The big idea

Never has a city been desired by two different parties so much that it has been the subject of a 2,000 year-old tug-of-war. But this ongoing battle between the Scottish and the English is what’s made Carlisle the fantastic city it is today. There’s a certain resilience about the people here – they’ve been through so much over the years that they take most things in their stride (such as the nationalisation of the pubs and breweries from World War I to the early 1970s – don’t worry its infinitely more sociable now!)
And that backdrop, or siege mentality, is responsible for the outlook of the people of Carlisle, and contributes to a certain stoicism, or lack of whining. And that in turn makes for a friendly, infectious, ‘here-and-now’-ness which is quite unique.
But, and here’s the deeply ironic bit, like its near neighbour down the road, Lancaster, it’s surrounded by some of the most peaceful and tranquil scenery in the country. And, despite its bloody history, it’s pretty much one of the safest cities to be in.
So, a visit to the most resilient city in the country, set amidst some of the most stunning vistas, can be a wonderful reminder of the spirit of human nature to endure.

It’s, it’s mine

Clearly the history of Carlisle is one of conflict. And the reminders are all around to be seen:
Hadrian’s Wall – originally built as a mighty barrier stretching from the North Sea to Solway Firth and now one of the most important world Heritage sites in existence – is one of two famous walls in and around Carlisle. The other is the West Walls, which once enclosed the complete city. The remains can still be seen today.
The hauntingly atmospheric Carlisle Castle, founded in 1092 by William the Conqueror’s son, and once the prison of Mary, Queen of Scots, is testament, and witness, to years and years of feuding.
The cathedral, which has put up with so much abuse, retains potentially the most beautiful cathedral ceiling anywhere in England.
And the huge drum towers that make up the Citadel, close to Carlisle’s Historic Quarter, were built by Henry VIII to protect against possible European reprisals for dissolving the monasteries.
Indeed, Carlisle is unique as it was the last English city to be besieged (Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 if you’re wondering).
What a city! Well worth a visit, if only to marvel at the spirit of human endurance.

The irony of all that turmoil

Amidst all that conflict is the sheer beauty of the area.
Talkin Tarn Country Park, a glacial tarn over 10,000 years old, is a 65-acre lake set in 120 acres of mature and peaceful woodland, is just outside the city.
Lanercast Priory, dating back to 1166, set amidst wide-open rolling countryside, is a haven of peace.
Eden Valley and the North Pennines – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – are perfect for cyclists and walkers.
And the North Pennines and The Lakes are a short drive away (this section needs expanding to talk the unique features)

The essence

To put up with what Carlisle has had to put up with over virtually all its history speaks volumes about the people of Carlisle. There’s many words I could use, but ‘tenacious’ sums up the character of this remarkable city well.
But to get to the essence of the city we need to consider not only the history, but also the physical features, the mindset of the people, and the current advantages.
With all these factors in mind the essence of Carlisle is spirit.

How does Carlisle make you feel, and who’s it ideal for?

Despite its historical turmoil, this is a city that makes you feel safe. The fact is, safety is probably one of Carlisle’s biggest strengths, and visitors often comment on how secure they feel in the city: the centre is ideal for family events as so much of it is pedestrianised and secure (in fact there is regular family entertainment here); and crime simply isn’t that high in the city.
Carlisle is also a place for reflection, and a place that can be uplifting, too.
Many cities have a past littered with turmoil and fighting, but Carlisle’s location and history, however, mean it has a uniquely defining place in the history of two very proud countries.


