Most people rush past Carlisle on their way between England and Scotland, but few take the time to stop here. This is a shame as Carlisle has a lot to offer the tourist and is also an excellent base to explore the surrounding countryside. The Northern Lakes, North Pennines, Hadrians’ Wall and South West Scotland are all easily reached from Carlisle.
For millenia, the Solway Gap has been the main route up the west coast between England and Scotland. This has been the ‘debatable land’ with control changing hands regularly. The Romans built a fort here at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall to control the border and movement across it. The Normans built a stone castle which is still in use 900 years later and has withstood more sieges than anywhere else in Britain. This was the home of the Border Regiment for many years. Carlisle was one of the main Royalist strongholds during the English Civil War. Bonnie Prince Charlie used it as a base on his way south during the Jacobite Rebellion.
There is history everywhere you go in Carlisle and it has managed to retain the history but at the same time moving into the C21st. Although it has a cathedral making it a city, it feels much more like a large county town with streets radiating from the pedestrianised central square.
Tourist Information is here in the old town hall and a good place to collect a large scale map of the city. Carlisle still maintains its medieval street plan
It is sufficiently far away from the large shopping metropolisis of Newcastle and Manchester to retain a thriving shopping area with department stores, many smaller family owned shops as well as The Lanes, a large undercover shopping development.
Carlisle was originally a walled city, although little of the walls are left now. This can be seen best in the aerial photograph here.
The castle is at the northern end of the city. At the south near the station is the Citadel, with its two massive red sandstone towers. This was built in 1810-1 by Thomas Telford on the site of the southern gateway and fortress. It housed the civil and criminal courts. It is possible to look round the West Tower by contacting Cumbria County Council on English Street.
Carlisle Castle is an impressive building surrounded by a dry moat and massive outer curtain wall. It is in the care of English Heritage and open weekends in the winter months and daily for the rest of the year.
Inside the inner bailey are the C19th barrack blocks which were the home of the Border Regiment. One is now the Regimental Museum and another has a cafe.
The half moon battery controls entry into the Inner ward with the massive square keep. The castle was a royal residence and the royal apartments were built around the walls. These have now been replaced by the magazine and stores. Some of the best views down into the castle are from the wall walk.
Carlisle Cathedral dates from the C11th.
Little is left of the original Norman building, only the small nave and the rounded Norman crossing arches. Much of the cathedral was damaged by fire in the C13th and the Norman tower collapsed shortly afterwards. The cathedral was badly damaged during the English Civil War and much of the nave was pulled down with the stones being used to repair the walls and castle. This has resulted in a very short nave which is now the Regimental Chapel of the Duke of Lancaster Regiment.
The Norman crossing arches have suffered from subsidence over the years and are looking decidedly wonky
The Choir and presbytery are C14th Gothic and have a wonderful blue painted ceiling with gold stars.
Perhaps one of the greatest treasures are the unique C15th paintings that survive on the backs of the choir stalls.
Quite near the Cathedral is the delightful small Georgian St Cuthbert’s Church.
Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery based in a lovely C17th house between the cathedral and the castle. It is an excellent small museum tracing the history of the area.
It has a very attractive courtyard garden reached through an archway off Castle Street laid out with plants from the C17th. They are a wonderful place to drop out away from the hustle and bustle of the main street.
The Guildhall is on Fisher Street and is a late C14th building. The upper floors are brick and timber frame. There were eight guilds in medieval Carlisle and each had its own meeting room within the guildhall. The ground floor is occupied by a private business, but the upstairs rooms now hold a small museum based on the medieval guilds. . It is normally open on Thursday afternoons during the summer months, although visits can be arranged through Tullie House Museum.
In the C19th Carlisle was an important railway junction being served by seven different railway companies. Carlisle Citadel Station to the south of the city reflects this grandeur. Now it is on the main west coast line to Scotland as well as the Tyne Valley line to Newcastle. It is also the northern end of the iconic Settle Carlisle Railway line runs across the roof of the Pennines and must be the most famous railway line in England.