This town is cursed.
This town was cursed.
Around 400 years ago, a group of women were marched across the hills of Pendle towards Lancaster. You can walk the same trail today. It's over 60 miles.
These were poor women, outsiders. Some of them were old, or blind, or both. They were all harmless and certainly not guilty of the crime they were being charged with.
- Anne Whittle
- Ann Redfearn
- Elizabeth Device
- Alice Nutter
- Alison Device
- Katherine Hewitt
- Jane Bulcock
- Isobel Robey
And that's how they came to be in this town. Through the village of Galgate, the name of which is probably the Old English 'Gal-gata', meaning 'road to Scotland' but is often believed to be derived from 'Gallows Gate', the last village through which condemned people passed. They followed the Roman road, now the A6, and onward to the castle where they were tried, found guilty and hanged.
Hanging is a strange punishment. It isn't just for the crime, but also for the entertainment. A public sport that makes the world feel safe again. Safe from poor women, and blind women, and women that lived on the fringes of society.
And that's how we got cursed. There's no actual record of this, or who precisely did the cursing. It just hangs around the town and gets quoted occasionally. We don't know if the curser uttered any words, or if the curse was implicit. History doesn't report that sort of thing. The sort of thing it considers fictional. Unlike witchcraft, which was real.
The curse is the same curse of every small town. It is simple and undeniable. It goes like this:
-- All those born in Lancaster will die in Lancaster --
[THE HISTORIC CITY OF LANCASTER]
Lancaster is a city, not a town. It's a small city though. King George granted the title in 1937 to coincide with his coronation. By all accounts he was in a generous mood.
For the anniversary of the witch trials in 2012, a series of artistic and social interventions were hosted around Lancaster. The Witches 400 project aimed to contextualise the actions that had happened during the trials, humanising the people involved. It also aimed to highlight the current plight of individuals accused of witchcraft in the modern world.
It is still a problem, particularly in parts of Africa. Children are ostracised, or worse, through senseless accusations of witchcraft.
The project, coordinated by Green Close Studios, was a valuable intervention for Lancaster. A small step of reparation for how our ancestors had treated some vulnerable women through preventing the same happening to others.
It was a sensitive project and avoided many of the cliches and tropes that surround the British relationship with Witchcraft. There was a beautiful poem written for the occasion by the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. The verses of the poem were turned into iron tercets that now mark the path walked by the women between Pendle and Lancaster. The last of these markers can be found just outside the castle gates.
If you are having trouble finding it, just follow the signs erected by the council throughout the city. They are the ones with the hook-nosed witch on a broomstick, wearing a pointy hat.
The river Lune bisects the city. It is often said that it is named after the moon, as in Luna, because of its crescent shape. This appears to be incorrect. It seems more likely that the river is named after a Romano-British water god called Lalonus Contrebis, who was worshiped in the area. There is also an inscription found at Nîmes, in Provence, that invokes him alongside the goddess, Fortune.
It isn't clear what happened that night, in 2015, when Lancaster flooded. Whether the god was raging at the lack of worship, or the mis-attribution of the river's name.
The night of the flood was the only time I have ever walked through a city in total darkness. The electricity cut out due to an unfortunately placed substation, and the moon obscured by heavy rain clouds. The bridges were out too, having been struck by trees swept down stream. It felt like there was no way of getting out. It felt like a black hole.
The next morning I was woken by what I thought was birdsong. It wasn't. It was the sound of dozens of battery powered fire alarms all going off as the residents of the town tried to use fire to light and cook with for the first time in ages.
The electricity was out for nearly two weeks. Essential services, such as the hospital, were powered by generators. Apparently, this attracted a steady stream of people, desperate to charge their phone, only to be turned away by being told that, really, the electricity is best used lighting the operating theatre. I only know this because a dear friend was nervously waiting in a corridor. He was waiting for his son to be born. Another visitor to this place, another member of the curse.
Lancaster is a heritage city.
It has heritage.
Across the various banners and general signage, you'll see it referred to as the, 'Historic City of Lancaster'.
It has history too.
There's a strap-line. It reads, 'Small City, Big Story'.
It has a big Primark.
