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North West Carlisle, Cumbria

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.

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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 metropolises 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.

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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.

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Carlisle Castle (#4) 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.

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Inside the inner bailey are the C19th barrack blocks which were the home of the Border Regiment. One is now the Museum of Military Life and another has a cafe.

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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 (#7) dates from the C11th.

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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

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Perhaps one of the greatest treasures are the unique C15th paintings that survive on the backs of the choir stalls.

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Quite near the Cathedral is the delightful small Georgian St Cuthbert's Church (#12).

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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.

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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.

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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.
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10+ Posts
What a lovely article, Eleanor. We have enjoyed several day trips to Carlisle, and also recommend the Tullie House museum and the stunning cathedral. It's worth checking the times of evensong and hearing the cathedral choir (I suspect they don't sing in school holidays). The indoor market is another favourite of ours.
If you're touring by car, then the Devil's Porridge Museum in Eastriggs is very interesting (and close to Gretna Green with its tourist attractions and shopping).


1000+ Posts
I've always enjoyed visiting Carlisle. We used to regularly holiday along Hadrian's Wall and this was an excellent place to visit on days too wet to walk. I'd forgotten about the blue painted ceiling in the cathedral and the painted choir stall backs, but had remembered the wonky arch, although I'd forgotten where it was and had to go searching for it.

I've not been to choral evensong in Carlisle Cathedral, but have in York Minster and it is a wonderful experience.

The Devil's Porridge Museum has been on my todo list for years - one day....
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1000+ Posts
Carlisle Castle - nine centuries as a fortress, royal residence, military training centre and prison...

Some history

For centuries the Solway Gap has been one of the main routes between England and Scotland. This was called ‘the debatable land’ with control changing hands regularly. The Romans built a fort here to control the border and movement. The castle has been continuously occupied since the C11th and has withstood more sieges than anywhere else in the British Isles.


The first wooden castle was built at the end of the C11th by William Rufus who had won back the area from the Scottish crown. Henry I began building a stone castle with a keep. The castle was originally built with grey Kirklinton sandstone from near St Bees. Later work used the local red sandstone.

The area was retaken by David I in 1136 after Henry’s death. David had a claim by marriage to the earldom of Northumberland which included Carlisle. After his death the castle reverted to the English king Henry II. Edward I used Carlisle as his base for his campaigns against the Scots.

In C16th was a time of perpetual lawlessness and raiding across the border. Families formed formed groups of ‘reivers’ who regularly robbed and pillaged their neighbours. In an attempt to control the problem the area was divided into Marches and Lord Wardens were appointed as the crown’s representatives to control and keep order along an unruly border. Carlisle was the base for the English Western March and prisoners were held in the castle. The Half Moon Battery was built and the inner ward adapted for the use of cannon.

Mary Queen of Scots was held here briefly after she left Scotland.

It wasn’t until the Union of the Crowns in the C17th that order was gradually imposed.

Carlisle was the main stronghold of the Royalists during the Civil War and the castle was sieged for nine months, only surrendering when food ran out.

Carlisle Castle was bombarded and taken by the Duke of Cumberland in 1745 as the Jacobites had left a small garrison there. Great holes were blasted in the walls by cannon fire. Jacobite prisoners were kept in the castle before being executed in public.

French prisoners of war were kept in the castle during the Napoleonic Revolution.

By the end of the C18th the castle was in a poor state of repair but underwent a prolonged building programme renovating old structures and building new ones after civic unrest in 1826.

At the end of the C19th and start of the C20th new barrack blocks were erected in the outer bailey when castle became the base for the Border Regiment from 1873 to 1959. The blocks were named after battles they fought in. The Arnheim block was originally the military hospital and was described as the ‘worst army hospital’ in Britain.

Since 2000 most of the military functions have left the castle, although the Cumbria Museum of Military Life is still in the Alma block.

The castle is now in the care of English Heritage and open daily during the summer season but weekends only during the winter. The post code is CA3 8UR and the grid reference is NY 397562.

