Ashton Memorial

On my way home from Edinburgh, the subject of last week’s column, I took the opportunity to visit Lancaster to see one of England’s greatest follies.

Brighton & Hove has more than its fair share of ornamental edifices. From the ornate clock towers in Preston Park and Blaker’s Park to the ornamental arches of St Nicholas’ Churchyard and the Royal Pavilion, we are blessed locally with many curious decorative structures. But not one compares to the Ashton Memorial.

James Williamson (later Lord Ashton) and his father, also called James Williamson, were hugely successful Lancaster-based oil cloth producers. In 1877, they transformed the open moorlands and former stone quarries above the city into the magnificent Williamson Park.

A temple, palm house and fountain that were designed by respected architect Sir John Belcher were added to the park in 1904. It was Belcher’s model of the proposed Ashton Memorial that was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1906. Its construction began the next year and it opened in 1909 as a memorial to Lord Ashton’s family.

The 150ft tower looms over the glorious surrounding parkland but also above Lancaster itself and the distant Morecambe bay. In true Edwardian Baroque splendour, there are huge columns with Doric and Composite capitals along with an immense copper dome. The Portland stone structure features two huge domed rooms, one above the other, with various staircases and balconies. A black, white and red marble floor greets guests before they climb to the viewing gallery and enjoy the panoramic views. Small signs embedded in the gallery’s stone balustrade point to notable landmarks including Lancaster Castle, Blackpool Tower and even the Isle of Man.

The Ashton Memorial was conceived as a solid stone structure but cheaper materials were used in places such as brick, steel and concrete. By 1920, major repairs were necessary. I can actually remember it being closed when I played as a child nearby whilst visiting Lancaster to see my grandmother. It opened again in 1987. My dad used to tell me how he remembered it as a child. Whilst at school, he witnessed the dome burning, as did many other residents, when the memorial was badly damaged by fire in 1962.

It’s a truism that buildings within childhood memories appear much smaller in person than envisaged. The Ashton Memorial, around which I once loved to play, looked even bigger when I returned to explore again.