I LOVE a historic venue with a gruesome past, and Lancaster Castle has much darkness threaded through its history.

A prison from the mid-17th century right up to 2011, it offers an intriguing glimpse into criminal justice history.

The castle was also the scene of historic trials, not least those of the Pendle Witches and the Birmingham Six, and 200 executions. The only way in is by guided tour, taking a fascinating, often macabre journey, covering the cells and one of the country’s oldest working crown courts.

Until 1800, convicted criminals at Lancaster were executed at Gallows Hill, near the city’s Williamson Park. Among them were Pendle folk, mostly women, accused of witchcraft and tried at the castle. The Pendle witch trials of 1612, one of the most famous witch trials in English history, concerned the “murders of 10 people by witchcraft”. One defendant was tried at York, another, known as “Old Demdike”, died in prison at Lancaster and of the 11 who went to trial, 10 were found guilty and executed by hanging on the moor above the town. None of the prisoners were allowed defence counsel or witnesses to speak on their behalf.

It’s a grim but fascinating chapter of Lancashire history and there are various walks and heritage trails connected with it around Lancaster.

A short walk from the castle took us to the River Lune, with smart waterfront apartments and bars, then on into town.

The skyline of Lancaster is dominated by the hilltop castle, the city’s Cathedral and the Ashton Memorial - a beautiful folly described as the “Taj Mahal of the North”. Built in Williamson Park in 1909 by industrialist Lord Ashton in memory of his second wife, it stands at 150ft tall, is visible for miles, and has sweeping views of Morecambe Bay and Lakeland fells.

The streets of Lancaster are filled with striking Georgian buildings and, with a lively student scene in the city, there’s a hip, vibrant feel to its shops, bars and restaurants. Quirky independent shops and arts venues blend with High Street names, and a bustling market offers delicious street food and colourful handmade goods.

Just outside the city centre is the 4-star Lancaster House Hotel, where we stayed in a chic studio suite. After a day of exploring in the town, we spent a couple of hours kicking back in the health club, which has a pool, indoor and outdoor hot tub, steam room, sauna, gym and beauty treatment rooms.

Our luxury suite comprised an adjoining lounge, with TV and sofa, and a large en-suite bathroom (with luxury Elemis toiletries - joy!), where I enjoyed a soak in the freestanding bath before dinner.

Lancashire is very much on the menu at the hotel’s excellent Foodworks Restaurant, which has striking Lowry-style illustrations on the walls.

Much of the food is locally sourced, from sea treats to rural produce. Starters included Port of Lancaster marinated smoked mackerel fillet; salmon and prawn timbale, with pickled cucumber and lumpfish caviar; and vegetable dumplings with fried pak choi and spinach. We went for beetroot falafel (delicious, with guacamole, cherry tomatoes and rocket salad), and braised pig cheek with colcannon mashed potato.

Among the main courses were pan-fried seabass fillet, served with chorizo, black pudding, potato pearls and pesto dressing; spicy breaded kidney bean pate with curried baby vegetables; and lamb hotpot deconstruction with potato dauphinoise and sticky red cabbage. Spoilt for choice, we went for Cajun spiced sweet potato roulade, with sautéed potato, green beans and sun-blushed tomato, and, from the grill, the Foodworks steak burger, with Lancashire cheese, crispy bacon and homemade tomato relish. Each dish was fresh, delicious and beautifully presented.

We finished with chocolate and orange tart with berry compote and a lemon posset with raspberries and vanilla tuile biscuit.

The cheeseboard looked tempting - with Blacksticks Blue and smoked and creamy Lancashire among the choices, served with homemade tomato chutney and a nip of Sandeman Ruby Port.

After dinner we reclined with a nightcap in Sandeman’s Bar, opening onto an elegant terrace. The impressive reception lounge has armchairs in nooks and crannies around a cosy open fire. Perfect for an autumn evening.

The hotel blends country house elegance with a relaxed, modern style. Staff were friendly and efficient throughout our weekend stay, and suggested places to visit.

With the Lake District, the Forest of Bowland and the Dales a half-hour drive away, and Lancaster just down the road, it’s perfectly located for a city break or a walking or cycling holiday. There are cycle routes around the city and along the Fylde coast.

There was just too much to do in a weekend. Surely an excuse to book another stay...

* Visit englishlakes.co.uk/lancaster-house or call 0330 4042673.