Between the two parts of my cycling trip in Yorkshire I spent time in Lancaster and Cumbria, though not exactly the Lake District. Lancaster is a city I’ve always liked, though it’s a shame the university is out of the centre and so self-contained, though it does give the place a bit of a cultural lift. It’s pretty lively on a Saturday night but not as bad as Carlisle. There’s something about the colour of the stone that reminds me of Edinburgh – I always wonder if people live in tenements here. I was struck by the Baronial architecture of what is now the White Cross Business Park, opposite the Royal Lancaster Infirmary – it turns out to have been Storey’s Mill, built as a cotton mill in 1854-80 and restored in 1987, rather than a misplaced Highland chieftain’s castle. Clearly it shares some history with The Storey, built in 1887-91 as the Storey Institute and now a centre for the creative industries, with office space, a performing arts venue, ‘contemporary eatery’ the Printroom Cafe & Bar, and a tourist information centre. It was all closed when I was there but has since re-opened.
In the absence of the Printroom, I ate at Aquila, where a wood-fired oven pumps out authentically Neapolitan pizza, mostly vegetarian and using carefully sourced ingredients such as San Marzano tomatoes, n’duja, walnut and gorgonzola. It’s a real barebones place, essentially a takeaway with a few stools. I also liked the look (in very different ways) of The Borough, a bar and restaurant with rooms on Dalton Square, and Single Step, a wholefoods co-op. For breakfast, Filbert’s Bakery is on King Street, next to the attractive Holm Coffee, with scandi-style open sandwiches and pastries.
Lancaster is lucky to have both an attractive canalside area and a riverfront with a lot of potential – the Maritime Museum is down there in the former Custom House (1764) on St George’s Quay, flanked by largely disused warehouses that are ideal for conversion to loft apartments or indeed a hostel. All the city’s museums are currently closed due to Covid-19, which is a bit of a double whammy as the county of Lancashire was so badly hit by austerity cuts in 2016 that it had to mothball five museums including the Museum of Lancashire in Preston and the Judges’ Lodgings in Lancaster.
From Lancaster it’s a very easy cycle ride north along the Lancaster Canal towpath (dead level, with no locks) to Carnforth, once a major railway junction that no longer has platforms on the West Coast Main Line to Glasgow, so that it is served only by regional trains from Manchester and Lancaster to Barrow-in-Furness and from Leeds to Morecambe. But of course it’s really famous as the location of the greatest railway film, David Lean’s Brief Encounter – this was based on a short play by Noël Coward, Still Life, and I was the production manager of the play on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the early 1980s, with Hugh Grant and Imogen Stubbs. The excellent Heritage Centre on the southbound platform has the film showing on a continuous loop, a David Lean exhibition, lots of railway material including a 1940s ticket office, and above all the Refreshment Room where Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson had their desperately repressed cups of tea – the Heritage Centre is now partly open, but the Refreshment Room remains closed. But despair not, the northwest’s first micropub, The Snug is in the main station building (built by Sir William Tite in 1846).
From Carnforth I continued north on quiet lanes to Kendal – the Lancaster Canal used to continue all the way to Kendal but has been severed by road-building in various places; nevertheless parts of it remain as a footpath, with the original bridges in place, and the final couple of miles into Kendal are now a useful cycleway. I spent a couple of nights in Kendal (which I’ve written about separately), and then took a train up to Carlisle, which strikes me as a blunt northern city, with a strong military tradition and not many students to dilute the bluntness. My previous visit was on a Saturday night, which was lively… and this time my hotel was on the same street as not one but two Wetherspoons pubs, a Brewdog and a Walkabout (as well as Timmy’s Always Vegan!). They like to go out for a drink – and there are also lots of Italian restaurants, which were heaving on a Tuesday night thanks to the Eat Out to Help Out post-lockdown promotion. And there are lots of barbers too, presumably a preliminary to going out drinking.
