Thursday, July 4, 2013

Day 10 Yorkshire - In Which we are Locked in a Jail Cell, Learn About Punishment, and Hang out in Court

We decided to leave the car at home and take the train today on our trip to Lancaster Castle as we had an extra bonus day on our Britrail passes. It was a quick trip which passed through standard Yorkshire/Lancashire landscapes: green fields, grey stone walls, white sheep, and the obligatory rushing rivers.

When we first arrived at the castle, it also appeared to be your standard issue Medieval Castle: imposing stone walls, tiny little leaded windows and huge wooden doors.

1 day 10 yorkshire 2013 003

More recent additions to this castle have, in recent years, been used as a prison until as recently as 2011, and so much of the castle is covered in wiring and lighting etc, which detracted a wee bit from the whole ‘castley’ thing that we were looking for.

However, we persevered, and signed up for a tour in the hopes of learning something interesting. After all, the place has been around since 1180 or something like that, so hopefully the odd interesting thing has happened over the years. And with any luck we wouldn’t get what my dad would call a ‘pratt’ as a guide.

Things got off to a good start when our tour guide, who seemed to be quite reasonable, casually mentioned that we weren’t to worry if there was a fire alarm as he would escort us to safety. I did wonder why he was even bringing this up but listened politely until a man came huffing over about 30 seconds later, which was also when I heard the sirens, to inform us that there was indeed a fire alarm and we would have to hang around outside while they ‘cleared it up’. Apparently they hadn’t had a fire alarm in three years. Our bad luck.

It was actually quite amusing watching all the staff run about asking each other who had which set of keys, and where should the 12:30 tour go now as they had already done ‘C’ block, and would it be ok if we ‘hung about’ for a bit while Jerry sorted the tour schedule out.


1 day 10 yorkshire 2013 007

While Jerry did his thing, Jamie our tour guide, told us a very detailed history of the castle from its beginnings as a Norman stronghold in 10something (1093?) to it becoming a prison for the entire region some time later, which it remained until 2011. It was here that the Pendle witches were brought to stand trial in 1612, although, due to the assize system which meant that court only sat twice a year, March and November, they had to wait in a cell for months before their trial. More on that later. Ugh.

We started our tour in an area known as Hadrian’s Tower where Jamie explained how, in medieval times and through to the 19th century, criminals who were found guilty of a crime were usually sentenced to a form of punishment rather than incarceration. They would receive their punishment and then be sent on their way. It was felt that keeping them locked up was too expensive. Unfortunately, due to the assize system they were still kept locked up until their trial and often in horrendous conditions with men, women, children and lunatics all in the same cells awaiting their trial.

On display in the tower were many of these punishments that the guilty party would be forced to endure: various whips including a Cat O’ Nine Tails, a birch broom, arm and leg irons, straightjackets, and the particularly nasty Scold’s Bridle, which is a type of Iron cage that fits over the head, with a wooden bit that was forced into the mouth to hold the tongue down of a woman found guilty of spreading rumours or gossiping too much.

I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of any of this stuff so you’ll have to imagine it.

After thoroughly creeping us all out, it was time to head into the courts. I was surprised to learn that in 1765 or something like that two court rooms were built on to the back of the prison. The courts are still in use today and serve much of the region. In fact, court was in session at the very time we were there! This meant we had to hang around until a recess in order to go into the court, but that’s Ok as I got to see a judge running up the stairs ahead of me with his ridiculous wig in hand and black robes over his arm. Why on earth they still wear the wig is beyond me. I wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face.

Judge: Ms Potter are you aware of the charges before you?

Me: I’m aware of your silly wig, your honour

Judge: Yes but are you aware of the charges currently before you?

Me: I’m sorry, your honour, but I’m completely distracted by the ridiculous nature of that thing on your head

Judge: Such impertinence! Prisoner, rise!

Me: (holding myself up): Where’d you get it?

Judge: Put her in chains!

Me: I only ask cause my Aunty had a dog that looked  suspiciously like that and it ran away one day and we never found it…


Me (being dragged off): How can I be sure you aren't wearing my Auntie Carol’s dog on your head!


Me (faintly): Dog thief!

There was tons of interesting stuff there, including the trap door where prisoners are brought into court, that is still in use today, and the original arm lock and branding iron that was used to mark those found guilty.

After the courts, we were taken to the drop room, which is where prisoners who were given the death sentence were taken before execution. I’m expecting Zoë to have nightmares tonight based on the look on her face during this bit of the tour.

As if this wasn’t enough, we were then taken to the 200yr old cell block, where I snuck a couple of pictures while Jamie wasn’t looking

1 day 10 yorkshire 2013 012

1 day 10 yorkshire 2013 013

It was here that we had the opportunity to see what it would have been like for a prisoner in these cells. A few of us went in. I was unprepared for the complete blackness that ensued when Jamie then closed the thick wooden door shut and turned out the light. It was actually terrifying to be in there for even a few seconds. I can’t imagine hours or days, or even weeks and months.

We scuttled out into daylight, and were then taken to ‘C’ Block for a look at how the prisoners who were in the more recent areas lived up until 2011 when it closed.

1 day 10 yorkshire 2013 0141 day 10 yorkshire 2013 0151 day 10 yorkshire 2013 0171 day 10 yorkshire 2013 0181 day 10 yorkshire 2013 0191 day 10 yorkshire 2013 021

Pretty grim. I don’t recommend it.

We finished up our tour with a quick look through the bars down to the dungeons where the Pendle Witches are said to have been sent to wait for their trials.

1 day 10 yorkshire 2013 022

Again, I don’t recommend…

After a restorative cup of tea, we left the castle and did a spot of shopping in Lancaster, then jumped back on the train for the return journey. I found myself sitting across from a funny little man dressed in tweeds, who was reading a book on North Korea and periodically laughing out loud. We soon struck up a conversation and it turns out he is a university professor of geography, with the extremely specific specialization of Logging Practices across North Korea. I am very interested in North Korea, which is a good thing as he proceeded to tell me what must be everything he has ever learned about the place. It was actually fascinating to hear first hand stories from someone who has travelled there several times and spent time at the university working for several months. I would love to travel there and can’t WAIT to write that blog!

He also told us everything he knew about everything else too, including how he walked from one end of Norway to the other in six months, and also walked from Land’s End to the Shetland Islands in the UK, in 88 days.

It made for a quick train ride home, where we ate dinner and sadly packed up our stuff. It was so beautiful outside though, that Zoë and I threw coats over our pajamas and went out for one last walk.

1 day 10 yorkshire 2013 0021 day 10 yorkshire 2013 0051 day 10 yorkshire 2013 007

I will leave you with this guy, who we see outside our place every day.

1 day 10 yorkshire 2013 010

I’m not sure either…

Anyway – we are travelling tomorrow so next we meet again will be in Amsterdam.

Thanks for reading




  1. I have loved your blog Jane. You are such a good writer. I can't believe how big the kids are! Susan

  2. Thanks, Susan! Coming from you that is praise indeed! I love your blog too and have been telling the kids about how well behaved French schoolchildren are...
    Happy travels-