Travel Report: Williamson Park, Lancaster.
Williamson Park, Lancaster.
When the sun shines in England you’ve gotta capitalise and get outside. Carpe diem and all that. After my double dose of history at Lancaster Castle and its neighbouring priory, it was definitely time to switch off my brain for a bit and unwind for a few hours in Williamson Park.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, hence I was very much hoping for a bit of peace and quiet. It took me about half an hour to reach the park’s grand entrance gates from the city centre. “1880″ announced the gold letters on one of the stone arches. Hm, looks like there’s plenty of history here too, I thought.
Passing through the gates, I made my way up the ascending stone path. Within just a few minutes I’d found that serenity I’d been hoping for. In fact, the background buzz of traffic had faded away altogether. In its place came the sporadic sound of birdsong and the communal panting of an army of dogs as they dragged their owner along. The poor guy was trying to control his canines with one hand, while in the other he held a mobile phone to his ear. “I’m on my way home darling, they’re too much today!”
Just a quick glance at my phone told me that the park takes its name from the man who founded it, the English businessman, philanthropist and politician James Williamson, the 1st Baron of Ashton. Intrigued, I dropped onto a bench to find out more. However, this peaceful scene lasted just a few minutes as a maintenance man arrived with a cacophonous lawnmower. Oh well, at least they’re taking care of the place.
Williamson Park, Lancaster.
Nevertheless, I was able to get a general overview before making my escape. The elegant park we see today started out as wild moorlands and marshes. Later, in the 19th century, it served as a public gallows and then as a quarry. In the 1870s a local businessman, James Williamson, began developing a part of the land as a public garden. But when he died in 1879 it was his son, the aforementioned Lord Ashton, who went all out to transform the area into a grand city park.
Williamson Junior certainly had the funds for such an undertaking. Indeed he inherited the family fortune, amassed from exporting oilcloth and linoleum around the world. He also served as a member of parliament for Leicester before becoming a peer. Eventually, Lord Ashton had to retire from public life because of ongoing accusations that he had in fact purchased his title through a friend in the government.
Under Lord Ashton’s stewardship, Williamson Park grew and grew with the addition of fountains, ponds, woodland trails, statues and a bandstand. When his second wife Jessy passed away in 1904, he unveiled plans to build a giant Edwardian, baroque memorial in her honour.
He hired none other than John Belcher, the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, to design the memorial. Construction of the domed building began in 1907 and took around two years to complete. And what a striking structure it is, perched dramatically atop a hill overlooking the city of Lancaster.
The Ashton Memorial.
Belcher made Ashton Memorial predominantly out of Portland Stone. Moreover, he used Cornish granite for the external staircase and copper for the dome. According to historians, the bill came in at around £87.000, which translates as something like £8.5 million today. No wonder some people cheekily refer to it as “The Taj Mahal of The North”.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t enter Ashton Memorial that day. Not that there’s much to see inside, it is after all just a fancy folly. Still, it would have been nice to climb up to the top balcony for some impressive views across Lancashire. On a good day, they say, one can see all the way to Morecambe Bay.
Rather, I made do with a random wander that took in some of the park’s various sculptures. Among these, I particularly enjoyed The Raku Mosaic Sculpture, pictured above. Unveiled in 1992, a group of staff and patients at Lancaster’s Royal Albert Hospital created the installation during a six week art project.
The hospital, which focused on children and adults with learning disabilities, was in the process of closing. Thus the group wanted to make a goodbye piece that showcased their love of the local region. The sculptures, which include a money tree, a squirrel and a dragon, depict various places across Lancashire, such as Glasson Dock, Morecambe Bay and even Williamson Park itself.
Williamson Park, Lancaster.
A short while later I stumbled upon the quirky Lancaster Sundial. Designed by the pupils of Ripley St. Thomas School, the sundial invites visitors to stand on the centre of the plinth with their heads above the date on the scale. You then look to see which hour plaque your shadow ends up on.
The sundial has been adjusted to show British Summer Time and the longitude. Therefore you’ll need to do a little adjustment to match the time on your phone or watch. It’s all very complicated for a simpleton like me, so it’s probably best I direct you to this complete (and very wordy) explanation from Lancaster City Museum.
It was also cool to learn that the sundial stands on the site of the park’s former bandstand. After a bit of digging, I managed to discover an old photograph of the bandstand dating back to 1908. Yup, that’s The Ashton Memorial still under construction in the background.
Today one of the park’s most popular spots is its charming mini zoo complex and garden. Here, one can see terrapins, yellow and red eared turtles, tarantulas, scorpions, stick insects and snakes. For the fainthearted, you might prefer the free-flying bird house with Java Sparrows, Zebra Finches and Cockatiels.
Williamson Park, Lancaster.
Most charming of all is the wonderful Butterfly House, where a varied range of exotic breeds float about all around you. With ponds, waterfalls, twisting trees and tropical temperatures, I imagine it’s an especially fun place to visit in the winter. A spot where, for an hour at least, one can escape the drudgery of the English weather.
That afternoon the park’s fluttery residents were feasting on fruit left out on the wooden tables peppered around the main greenhouse. That browny butterfly pictured above that kinda blends into the wood is the Camouflaged Owl Butterfly.
The sticky temps are also perfect for the rare frogs housed here. Take, for example, the Golden Mantella Frog, typically found in Central Madagascar. Apparently there are several breeding programs across England for this endangered red-listed amphibian.
Williamson Park also stands as one of Lancaster’s finest live performance venues. Uncle D excitedly told me about the epic theatre performances over the years. How I would’ve loved to have seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream unfold here. The audience walking from one scene to the next as fairies flit around in the trees. And the park hosts the annual Highest Point Festival, where household British and international music acts come to play.
