UK Road Trip 101 - If you see a sign for a castle, pull off of the road.
On our drive from Blackpool to the Lake District, we saw a sign for a castle in Lancashire and decided to chance it. Pulling off the road to see Lancaster Castle was the best decision we made on the entire trip.
We visited the castle on a quite Sunday morning, arriving just as the neighboring parish was beginning Sunday services. We were even greeted by the vicar as we walked around the church grounds.
When we approached the gates of Lancaster Castle, we noticed prison signs. Admittedly, this had us worried. We knew that the castle gave proper tours, but there was nothing to let us know that the castle was a former, rather than active, prison. We soon learned that the castle had first been used as a prison in 1196 and had been used for that purpose off and on, until 1955, when it was formally turned into a modern prison for Class C ( minimum security) prisoners. In 2011 the prison was closed and shortly after, tours began on the grounds.
In addition to being a prison, Lancaster Castle is home to the oldest court in England. During our tour, we were able to walk into courtrooms and even check out a branding iron used on inmates. One of the most famous trials to take place in the castle was the 1612 trial of the Lancashire (Pendle) Witches. Ten people were found guilty of witchcraft and hung to death in the gallows on a nearby hill.
The courts are still in use and we were not allowed to take pictures inside for security reasons. In addition to seeing the courtrooms, we saw the jury chambers, which included "The Drop Room", a door off the side of the jury chambers that led directly to a drop off point for public hangings. The tour was completely fascinating and filled with grim details. We saw several examples of torture devices, including a lunatic chair in which guards strapped in hysterical prisoners.
If I believed in ghosts, I would definitely say that Lancaster Castle is haunted. It's a creepy place, filled with narrow passages and dark corners. Even the more modernized parts of the castle have an eerie and unsettling tone. I'm glad to have not been imprisoned here!
We had a great tour guide named Melvin, who was a wealth of knowledge, as well as highly entertaining. Melvin was sarcastic and dark humored.
The final part of the tour was inside of the newer part of the prison, which is of panopticon design, a semi-circle with each cell having a window. The structure has five levels and the panopticon design allows for the guards to have a clear view of all of the cells from a central location. It was built in 1821 and until the prison was decomissioned, it was the only panopticon prison still in use. We were allowed to take pictures and climb inside of the cells, a very disturbing experience. My main take-away was how cold and damp the cells felt.
I highly recommend making a trip to Lancaster Castle and asking for Melvin to be your tour guide. Here is a link to their official site for ticket information.
After our tour, we walked down the cobblestone streets and found The Robert Gillow pub for lunch.
We were on a winning streak, because The Robert Gillow was a great find. We shared a giant meat and cheese platter and washed it down with Scrumpy-Jack Cider. The manager of The Robert Gillow came over to our table to welcome us and was really nice. The pub had a cozy vibe and was definitely a place that would be our local spot, if we were locals! In particular, I liked seeing the off-duty waitress sitting at the bar, knitting! You just don't see stuff like that in Los Angeles.
The best part was listening to a senior citizen Dixieland Jazz Band perform while we enjoyed our lattes and sticky toffee pudding. The band was really good and it looked like they were enjoying themselves. Their joy was infectious. The Robert Gillow hosts all types of live entertainment and if we didn't have to hurry to our next destination, we could have easily spent the rest of the day here. It was one of my favorite pubs of the trip!