Within its one million acres Lancashire provides considerable diversity. In the south are the former industrial centres, now greatly spruced up, while to the north are the rural areas of the Forest of Bowland and the Ribble Valley, both scenic, inviting and much less visited than they should be. Then there is the Lancashire coast, dominated by Blackpool with its great variety of attractions.
The ancient county town of Lancaster is an excellent place to start any journey of discovery. Small and compact, this lively university city has the added advantage of being off the general tourist routes.
To the northeast lies Leck Fell, just south of Kirkby Lonsdale and Cumbria. It is easy for the visitor to mistake this for the Yorkshire Dales as there is a typical craggy limestone gorge along the little valley of Leck Beck, as well as one of the most extensive cave systems in the British Isles. A natural route from Kirkby Lonsdale back to the county town is marked by the River Lune.
The best way to enjoy this wonderful green and hilly area of Lancashire is to follow the Lune Valley Ramble, which travels the valley’s intimate pastoral setting through woodland, meadows, and along the riverside itself.
To the west lies Morecambe Bay, a treacherous place where, over the centuries, many walkers have lost their lives in an attempt to make the crossing to Grange-over- Sands. Despite its grim history, the bay offers superb views, including glorious sunsets, as well as being an important habitat for a wide variety of birds.
Extending across much of the north of the county is the Forest of Bowland, an ancient royal hunting ground of more than 300 square miles that is dotted with small, isolated villages. With no major roads passing through the area, it has remained little changed and, with so many splendid walks and fine countryside, it is also relatively quiet even during the busiest summer weeks.
An architecturally pleasing city, Lancaster is one of the most appealing of English county capitals. Most of the county’s administrative offices are now based in Preston, so Lancaster enjoys all the prestige of being the capital without the burden of housing the accompanying bureaucrats. The city also takes pride in the fact that the Duke of Lancaster is the only duke in the kingdom who is a woman – no less a personage than HM the Queen for whom the dukedom is one of many subsidiary titles.
Lancaster’s story begins some 2000 years ago when the Romans built a fort on a hill overlooking a sweep of the River Lune, a site now occupied by the unspoiled 15th-century Priory Church of St Mary. Right up until the Industrial Revolution, Lancashire was one of the poorest counties in England, lacking the wealth to endow glorious cathedrals or magnificent parish churches. St Mary’s is a notable exception, the finest medieval church in the county. It stands on the site of Lancashire’s first monastery, which was closed not, like most others, by Henry VIII, but by Henry V in 1413. Henry was at war with France, the monastery’s mother abbey was at Sées in Normandy, so the ‘alien priory’ in Lancaster had to be dissolved. The present church contains treasures rescued from the closed priory such as the sumptuously carved wooden choir stalls from around 1345.
Each stall is covered by a superb canopy, lavishly carved with around a hundred small heads and faces surrounded by abundant foliage. Also of note are the fragments of Anglo-Saxon crosses and some very fine needlework. The Priory Tower, also on the hilltop, was rebuilt in 1759 as a landmark for ships navigating their way into the River Lune. Nearby is one of Lancaster’s links with its Roman past – the remains of a bath house, which also served soldiers as an inn.