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By Bill Jervis
Now living in Norfolk, author and Lancaster native Bill Jervis, writer of our serial Faces and Phases, returned to the area in August 2003 for a nostalgia-filled visit. Here's his account of his travels...
Fearing a lethal combination of midday heat and heavy traffic, my son and I left Norfolk at 4.30 a.m., exited the M5 at 10 a.m. and drove to Heysham via Morecambe Promenade. As usual, parts of Morecambe had what appeared to be bomb damage, the art deco buildings of the Empire and Arcadian reduced now to piles of rubble along with Frontier Land, while the lovely Midland Hotel appeared to be just about sufficiently decayed and neglected to justify yet another demolition job.
There were compensations: the ever-present unbeatable view across Morecambe Bay and the superb alterations and extension of the Stone Jetty, compensating for the long lost piers.
Heysham was always attractive and was now revealed in all its beauty, with floral decorations everywhere and tatty stalls and merchandise removed. There were very few morning visitors in the streets, in the churchyard overlooking the Bay or in the now quite easily accessed parts of Heysham Head and the remains of earlier worship on the site. A potential tourist trap if ever there was one -- but luckily for me with no other tourists to disturb my contemplative mood as I lingered amongst the gravestones on the fine misty morning of this the hottest of all hot summers. The one jarring note was the ugliness of the nuclear power stations, ruining some of the enchanting views.
It was too hot to sit, Continental style, outside the cafe on the edge of the Square. Inside we enjoyed a cheap cup of excellent coffee and cakes served by a pretty and cheerful waitress.
We paid a brief visit to a tiny museum in the main street and again enjoyed the friendly greetings of the curator and shared reminiscences about Heysham of the past, including a chat about the long gone Heysham Towers Holiday Camp where I was once a waiter.
It was a good start to our short break in the area. Leaving Heysham, we headed for Lancaster, via a motor highway which has invaded the remembered wilderness of my youth; we negotiated horrendous traffic along Morecambe Road and through Skerton and eventually arrived at our destination, The Farmers Arms. My son left me and our luggage there while he went in search of a parking space. A warm welcome in the hotel, a glimpse of an interesting bar then upstairs to a clean and comfortable bedroom with bathroom attached.
Soon I was strolling down pedestrianised Market Street and entering the John O'Gaunt pub where I met Virtual-Lancaster's John Freeman, his friend Colin and Michael, my son. We enjoyed good, cheap pub food and an excellent range of real ales. The welcome and service from behind the bar was first-rate. I expressed my approval of the way things seemed to be going for the town. Clothing seemed lighter, smiles seemed wider, the buildings looked brighter, the shops were full and business seemed to be thriving.
I missed the sight of cream-and-brown Lancaster Corporation buses threading their way through the narrow streets and the smell of beer being brewed on the premises of a vanished pub, next to the old Market entrance on Common Garden Street. Sufficient remained, including Lawsons Rocking Horse Shop, to bring old memories flooding back.
The heat and the beer had their effect and I rested for a while on my hotel bed reading, and enjoying a view of the Lancaster Canal and a variety of boats tied up near the Water Witch pub. I dozed off until Mike knocked on my door: it was time to take a taxi to Morecambe. We enjoyed a sumptuous meal with old Lancaster friends Margaret and Kevin Stretch and then adjourned to the The George pub in Torrisholme. The pub was buzzing and we enjoyed each others company but I hated the distractions of a large TV screen and its intrusive sounds and noisy game machines.
Just before closing time, we went back to Lancaster. The taxi-driver was a Morecambe man and vociferous in his claim that Lancaster City Council had ruined Morecambe and only given thought to looking after Lancaster. I kept quiet but it seems to me that Morecambe has long been obsessed with shooting itself in the foot and has only itself to blame for making the worst of a bad job during times of inevitable change.
The benefit of choosing to stay in a pub now came into play. In a welcoming atmosphere, the bar stools and chairs at tables occupied by mainly elderly Lancastrians, we were soon chatting with a couple of locals. One was Don who described himself as Lancaster's First Teddy Boy.
