Go car-free in quirky Carlisle

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Discover the colourful history of the Great Border City on a relaxed trip by train, bus and foot, writes Wendy Gomersall.

Carlisle, the 2,000-year-old Great Border City, lies just eight miles from Scotland. It’s Cumbria’s only city and as history buffs will know, it hasn’t always been part of England.

If you love olde worlde tales of gore and glory, fights, feuds and quirky facts, it makes a great city break.

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A compact centre includes a castle, cathedral, city walls and other historic buildings, all within walking distance of each other, meaning you won’t need the car.

The cathedral city of Carlisle is very walkableThe cathedral city of Carlisle is very walkable
The cathedral city of Carlisle is very walkable

If you do get footsore, there’s a bus service from Stagecoach, both around the city and to outlying must-sees, more of which later.

Get to the city by rail, so easy. Avanti West Coast offers comfortable train journeys from numerous Scottish stations, including Edinburgh and Glasgow.

So, that’s transport sorted. Now, you could buy a book and DIY the sightseeing, but choose a tour with a professional guide and they’ll share all the fascinating stuff with you on the way round.

Mine, Cumbria Tourist Guide Anna Gray, had me eating out of her hand within minutes…

Why isn’t Carlisle in the Domesday Book? Because it was part of Scotland in 1066 when the Normans arrived, and stayed so until 1237 when it transferred to England.We’re all pals now of course, but everywhere is evidence of less cordial times, shall we say.Start your sightseeing at Carlisle Cathedral. Apart from a huge, beautiful stained glass window, there’s a regular farmer’s market, live music, art displays, talks and yoga sessions, carlislecathedral.org.uk.

Check out cumberland.gov.uk/news for The Light District events, part of a season of creative and inventive attractions and shows in Carlisle and beyond in 2024.

Next, the castle. Detainees have included Mary, Queen of Scots in 1568. According to eyewitness Sir Francis Knollys, ‘about 20 of her retinue played at football before her the space of two hours very strongly, nimbly and skilfully without any foul play.’This, Anna told me, is possibly the first written record of a football match (with rules) taking place in England.

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Mary was later executed by order of Queen Elizabeth I, who, somewhat ironically, was succeeded by Mary’s son, James I of Scotland and VI of England.

It was James who sorted out the rough sorts called the Border Reivers, both Scots and English who nicked cattle and anything else they fancied along the Anglo-Scottish border.

Fascinatingly. the names of rogue families are carved into the stone pathway leading to the castle, so you can check how bad a bunch your rellies were. Names include Blackadder and Trotter. Nixon, as in former US president Richard, and Armstrong, Neil, first man on the moon, had some bad news when they did a bit of family tree tracing…

Still with James and the Stewart kings of a united England and Scotland, Carlisle features heavily in the story of a young bod called Bonnie Prince Charlie.

In 1745 he led his army of Jacobites south from Scotland to seize the throne back from George II for his dad, who according to supporters, should have been James III. He successfully captured Carlisle but lost it later to the Duke of Cumberland, head of the government troops of George II, his dad. He and Charlie were to meet soon after on a battlefield called Culloden. Still with me?

What’s utterly fascinating is that on Carlisle’s Marks & Spencers there two plaques – one for Charlie, one for Cumberland – as just weeks apart they stayed in the same house, possibly the same bed.

After reclaiming Carlisle, Cumberland took his revenge on captive Jacobites, squashing them into the castle dungeons before deciding who should be executed as traitors. The ‘licking stones’ – prisoners without water were licked damp from crevices to stay alive – can be seen today, www.english-heritage.org.uk.

There’s another plaque honouring BPC in nearby Brampton. He stayed there while planning the siege of Carlisle. You can get there easily by Stagecoach bus. Do visit St Martin’s Church to see the stunning Pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows designed by Edward Burne-Jones and made by Morris and Co.

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On the way back, stop at Warwick Bridge Corn Mill, a water-powered corn mill dating back to 1169, which has been resurrected, warwickbridgecornmill.co.uk.

Back in Carlisle, Anna had more quirks for me: in 1853 the city was the first place on mainland Britain to have a freestanding roadside pillar post box, commemorated with a replica version.

A handsome Edwardian building that was the post office is now a luxurious apartment hotel, restaurant and bar called The Halston, a great place to stay thanks to its excellent restaurant, Penny Blue, and central location, a short walk from the train station.

My favourite thing though had to be a mystery surrounding the Old Town Hall clock tower. Why is the north face pointing towards Scotland totally blank? One theory - because some city dwellers didn’t want to give Scots the time of day. Cheek!

Avanti West Coast trains from Glasgow or Edinburgh to Carlisle from £10 one way; check avantiwestcoast.co.uk for special offers. For bus services including Stagecoach, visitlakedistrict.com/explore/travel/carfreeBook Cumbria Tourist Guides on cumbriatouristguides.orgApartments at The Halston from £155 per night, breakfast extra, thehalston.com