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Francesca is Queen of castle revival

Photo Neil Cross
Francesca Lewis at Lancaster Castle

Photo Neil Cross Francesca Lewis at Lancaster Castle

It’s fair to say Lancaster Castle’s event manager Francesca Lewis has got her work cut out.

Employed by the Duchy of Lancaster to raise the castle’s profile both on the local and national level, the 28-year-old has been busy trying to create a buzz around what is described as a “national treasure” and the “jewel in the crown of the Duchy”.

Jousting, open air cinema, proms and opera concerts, travelling markets and an ice rink are just some of the attractions on Francesca’s bucket list for the castle’s burgeoning events programme.

Not long after the castle closed as a prison in 2012, the imposing John O’ Gaunt gate was opened to the public for the first time, allowing people into the courtyard to wander freely, grab a spot of lunch, lounge on the synthetic lawn or take a tour deeper into the fabric of the building.

Currently, around 900 people visit every weekend, and up to 3,000 for special events.

Francesca is no stranger to the limelight, coming from the well known Rastelli-Lewis family whose mini empire includes cafes, restaurants and ice cream outlets in Lancaster and Morecambe including NICE at the Castle and The Storey.

And if she’s perturbed by the huge task of turning the castle into a nationally significant leisure destination, she’s not showing it.

“I remember the castle tours,” Francesca tells me as we sit drinking coffee in the castle’s courtyard on a sunny afternoon.

“But when you’re little you don’t really understand that it’s a prison, or what has happened there over the years.

“I’m constantly learning about the castle.

“I knew a little about its history, but the more time I spend here, the more I learn about all the people that have set foot here.”

Born and raised in Bolton-le-Sands, Francesca attended Ripley St Thomas High School then did a degree in International Resort and Tourism Management.

“After that I wanted to travel so I trained to be a casino dealer and croupier and worked for Carnival Cruises for two years, travelling the world,” she said.

“I was a welcome host in the early evening, and then I’d go out onto the tables.

“We’d be at sea for five days, and I’d be working 14-15 hours a days.

“I’ve travelled North America, Hawaii, Alaska, Europe, and the Caribbean and it was a great experience, but it wasn’t something I wanted to make a career out of.

“It was just a different way of seeing the world rather than putting on a backpack.”

Francesca returned to dry land and moved to Manchester, commuting back to Lancaster to work.

“I wasn’t coming back to work for my dad at the time, but we secured The Storey, and it turned out it was exactly what I was looking for, and it was on my doorstep.

“We’ve just taken on a new front of house manager at The Storey, which has made things much easier and has allowed me to move forward with the castle and find new things for the public to experience and enjoy.”

Some of these new things are yet to be revealed, but as well as those already mentioned, there are large concerts, midnight horror films, period food, medieval banquets, Halloween events and more music events in the former prison.

One attraction at the castle that Francesca is keen to let people know about is Justice.

She said: “It’s a living history experience where you get to see how the justice system operated at the castle 100 years ago, and it’s not for the feint hearted.

“It’s five different experiences with four actors, and you meet the court usher, the barber surgeon, the jailer and then the Judge, and the question in the end is can you survive justice?

“Mike Kennedy, who has written for Alton Towers and Warwick Castle, has worked on the script and it will be open every day during the school holidays.” Halloween is also a theme that the castle has been able to use successfully, with the story of the witches and the grizly goings on within the walls.

Francesca points at the ground: “Underneath the seating area here are a network of tunnels, and at Halloween we’re looking at opening the space up for people to experience.

“It will be along the lines of Pasage del Terror in Blackpool.

“The castle is rated the fourth most haunted castle in the UK and it’s a very dark place historically, but it completely contradicts itself now.

“The Halloween event will be a lot of fun for adults.”

Following successful re-enactment events in the past, Francesca finds herself going on scouting missions for talent.

“I’m going to a re-enactment festival in Kent run by English Heritage,” she says with slight embarassment.

“It’s not something I’d ever have considered doing before this, as you might imagine, but I go so I can see them at work, look at what’s on offer and hopefully book some for our 2015 calendar, which will be much bigger and better.

“We’re looking at jousting possibly on the grass outside the walls, a parade through the city centre.

“Also meals with famous characters from history - who would you most like to go to dinner with? Let us know..!

“There’s so much scope within this castle. The aim has been to open it up to the public to experience its rich history.

“What we’re trying to build is a greater offering, where you can eventually come and spend the whole day here, like you can at other castles.

“What the city as a whole needs to do now is unite so that people coming to visit know what’s on offer and can spend the whole day visiting our attractions.

“I’m excited about the future and looking forward to planning more and more events.”

For a full list of events and more information, visit www.lancastercastle.com.

 

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