Aged 67 to my 70, we had much to share. He was as vocal as the taxi-driver in condemning the local Council. But he maintained they had ruined Lancaster. "A bunch of foreigners, here today and gone tomorrow, ruling our roost," he decried. "All they think on is gentrifying the place and catering for bloody students." He gave us a long list of demolitions, poor renovations and bad planning. His friend Mick thought he was hilarious, he had obviously heard it all before, and mildly rebuked me for asking questions beginning, "Do you remember.....?"
"Oh God, don't ask him that," said Mick, "we'll be here all night!" Several other customers joined the discussion and regret for times past won the day. Last orders and then to bed, trying to sleep with the window wide open but the temperature stayed high.
We had a superb full English breakfast and then set out to visit locations of my youth. I decided to try and photograph old cinema buildings. A walk along the Canal Banks was delightful on yet another sunny morning. An absence of concrete and the retention of stone in pleasing housing, waterside businesses and restaurants maintains the local heritage without over-commercialisation. Pity about Edward Street, Mitchells Brewery and thereabouts: I hope Don is wrong and the Council get it right, it could be make or break time for a major part of old Lancaster.
We viewed the ghost of Lancaster past from the Priory Churchyard. Only one chimney left on Williamson's factory site and one set of buildings like a lone ship that has had the rest of the fleet sunk around it. Opposite our hotel, Storeys building survives quite triumphantly, fine architecture, sensibly preserved and in use.
County Cinema - now Palatine Hall, Dalton Square
The Palace Cinema - now the Walkabout
Alexandra Hall - now flats - sometimes doubled as a cinema
The Palladium - now WH Smiths
The County Cinema, Dalton Square is now offices. Formerly a music hall, The Hippodrome, it was originally a Roman Catholic Church.
The Palace, Dalton Square was once second only to the Odeon in comfort and fine furnishings. An added attraction to the films was a cinema organ, performed upon during the interval.
Alexandra Hall, Penny Street, sometime quite notorious dancehall, haunt of soldiers looking for crumpet and occasional fights. It sometimes doubled as a cinema.
In my youth the Grand vied with the Picturedrome, opposite the Post Office in Stonewell, for dinginess. It now seems to live up to its name.
The old Odeon in King Street -- now the Regal still survives for the showing of films. (The Regal is now a Tesco - Ed).
The Palladium in Market Street is now WH Smiths. An emergency exit in the alleyway leading to the market was used by naughty boys for free entry to the film shows!
We spent the afternoon walking around Morecambe. The first week in August and superb weather had not attracted anything like the crowds I remember. Still, nine out of ten for trying to cope and six out of ten for succeeding, with hopes for improvements soon.
The number and variety of restaurants in Lancaster astounds me. I remember a couple of cafes and milk bars, a snack bar in Woolworths and that was it.
We were really spoiled for choice. We wandered up and down Penny Street and finally settled on a new Spanish Restaurant. We were the only diners but it deserved better. A quite voluptuous waitress and glamorous brunette in the kitchen brightened our evening with their appearance and friendly welcome. No Spanish accents though; it was "Hello loves, what are you having then?" Very knowledgeable about the food though and with the lady's help we were guided though an appetising menu and enjoyed a very acceptable house red wine. The dishes suited me: the portions not too large and all good.
We headed for the Water Witch and its excellent range of real ales and swift, very friendly service. I stayed with the wine.
We sat outside, enjoying the warm air, the water, the lighting in and around the pub and my old classmate George's company.
Ah more nostalgia!
Bill and George, seven years in the same class 1944-1951.
Just before closing time, it was back to The Farmers Arms to enjoy a late night drink with our old (24 hours old) friends Don and Mick. Outrageous conversation and humour! Vows to return soon and see them again etc.
Mike was going on to enjoy the Lake District. I returned to Norfolk by train. I reckon the old town has not changed basically that much in appearance. The people look happy enough. God knows where they work -- so many work places having gone. The Farmers Arms hotel was good value for money in every possible way. Without exception, every people-encounter was a good one: with old friends, new friends, in shops, pubs and walking around the place.