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1000+ Posts
Carlisle Castle cont - the outer gatehouse and outer ward

The outer gatehouse was one of the first parts of the castle to be built and was the front line of defence. It was substantially changed at the end of the C14th to house the Sheriff of Cumberland and his exchequer, and was the place where the Crown’s revenues from the county were paid. In the C19th it became a barracks and was later the sergeants’ mess.

Not only was this the main entrance into the castle, it was also the first line of defence against the enemy with portcullis and heavy wooden doors. The rooms on either side served as guard rooms. Beneath was an underground cellar or

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Although the apartments on the first floor are described as the warden’s apartments they were more likely to have been used by the Sheriff. On the first floor is the main hall with a large fireplace. Part of the top of the portcullis can be seen in the wall. Meals were eaten here and business conducted.

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Behind is the withdrawing chamber which acted as private sitting room and bed chamber. It had its own private latrine in the thickness of the walls.

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Off the main hall is the kitchen with two large fireplaces. There was no well and all water had to be brought in from outside.

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Above the main hall and looking down on it was the solar which would have been private apartments.

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The gatehouse leads into the outer bailey which was originally surrounded by a curtain wall. This was a large grassy area with a few mainly wooden buildings around the walls. It was used by the population in times of trouble when they would bring their livestock and belongings into the castle for protection. The barrack blocks were built in the C19th and early C20th when the castle was the home of the Border Regiment. Although the soldiers have left, the buildings are still in use and not open to the public. One houses the Museum of Military Life. In front of them is what was the parade ground and is now used for parking.

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1000+ Posts
Carlisle Castle cont - the inner ward and the keep

The inner ward is protected by the Half Moon Battery which was built around 1540 as part of the works undertaken by Henry VIII to defend England against invasion. It protected the approach to the inner bailey and would originally have had a moat in front of it. This now stands below the level of the parade ground which was built up later. It originally had a stone parapet with three openings for cannon with a semi circular gun gallery beneath it. Originally the soldiers would have been able to shoot straight across the outer ward. There are three blocked vents in the ceiling which would have provided outlets for gunpowder smoke and ventilation.

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Behind is the Captain’s Tower which was the residence of the officer responsible for the day to day running of the castle. It projects beyond the inner bailey walls and the base of the walls slope outwards providing extra protection against attack by battering or mining. The entrance had heavy wooden doors with a portcullis.

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Inside the gatehouse are three large arches cut into the thickness of the wall. These were C16th storage spaces or casemates.

Until the early C19th the walls of the inner ward were lined with buildings intended as the royal palace. These were built in the C12th and remodelled by Edward I in the C13th. They were demolished in the C19th when the powder magazine and militia store were built. The magazine could hold up to 320 barrels of gunpowder. The militia store distributed uniform and supplies to the soldiers. This is now a small exhibition area with display boards covering he history of the castle.

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At the centre of the Inner ward is the massive square keep, begun by Henry I but finished by David I of Scotland when he seized the castle from the English and turned it into a royal palace. This was originally a lot taller with corner turrets, but these were removed and the top lowered in the C16th for a gun emplacement.

On a wall near the keep is a plaque dated 1577 with the message that the castle both serves and is dependent on the crown.

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The living quarters of the keep were originally entered at first floor level. Entry is now through a C16th doorway with a portcullis, into the stone vaulted storage cellars. During the Jacobite Rising of 1745-6, prisoners were kept here.

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There is access to the well here.

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Above are the living quarters, reached by staircases in the thickness of the walls. The first floor was originally a single large room. The dividing wall was added in the C16th to support the heavy cannons placed on the roof. The area was used by the garrison of soldiers as well as by the king to receive visitors or petitioners. Latrines were provided in the thickness of the walls.

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The second floor were the living quarters of the king or his representative. They had a small kitchen set in the walls and a small oratory where David I died in 1153. The walls of the room next to it are covered by a remarkable series of carvings thought to date from the end of the C15th. Attribute to prisoners kept in the castle, it is more likely they were carved by by bored guards.

