We'd been to Lancaster on a couple of occasions, but recently I'd been wondering why we didn't go there more often. It was within my one hour drive time limit and it's quite a nice city - so what was stopping us?
It was actually the drive into the city that reminded me why we don't come here often. We were stuck in a queue of traffic before we got into the city. Then we were caught in a myriad of road works, missed parking opportunities and then we were heading towards the M6. Woah there! We had to spin around again and on our second time navigating the one way system we got parked in St Nic's Shopping Centre. Honestly I was beginning to lose the will to live.
The parking at St Nic’s Shopping Centre was one of those grey and grimy multi-storey car parks. The sound of the air con system for the shopping centre reminded me of being on a ferry going to Ireland. It cost £2.40 for 2 hours, which is pretty reasonable for city centre parking.
Neil, whilst he has a fabulous memory for all things music, has a pretty shocking memory for all things travel related. I had to keep reminding him of places we had been to before, like grabbing a sandwich at Subway and where the charity shops were.
Despite the circle of traffic hell that encloses the city, Lancaster is a nice pedestrianised city. The stone buildings stand on the hillside that Lancaster is built upon. It reminded me more of the Yorkshire towns we had visited rather than some of the red brick industrial towns in surrounding areas. Sacrilege I know, considering the bad blood between Yorkshire and Lancashire, but to paraphrase Roy Walker from Catchphrase "I say what I see".
Obviously the charity shops were a big draw for us and we had a good rummage through the shops. There are plenty of them too. When we thought we had got to the end of them, we would turn a corner and find some more. Neil didn't find much though. Whilst there were records to buy, the shops had overpriced them and Neil drew the line. The Oxfam Books here is pretty good in part due to Lancaster being a university town so the stock ends up being a little more interesting. I overheard in another charity shop there was a young lad who trawled the charity shops every day. Part of me wanted to go up to him to check what he collected.
Whilst Neil was scouring the charity shops, I checked out some other shops. There was a gift shop that had already geared up for Christmas and I had to stop myself from buying presents - October is way too early for this sort of thing. I stumbled into Bellwood and Wright fine art shop by accident. I was mesmerised by the Peter Blake prints they had on display, but had palpitations when I saw the prices. Seriously I could buy an amazing bathroom for the price and they are just prints. Still they did look remarkable.
Lancaster is a good mix of high street chains and independent shops. There were a couple of shopping centres for the high street chains and the shops of the streets tended to be independent. There were lots of little cafes dotted around and it made me laugh that a pet shop also doubled as a fancy dress shop.
The good thing about any university town is the fact the book shops are ace, even the second hand ones. There are two Waterstones in Lancaster - the one with threadbare carpets in the precinct and the gorgeous one which had the air of a library with the lovely upper gallery skirting the edges of the shop. Nothing beats a good academic book shop as they tend to have a diverse range of non-academic books too. I could spend hours in a shop like this, but time was pressing and I had to move on.
There used to be an indoor market in Lancaster, but that appeared to have closed down for refurbishment. Instead there were outdoor markets spread across the pedestrianised streets. Some stalls were farmer markets, others were crafts and others were just cheap tat. Funnily enough I think that's a good mix. I do wonder if the indoor market will survive the refurbishment as I recollect on previous visits there was a second hand record stall – I do have a soft spot for these and haberdashery stalls too.
It has to be said Lancaster was teaming with young people. It was that time of year when the students are back in college and university. In fact Lancaster has two universities – Lancaster University, one of the best rated universities in the country, and the University of Cumbria. Lancaster seemed geared for students, who no doubt contribute to the city immensely. Whilst Lancaster is technically a city it doesn’t feel like one and it feels more like a large northern town. That’s why I think it has an attraction for students who want city amenities and culture, but not the scale of cities like in Manchester or Liverpool where you can feel lost and anonymous. Given that Lancaster is close to the countryside, the sea and Cumbria, it’s a great base for students who enjoy outdoor pursuits.
Time was not on our side so we headed off as we didn't want to get stuck on the M6 because it was Blackpool illumination time. Lancaster is a nice compact city, which is easy to navigate once you have managed to park. I like the fact it has managed to retain a lot of its character and the students give the place a buzz during term time. Navigating the city in a car is a real chore, so if you are planning to visit bear this in mind or just get the train. Lancaster is quite different from the surrounding towns and seems quite classy in part due to its pre-industrial revolution heritage. No doubt at some point we will be back, but fingers crossed they will have sorted out the road works by then.