Built in 2016, and opening on 24 August, it is the biggest store in the city. The 50,000 square foot building occupies the space where the indoor market used to stand.
The Historic City of Lancaster and Primark.
Susan Parsonage, chief executive of Lancaster City Council -- 'It will increase footfall, increase visitors, boost the economy, it will bring people in from outside Lancaster who don't have access to Primark, like places like Kendal'.
Kendal is a historic market town and the third largest settlement in Cumbria. Tourism is the main employer there, bringing in people from outside Kendal, people who don't have access to an indoor market, like places like Lancaster.
There is a black hole at the centre of our galaxy. Around 26,490 light years from here.
We orbit it. It is the galactic centre.
The Ashton Memorial overlooks Lancaster. It is a 50m tall folly, built by the owner of the factories that used to be on the quay. Coincidentally, it marks the mathematical centre point of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, excluding the Isle of Man.
This is the black hole at the centre of my galaxy, around which I orbit.
This is part of the curse.
Beyond the event horizon, little escapes the gravity of a black hole.
I've escaped a few times. On one occasion I managed to last several years in Brighton, before returning. It wasn't against my will, I wasn't marched here over the hills. I wanted to be back here, with my friends and my family, where it is cheap to live, where it is easy to exist.
Recently, I've been on the lam as far away as Glasgow. Love and work proved to draw me from the curse. I've been away for over two years.
An interesting fact about Lancaster is that it is the second rainiest place in the UK. Glasgow is the first.
When I step off the train at Lancaster station it still feels like home. The sheer weight of experience layered on top of memory. It isn't a home of 'where I live', it is a home of 'what I am'. It is raining.
Thursday, 30 May, 5.59am, Lancaster Infirmary, Maternity Ward. (54.042509, -2.799441)
Most tourist towns get busier in the summer, but Lancaster has always had this peculiar quality. The resident population is just over 50,000 but is complemented by a transient student population of close to 18,000. Each year when the students break for the summer, many of them head home. The queues in Sainsbury's get shorter and there seems to be more room in the pub at night. My local launderette would often shut for a couple of months as a combination of rare non-rainy weather and desertion left it redundant. In business terms, it would become an unattractive sector.
As I walk into town, something seems wrong. I expected the quiet, but large chunks of it are empty. It feels like an impostor, like a film set. The shop fronts are there, but their contents are not.
After the indoor market closed, the stall holders were relocated into empty shop spaces throughout the city centre. They have mostly moved on now, the rent being too steep for an endeavor designed to run from a paste table. A few of the charities have relocated too. They've set up in the abandoned PC World on the outskirts of the city.
The empty carcass of a British Home Stores lies in the middle of the town like the stuffed whale from Béla Tarr's, 'Werkmeister Harmonies'. The front has been draped in a banner detailing the tourism potential of Lancaster.
I head towards my old house. I used to spend a lot of time in the launderette next door, particularly in the winter when it offered a reasonably cheap source of heat. I'd sit at the back by the large, 50p-guzzling driers. There would be a steady stream of customers -- Locals who wanted to use those driers due to a combination of terrible weather, a lack of outdoor space and houses built during the industrial revolution that were plagued with damp issues.
These houses were popular with students too. They were cheap and within a couple of minutes walk of both the main bus route to the university and the city centre.
The launderette had gone. The driers and the Speed Queens replaced with desks. It is now a student lettings office.
Stood outside you can just make out a crane in the distance. It looms over the area between the canal and the river. It's helping to build a structure larger than any other in the city centre. It is going to be student accommodation.
The pool hall that I used to play in is now assisted student accommodation. The lovely Brazilian restaurant we celebrated birthdays in is now modern student accommodation. It looks like the post office will be student accommodation in 2019 too.
I bring this up over dinner. A friend that works in construction tells me that the money is in the building of these structures. It isn't about providing and maintaining necessary housing. It is about international and domestic grants and tax breaks.
I consider that maybe students don't want to live in damp houses and that maybe they'd like someone else to do their laundry. You should look at the prices for these apartments. They pay the same amount per week as what I paid per month.
