Saturday, April 07, 2012

Prisoner Cell Block Lancaster

Lancaster Castle (one of the world's oldest prisons) closed down last year and today, for the first time in 50 years, the prison grounds were open to the public. My house looks on to the castle gates and I've often wondered what's behind the walls. So I grabbed my camera - and here are some views that previously you only could have seen if you'd committed a crime.



The castle dates back to the 11th century and has been used as a prison since 1196. There are marks made by musket fire around the gates when Royalists attempted to take it back from Parliamentarians during the civil war. It held the Pendle Witches who were subsquently hanged, and its court was used for the trial of the Birmingham Six.



The Pendle witches apparently cursed anyone who visited Lancaster to have to keep returning there for the rest of their lives.



Hangings were done in public, ostensibly as a deterrent, although in reality hangings garnered large crowds and there was something of a carnival atmosphere, with people selling food and the local schoolboys getting half a day off. The vicar of the overlooking priory church sold tickets so people could get a better view from the ramparts of the church and avoid pickpockets below.



Some prisoners ended up having to stay on in prison for up to three years as they were unable to pay for the gaoler for their "upkeep" at the end of their sentence.



The Duchy of Lancaster, who owns the castle, is currently consulting on what to do with it. It would make an interesting, if rather claustrophobic hotel. (After only a few minutes of wandering around the enclosed court-yard spaces I was starting to feel a bit nervy.) It could also be a good performance space. But I hope it becomes a museum - not only would it bring a lot of tourist trade to Lancaster, but its rich and varied history is fascinating and deserves to be shared with as many people as possible.

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