Carlisle literally means the ‘camp of Lug’ (Lug being the Celtic god it was named after – he was the most widely worshipped Celtic god and his name in its various forms was taken not only by Carlisle, but also by Lyons and Vienna).
However, the story of the Carlisle we know today started in AD72, when the Romans built a fort at Carlisle and used it as a base for attacking the Scottish tribes. In AD122, the new Emperor, Hadrian, arrived. At this point the Romans had seen enough of the Scottish, and were struggling to keep them out, so they decided to build a massive wall across the north of England: Hadrian’s Wall.
For the next 600 years or so, Carlisle was under Saxon rule, although several Celtic saints appear in its history books (one being St Cuthbert, who founded a monastery in the town; St Cuthbert’s church and the cathedral now stand on this spot).
The Vikings arrived at the end of the 9thcentury and did their usual thing (wrecked the place), and soon after, in 1092, William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, arrived in Carlisle to check this part of his kingdom. The interesting point about this is that Carlisle was actually given to the king of Scotland in 945 by King Edmund of England (even the Domesday Book of 1086 makes no reference to the place). But little bother, King William promptly kicked out the Saxon ruler and claimed the area for England. So began many years of to-ing and fro-ing about exactly which country Carlisle belonged to.
In the 12thcentury, Carlisle was claimed as a Scottish city, only for a few years later to be returned to the English. It was regularly at the centre of the revolving-door world of who was English and Scottish king, and as a result spent many, many years under siege and at war, almost as a tug-of-love city caught between rivals.
The end of the 13thcentury saw – surprise, surprise – another English King cast his eyes northwards and start thinking about conquering Scotland. It was Edward I who decided that Carlisle should be the store house for all the ammo for the invasion, and turned the castle from a military garrison into the seat of Royal Government – a place where the Royal Court could gather (this in turn led to an expansion of the castle, the building of a Great Hall and the widening of the keep for prisoners).
And so started the Anglo-Scottish wars that would last throughout the 14thcentury, with a cast list that includes Robert the Bruce, William Braveheart Wallace and Edward I, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’.
Cue the 15thcentury, and things carried on pretty much as before, i.e. attacks by the Scots and war between the English and the Scottish, until eventually, towards the end of the century, things calmed down and Carlisle could get on with growing and trading as a city. It gradually earned the reputation as a major trading area, especially for cloth and leather. (In fact it’s worth noting that the Scots and the townsfolk of Carlisle have always enjoyed trading together – it’s almost as if the constant sieges and wars were nothing to do with the man on the street.)
During Tudor times, Henry VIII ordered the strengthening of Carlisle’s walls and additions to the castle, as well as building two huge drum towers (the Citadel and the Courts) with a massive gate between them.
Another infamous group in the area up until the 17thcentury was the Border Reivers, who raided cattle and sheep in the area north of the wall known as the ‘debatable lands’. Needless to say, lawlessness was the order of the day. This came to an end in the 17thcentury, when James IV of Scotland became James I of England and gave the Border Reivers the ultimatum ‘leave the country or be killed’. (As an interesting aside, check out the surnames in Tullie House; those Reivers were the forefathers of some exceptionally well-known surnames.)
In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s forces attacked Carlisle, took it and headed south. They didn’t get as far as Derby however before turning back. Eventually defeated at Culloden;  Carlisle was back in English hands again.
The 19thcentury was marked by the industrialisation of Carlisle and the coming of the railways. Textile mills sprouted up around the town and Carlisle also gained a reputation for hat-making, biscuits (Carr’s, creators of the water biscuit and ginger nut, came from Carlisle) and engineering. Carlisle was now one of the most important manufacturing cities in the north of England.
The railways arrived in big style in 1848 with the opening of the Citadel Railway Station, which linked Carlisle with London and Glasgow. This growth led to a big increase in the population as people flooded in.
Carlisle had many breweries and a lot of pubs at this time, and the combination of thirsty manual workers and the availability of so much cheap ale (as well as a poor water supply) led to a lot of drunkenness. There was also a huge munitions factory built nearby with literally tens of thousands of people working there. Given that this was the largest munitions factory in the British Empire, the thought of so much drunken behaviour horrified some in government. As a result, the Central Control Board was established in 1916, which nationalised most of the pubs in Carlisle, as well as buying the four privately-owned breweries in the town. Oh...and they rationed drinking to one drink per person and banned ‘treating’ –buying a drink for someone else! This state control of the drinking of Carlisle remained in place, rather staggeringly, until 1971.

How to experience or get under the skin of Carlisle

Start at the castle and visit the Border Regiment Museum. The castle is easy to navigate and nicely atmospheric once you get into the labyrinths and dungeons. You can experience things like the Licking Stones (it’s funny, and everyone tries it) and prisoners’ carvings, and, with the help of some neatly positioned displays, almost visualise the battle scenes that those defending the city would have faced on an all-too-frequent basis.
Then, head under Castle Way – via one of the most attractive undergrounds I’ve ever been in – and come out at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery. Spend a bit of time here: it’s got some great interactive experiences over three floors (Tullie wrote about the ‘war’ – this was his house).
From here, pop round and see the remains of the West Walls – the visible remains of the walls which once surrounded the city. Incidentally, people often ask why they can’t see more of the walls, but the truth is you can; they’re all around as they’ve been incorporated into many of the city’s buildings ever since.
Then stroll along and visit the cathedral, whose ceiling is simply stunning – possibly the most beautiful in any cathedral in the country.
From here, go into the Market Square where you can find all the main shops and the Tourist Information. Then take a short walk to Botchergate to see the Citadel and enjoy the bars and entertainment (also check out the impressive railway station).
And once you’ve enjoyed the city itself, it’s time to experience Hadrian’s Wall: walk back to near the roundabout and pop under the road and you can follow part of it on foot.
However, to experience the wall at its best, get in your car and travel east to Birdoswald Roman Fort, or take the Hadrian’s Wall Bu, which stops at the main Roman sites and villages along the Wall.
Assuming you’ve got some more time to spare – and believe me, Carlisle is worth much more than a fleeting day trip – get out and about and soak up the contrasting landscapes that surround the city. Compare the turmoil that’s engulfed the city with the peace outside it… and simply reflect; it may help inspire you to adopt some of Carlisle’s ‘here-and-now’ attitude.

When to visit

City pics