[THE PEPPERED MOTH]
We stood in a small triangle of park land located between the canal and the river. Just behind the Kingsway Baths construction is underway for what will eventually become a PC World.
This is a field trip. We are here to learn about the Peppered Moth.
The Peppered Moth (Biston betularia) is a species of night-flying moth. It is also, perhaps, the one of the most studied organisms in the last two hundred years, at least in relation to evolution.
Two hundred years ago the moth was light grey with a slightly darker peppering that gave it its common name. It was especially well camouflaged against the bark and lichens of the trees that it rested on.
Then the industrial revolution happened. Smoke poured from Lord Ashton's factories on the quay. The soot settled and the trees became black. The mostly pale Peppered Moths were no longer camouflaged and the birds picked them off easily. A new evolutionary pressure had arrived.
The first carboaria morph was recorded in Manchester in 1848. The Peppered Moth was now misnamed. It had become entirely black, in line with the trees.
This process has been termed 'industrial melanism'.
It was reversible too. As the factories moved died, and were reborn as housing, the air improved and the lichens returned.
We didn't see a Peppered Moth that day, just a tree with some lichen on it. This is exactly what the peppered moth had hoped for.
Headline: Profit Margin Hits 21.8% at Watkin Jones
'A focus on the booming student accommodation and build to rent market has helped developer and contractor Watkin Jones boost gross margins to 21.8%'
-- (Construction Enquirer, Aug 2017)
'The group has seen good profit growth in the first half, driven by student accommodation developments which are fundamental to the business.
We are seeing increased demand for good quality purpose built assets, and there are several new international funds that have entered the market recently, which highlights the continued attractiveness of the sector.'
-- (Mark Watkin Jones, CEO, Watkin Jones)
Blobby Land was a disaster. A theme park based on a television character that started as a joke until no one laughed.
Mr Blobby was a large pink and yellow spotted costume that contained a prank-serving Noel Edmunds. The amorphous character featured as part of Saturday night television, back when families would watch one of the four available channels together. He had 17 million viewers.
There followed a novelty record too. No one admits to buying it.
And then it was over…for everyone except us.
In 1994 the local council launched Blobby Land on the former site of Happy Mount Park. Three months later it closed, costing the council in excess of two million pounds.
The remnants of the park are still visible. Shattered and soiled. Dull pink and yellow fiberglass constructs, slowly adapting to the environment, turning green and black, hiding in the park as a caution to folly building.
In August 2018, it was announced that a £100 million project to launch an environmental centre on the site was aiming to secure funding.
Simon Bellamy, head of Eden Project International, said it was attempting to 're-imagine what the 21st-century seaside resort could look like'.
Lancaster University are set to be a partner on the project and the deputy vice chancellor claims that 'the university is confident that Eden North will bring regeneration and prosperity'.
The local council are also keen. Elaine Blamire, leader of Lancaster City Council says, 'The city backs these exciting plans %100'.
Ultimately, the aim will be to increase footfall, increase visitors, boost the economy. It will bring people in from outside Lancaster and Morecambe who don't have access to an Eden Project, like places like Kendal.
I am writing as I sit at the station. My train out of here, my train home, is delayed by over half an hour. A last desperate cling of the curse -- or more likely -- the result of a troubled train network.
What sort of curse is that anyway? A curse that gives such certainty and comfort. To know that you have a home and a place and to know that you will die somewhere familiar, surrounded by friends and family.
But, that wasn't the curse. The real curse is one of paradox. It is the same curse of every small town. You can never die in the town you were born in. Instead you must watch it change with complete indifference to you and your life. The town I was born in no longer exists.
Plato's deli, Kingsway baths, Master's laundrette, the Warehouse and Brooks, Andy's Records, the fountain in the centre, the post office, the other post office, the cinema, the factories on the quay, Squire's pool hall, the BHS and the Woolworths, wasn't there a Mothercare? No more.
This town is not about the people born here, it never was. It is about the people it brings here. That black hole. It is about the students, the tourists, the visitors. It is about the water gods given a home by migrating Celts. It is about those poor women dragged here across the hills.
This place is cursed.
-- All that are born here will die in a strange place, or die here as strangers.--