Finally, with my legs getting weary, I decided to take a load off at Pavilion Cafe. Established within the shell of an old palmhouse, it’s a lovely spot to rest your feet and enjoy some artisan coffee with traditional British dishes, snacks and desserts.
Grabbing a Flat White and a delectable Cream Slice, I sat in the garden soaking up more of that rare phenomenon, the English sunshine. It was here that I finished reading up on Lord Ashton, who died in 1930 at 87 years old.
Say what you like about the suspicions surrounding his peerage, but there’s no doubting Lord Ashton’s dedication to Lancaster. In fact, he made many more contributions to the city in his lifetime. More on that, dear readers, in my upcoming roundup article Cool Spots Around Lancaster.
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What an absolutely stunning park! Made more so, as you say, by the sun, and the art and architecture: wonderful! Yes, to the lawnmower noise! But, oh, the smell of the freshly mown grass is delightful!
Great to hear from you Nick! Yeah this park is great and The Ashton Memorial gives it a unique twist I think. “I love the smell of chopped grass in the morning, smells like Lancaster”.
Ashton don’t 🏄♀️
Looks like Gaudi wandered through Lancaster at some point!
Ha ha that’s about right actually. I didn’t know it was there prior to visiting, so it was something of a “whoa!” moment when it came into view.
The park with its Ashton Memorial looks beautiful in the sunshine and I also adore the smell of freshly mown grass, it’s up there with sleeping on bedding that’s been freshly dried in the garden.
Thanks Marion, glad you enjoyed this virtual tour of Williamson Park. Hope all is well with you and that we get some warmer temps coming our way in March.
Looks like a thoroughly enjoyable place. How did you arrange the great weather? I love small zoos like that, much more intimate than the ones with huge cages. That sun dial would be fun. It took me a while to realize that all sundials show the time for that spot, not that time zone. And I learned a new word. I had never heard of a fancy folly before. So you expanded my horizons and my vocabulary.
That sun dial is complicated eh? I was going to go really deep into it but quickly figured out I was horribly unqualified ha ha. Hence the link. Truthfully I hadn’t heard of the word folly before visiting Williamson Park.
What a great park with a lovely Taj of the north. I’m not into zoos, but I love the butterflies!! I see that you can’t keep yourself away from history 😊 Maggie
Ha ha, I’m a slave to history I guess. I’m not into zoos either, though in my experience mini zoos seem to be a lot better than their larger counterparts. More space, better conditions, staff that really care etc. Thanks for reading Maggie!
It makes me think that great things are often done by great men. Even reduced to the space of a city this statement seems to apply if I believe your historical presentation.
Thanks for taking the time to check out this handsome corner of northern England. It’s a fine park and the backstory brings a visit to life even more.
It is quite an entrance to the park! And a beautiful park indeed – love the different shades of green … and yes, I’ll probably rather visit the free-flying bird house before the one with scorpions and snakes – yikes! The bonus must be the Butterfly House – stunning picture of the butterfly and slice of orange. What a nice sunny post 😉 … hope warmer weather is coming your way soon!
Thanks for visiting Williamson Park Corna! I’m highly doubtful that much warmer weather is coming, though I’m certainly ready for it!
A quaint and serene spot in Lancaster (although the loud-talkers and gardeners were an abrupt record scratch from the silence!). The Ashton Memorial reminded me vaguely of the Berliner Dom, but I also see its resemblance to the Taj Mahal! To stroll around, as well as indulge in coffee and cake at Pavilion Cafe, makes for a lovely time (by the way, I had to Google what “cream slice” is, as I thought it was a mille-feuille, but apparently, they’re the same!). You could definitely spend a long afternoon in Williamson Park!
You’re right, mille-feuille is exactly like the cream slice. I also see that its origin is “unknown” which makes me wonder who came up with it first, the English or the French. Glad you enjoyed this look at Lancaster’s grand city park.
What a lovely park and it looks like you had the place all to yourself. The sundial looks neat, but I too was kind of confused as to how it works (even more so after reading the explanation).
Right? The long and detailed explanation doesn’t do a great job of enlightening you ha ha. Glad you liked the look of Williamson Park, thanks for dropping by.
What a gorgeous place to relax and recharge! I’m excited to check out the parks around London after our days spent sightseeing.
London’s parks are something else. Check out my articles on Regent’s Park, Hampstead Heath, Greenwich Park and Tooting Bec Common. Sladja and I did a batch of (as yet unpublished) parks over the last few weeks too. Of these I’d say Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and St James’s Park are all essential. You’re going to have a blast in London! Bring lots and lots of money ha ha.
Thanks for the insight! I get sad when I pay for something in euro/pounds and see that my credit card was charged more than I thought with the translation haha. I booked an Airbnb in Virginia this fall to go hiking for 3 nights and it was practically the price of one night in Paris/London. Jon was pleasantly surprised at least haha
Welcome to The UK ha ha! Our bank account has been draining ever since we got here in January.
what a lovely peaceful place to unwind. And that memorial is stunning! Oh to be so remembered with such an incredible work of architecture 🙂
Right? I’m fully expecting Sladja to build me a grand Big Ben style clock in my honour when I pop my clogs. One with the Leighton Travels logo lit up on the stonework of the tower. Thanks for reading Meg!
now that would be the world’s greatest memorial! 🙂
Thanks for this.
Great park! You present the history really well… the things people do in the name of love!
Cheers! The people of Lancaster are lucky to have such a beautiful and unique park.