filled mound. -They do it differently here.  This grief filled monument to a dead love has now become a wedding venue. Ironic and sublime.

There’s more-woods, a huge sundial, big enough to live on, cliffs, grottos, in which plays are performed and bands play in, lakes, a big children’s playground, lawns stretching down with the bay twinkling in the distance and a butterfly park.

Everyone loves this except for me. A hot house of ethereal beauty, you walk in and there are dead tropical butterflies on the floor-you want to tell someone-hello, this is dead, can you get a vet but life and death are side by side, an enormous bat like form can shoot by and you can almost touch it, an exotic flittering presence can drift past and you see its twin shedding powder on the floor as it weakly twitches. Life and death-transient, beautiful and quick and it’s scary, a microcosm of human life. We normally hide death,  gloss it up, use different names for it, lie, but here are pretty butterflies dancing and fluttering and pretty butterflies dead. Children with their innate morbidity love it here.

You brush yourself off and step outside in the sudden cold and see the occasional flittering prisoner who has escaped, a Schrödinger’s cat, free and doomed in the early fatally cold autumnal sunshine.  The bay glistens prettily , the castle looms squat and  protectively over Lancaster, filled with other incarcerated prisoners and memories of death as the moors stretch on and on.

This is the last view the Pendle witches saw and I wonder if the beauty consoled or worsened for them, their fate. And for ‘Sambo’ I think there was never any beauty here.

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