But this was also the only place on my recent trip where the museum was open as usual (without pre-booking, although with limited hours), and I was also happy to visit the castle even if I did have to book online. The Tullie House Museum covers local history from 450 million years ago (when Cumbria was part of the continent of Avalonia and the neighbouring bit of Scotland was in Laurentia) but really goes to town on the Romans, who arrived in AD 72. Hadrian came here in 122 and built his wall by 128; at the time 10% of the Roman army was stationed in Britain (just 4% of the empire’s area). In 208 Septimius Severus also came here and repaired the wall, and made Carlisle a civitas (as opposed to a military base) before dying in York in 211. As author of various guides to Romania, I’ve long been aware that it was Dacian (ie Romanian) auxiliaries who garrisoned forts such as Birdoswald – one always wonders how they coped with the weather.
Later history was largely concerned with the border with Scotland, agreed in 1222 and formally fixed by the Treaty of York in 1237; however there were plenty of battles between England and Scotland, including Robert the Bruce being driven back from Carlisle in 1315. However I hadn’t realised that the Reivers, who rampaged around the lawless border area from the late thirteenth to the early seventeenth century, mainly stealing cattle, were totally indiscriminate in terms of national allegiances – anyone was fair game. Still, it was the union of the English and Scottish crowns in 1603 that finally led to the imposition of law and order in the borderlands.
Industrial history focusses mainly on the railways, with no fewer than seven independent routes meeting here (surprisingly six are still open, with only the Waverley line to Edinburgh having closed); from 1876 they all used Citadel station, designed by Sir William Tite, who claimed this was the first Gothic Revival station, being designed to sit alongside the Citadel, built by Henry VIII in 1541 and modified in 1810 to house law courts. The citadel, at the south end of the old city centre, is not to be confused with the castle, at the north end (in between there’s the cathedral and just a few attractive old buildings on the north side of the main square or, strictly speaking, triangle). Night Mail (the documentary film of an Auden poem, with music by Britten) plays on a loop at Tullie House – however, it starts when the train is already north of Carlisle (This is the night mail crossing the Border, Bringing the cheque and the postal order), and they miss a trick by not mentioning TS Eliot’s Skimbleshanks (from Practical Cats), who was also on the Night Mail (You were sleeping all the while he was busy at Carlisle). Living in Cambridge, I was interested to learn (from Wikipedia, not Tullie House) that Night Mail was premiered at the opening of the Cambridge Arts Theatre in 1936.
Carlisle Castle, founded by William Rufus in 1092, claims to be the most besieged place in the British Isles, notably enduring a nine-month siege in 1644-5, when it was more or less the only Royalist stronghold in northern England after the battle of Marston Moor. It was the base of the Border Regiment, formed in 1881 by the merger of the 34th Cumberland and 55th Westmoreland Regiments (dating from 1702 and 1755 respectively); in 1959 they merged with the King’s Own Royal Regiment and became the King’s Own Border Regiment, and the army finally vacated the castle. It’s open to visitors, but there’s not a lot to see at the moment apart from Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life, ie the Border Regiment museum, which does a good job of condensing a lot of history into a manageable form. My grandmother’s brother, killed at Ypres in October 1914, was in the Border Regiment for some reason – the other branches of my family have gravitated to the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy.
[I’ve now discovered that his younger brother (who I met) was also in the Border Regiment, survived the Somme, and was in charge of training troops here at Carlisle Castle in World War II.]
I found the cathedral relatively plain, but with some very attractive features, notably the East Window, completed by 1350 in the Flowing Decorated Gothic style – it’s the largest and most complex example in England. There are also fine misericords and wooden screens, and four sets of unusual painted panels on the rear of the choir stalls, dating from 1485–90.
For those interested in beer and the history of the English pub, Carlisle is of interest because its pubs and brewery were nationalised in 1916, to prevent workers in the huge ammunition factories just north at Gretna from going to work drunk or hungover, by banning ‘treating’ or buying rounds of drinks (until 1919) and by paying managers a set wage to remove the incentive to sell more drinks. Astonishingly, they were not returned to the private sector until 1973!
One thought on “Lancaster and Carlisle”
That Graham Robb bloke (Discovery of France) has written a book all about the Reivers’ border country just north of Carlisle. (He now lives there, in Nicky Ridley’s old house.) All fascinating and thoroughly-researched stuff, and bicycles feature prominently as he explores the area, but by page 687 we’d only got as far as the bottom of his garden, and I could feel myself growing old. Essential reading for borderlands fans, though.
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