Friday, June 1, 2012

In Search Of...

...Fish and Chips

After watching the ballroom dance competition on Friday and Saturday, I took a day off on Sunday. I didn't have a ticket for the Sunday sessions and decided I'd take the train to Lancaster instead. My intentions were good, and the weather was fantastic, but I didn't get out of bed until noon! So, rather than rush up to Lancaster, I decided to give in to my fish and chips craving and get some lunch.

I started by Googling "best fish and chips Blackpool" and quickly determined that at least half the "chippys" in town claim to be the best. I also found out that the more highly lauded ones seemed to keep weird hours. I didn't want to go to one of the dodgy looking places near the piers, and began to despair of getting my need for crispy batter fried fish met. Finally, I decided to check the Trip Advisor list of "best" restaurants in Blackpool, and discovered the Bispham Kitchen, about a mile's walk from my flat along the seaside promenade. I had local haddock and chips, and quite enjoyed my choice. On the walk back I discovered that Blackpool has self-serve rent-a-bikes. It seems like a great idea, especially since the promenade has a fantastic bike path.

...Ancient Castles

The next day the competition didn't really get started until 6:00pm, and the weather was still incredibly lovely, so I got that train to Lancaster so I could tour the old castle there. I didn't know what I was getting in to: it turns out that Lancaster Castle is about 1,000 years old, and until last year has been used as a prison for the past 800 years! It's also been in use all this time as a civil and criminal court, and a trial was going on the day I visited.

The castle itself is dark and a bit dank. What was really creepy, though, was the overwhelming sense of age. The building, although in continuous use for a millennium, is so old that they're not entirely sure who built it and when. They also don't really know the true internal floorplan because sections have been blocked off over time. Every so often they break through a wall and find an unexpected corridor or room.

Although there have been prisoners and trials there since before Columbus was born, they don't have records going back more than about 200 years as to who had been tried and imprisoned there. I found out that many many small-time criminals were tried there and sentenced to "transportation" to Australia--including young poor girls who shoplifted a small amount of merchandise. It also turns out that Lancaster (the town) was a major center for the slave trade. Four hundred years ago they had witch trials. I saw the small corner where they hanged people in front of crowds of thousands. The town is pretty, but has some bad juju.

I shook this off and headed next door to the old priory church, which at root was even older than the castle. The Romans had a settlement in Lancaster in 78 AD, and built a temple on the hilltop long before the church was started. Just down the hill from the church I viewed the ruins of their baths.

The judges who came to town to preside over the trials had a nice house built for them in the 1700's, which remained in use until the 1970's. "The Judges' Lodging" is open for viewing, and I saw amazing furniture and decorations inside. Most of the furniture was built by the now-gone Gillows of Lancaster, a 400-year-old firm that had Buckingham Palace and the ship The Queen Mary as clients. Their work is clearly a pinnacle of woodworking art and English craftsmanship.

Around the corner from the Lodging, across the street from the castle, stands a row of houses built in the 1700's. These were "artisans' cottages," and The Cottage Museum had been initially owned by a furniture maker for Gillows. Even though the owner was an artisan, he was still a member of the working poor (or perhaps the beginning of the lower middle class). This first owner had been an indentured servant, and his letter of indenture is on display in the attic. The cottage is quite small, just a tiny living room, a pantry-kitchen, and two bedrooms. A lean-to laundry porch (so the wife could take in laundry for extra income) and a root cellar rounded out the house. There was no running water, and personal needs were attended to in a shared privy in the small courtyard behind the house. Believe it or not, someone lived there--without electricity and running water--until the building was condemned for habitation in the 1970's. The most interesting thing I learned was that rats eat tallow candles because they're made of beef (or mutton) fat, so the candles were kept in a metal box hanging from the wall.

I was going to upload some pictures with this post but I'm in Doha, so the Blogger uploader app is defaulting to Arabic. You'd think it would default to the iDevice's chosen language setting! So anyway, I can't figure out which links are which. D'oh!

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