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The original oak doorway now hangs on the wall and is protected by glass. This also has rough carvings on it.

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The chambers on the third floor were probably used as a gunpowder store for the roof cannon. The magazine blew up in 1575 leaving the keep ‘marvellously cracked’ and it wasn’t repaired for nearly a century. It now houses a small exhibition about the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-6.

A steep ramp leads up the outer wall of the keep past the well, to the walkway around the Inner Ward. The well was the only source of water in the inner ward and was accessible both from the inside and outside of the keep.

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The ramp was designed to get cannon up to the walkway which was widened and strengthened to hold them. There are good views down into the Inner ward.

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There are also good views of the now filled in moat which surrounded the walls of the castle. This would have been crossed by a drawbridge. The castle walls were also attached to the city walls making the castle and city a single defensible unit. The small tower is known as the Brick tower (tile was old word for brick) which was built by the future Richard III when he was Governor of the Castle and Lord Warden of the Western March.

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1000+ Posts
Carlisle Cathedral - a collapsing Norman arch and C15th painted choir stall backs

Some history

The Cathedral is a short walk from the castle and reached through an archway next to the town walls.

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It is surrounded by the grassy Cathedral Close and the remains of the monastic buildings that survived pulling down by the Parliamentarians. The Fratry, still with part of the original cloisters wall, was the medieval dining hall and is still the Cathedral cafe.

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There has been a church here since the end of the C11th and it became a cathedral in 1133 under the control of Augustinian canons. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the prior became the Dean of the cathedral.

Most of the building was constructed from the local red sandstone although the Norman church was built from a grey rock, giving the building a mottled appearance.

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It is quite difficult to photograph close to as tree in the close get in the way. The best views are from the castle keep. It is a long low building with a short square tower.

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Little of the original Norman church survives, just the small nave with its round columns and the rounded arches in the crossing leading into the side aisles. The cathedral was badly damaged by fire in 1292. Parts of the choir were rebuilt in 1380 in the latest Gothic style. This was wider than the original choir as can be seen from the offset chancel arch.


It was just finished when the original Norman tower collapsed onto the north transept. The cracks can still be seen above the arches into the side aisles from the crossing and the decidedly wonky Norman arch.

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Rebuilding the tower was completed by 1419. Further work was needed at the end of the C14th and beginning of the C15th. The choir stalls and barrel vaulted ceiling of the choir and presbytery date from then.

The cathedral was badly damaged by Parliamentary troops during the Civil War. Much of the nave, cloisters and surrounding buildings were pulled down and stone used to repair the city walls and castle. Only two bays of the nave are left, leaving it very short compared with the rest of the building. This is now the Regimental chapel.

There was further restoration work in the mid C19th when the choir and presbytery ceiling were painted and the Bishop’s throne installed.

There is some parking for disabled visitors in the Cathedral Close, otherwise there are pay and display car parks near by. The post code is CA3 8TZ and the grid reference is NY 399559.

The cathedral is open daily from 7.30-6pm (5pm on Sundays). During the week there are volunteer guides and welcomers around to answer questions.


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1000+ Posts
Carlisle Cathedral cont - the nave

Entry is through the double south door in the south transept with its bands of flowers and foliage carving and carved capitals.

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Only two bays of the original nave survive with their sturdy round columns and arches. Above are typical round topped Norman windows.

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The nave is now the Regimental Chapel of the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment and their old standards dating back to 1745 hang from the walls.

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The Norman crossing arches survive which lead into the side aisles. The damage to the stonework caused by the weight of the original Norman tower can be seen quite clearly. The North arch is definitely wonky.

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In the north transept opposite the main door into the Cathedral is St Wilfred’s Chapel. The highlight here is the Brougham Triptych above the altar which was carved in Antwerp in about 1515 and has scenes of the Passion of Christ.



The late C19th carved stone font is under the crossing and has three dark bronze statues round the base. The figures are the Virgin and child, St John the Baptist and St Philip.

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1000+ Posts
Carlisle Cathedral cont - choir and presbytery

The choir and presbytery have a very different feel to the Norman nave and are Gothic in style with multicolumn pillars with pointed arches with bands of dog tooth carving. The pillars have narrow capitals carved with vegetation and the Labours of the months.

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The choir stalls are late C14th, one for each of the honorary canons and have beautifully carved hoods and misericords.

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Beyond the canons stalls on the north side of the choir is the carved Salked screen which is mid C16th.

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The dark wood bishop’s chair is late C19th and designed by George Street.

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The canons stalls are unique as they still have the original painted panels on the back dating from around 1485. Those facing the south aisle are protected from sunlight by a curtain and show pictures of the life of St Augustine of Hippo. During the Reformation, the paintings were defaced and covered with lime wash. This was removed in 1778 and have been cleaned and conserved since then.

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The stalls facing the north aisle have paintings of the life of St Cuthbert (nearest the altar), the Twelve apostles and the story of St Anthony.

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The lovely barrel vaulted ceiling dates from 1400 and was rebuilt after the fire. It was restored in the mid C19th when it was painted with a blue starry sky and repainted in 1970.

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The high altar has a lovely gilded canopy. Behind it is the great east window with its C14th tracery. At the top is some of the original medieval stained glass which escaped destruction by the Puritans. The rest of the glass is C19th and depicts the life of Christ.

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1000+ Posts
Carlisle Cathedral cont - the side aisles

The side aisles have ribbed vaulted ceilings and blind arcading along the walls.

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At the end of the north aisle is St Michael’s Chapel which is used for private prayer.

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In the north aisle there are two stone tomb niches. One has a later effigy of a bishop lying in it. The other has a tiny stone sarcophagus of a child.

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Behind the high altar is the tomb of Samuel Waldegrave (1817-68) who was Bishop of Carlisle from 1860 to his death.
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Near the tomb is a replica of a sword supposedly belonging to Hugh de Morville, one of the knights who killed Thomas Becket. The original was kept in Carlisle Cathedral but disappeared during the Reformation.

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In the south aisle set under a lovely carved wood canopy, is the monument to Francis Close DD who was Dean for 25 years and very well regarded for his charitable work.

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1000+ Posts
Carlisle Cathedral cont - treasury

The Treasury is at the back of the north aisle and contains a display of treasures from the cathedral and surrounding area.

This includes examples of church plate and chalices.
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There are examples of medieval roof bosses, including a green man.

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There is a beautiful carving of Mary with the dead body of Christ, dating from around 1500.

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There is a carved figure from the Brougham Triptych in the north transept, described as ‘surplus to design’. The simple lines of the late C15th wood carving of an Augustinian canon look a lot more modern.

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The alabaster carving of the Crucifixion dates from the late c15th and was probably once part of an altar.

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1000+ Posts
St Cuthbert's Church - a Georgian town church

Tucked away on Blackfriars Street near the Cathedral, is the lovely Georgian church of St Cuthbert, dating from 1778.

From the outside is it a rather uninspiring rectangular red sandstone building with a short square tower. It is surrounded in a leafy graveyard and in summer trees hide the church. The old grave slabs have now been cleared to the surrounding walls.

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Inside there is a small porch with stairs to the balcony. It is a light and airy church with white pillars supporting a balcony round three sides of the church. Walls and woodwork are picked out with pale blue. Pews are painted dark blue.

Above the door is the royal coat of arms. The walls are lined with memorials to the great and good.

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The stained glass windows tell the story of St Cuthbert.

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A simple chancel arch separates the nave and chancel.

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Next to the arch is the large C18th wooden pulpit. This is on wheels and can be moved around the church. It was sufficiently high so the vicar could preach hell fire and damnation to the congregation in the gallery as well as in the pews.

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Opposite is a double sided lectern.

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The attractive brown and green marble font stands at the back of the church.

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There is no parking in the immediate vicinity of the church although there are plenty of car parks close to. It is signed on foot from the cathedral and is worth finding. The church is open daily from 10-4. The Post code is CA3 8UF and the grid reference is NY 400558


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