I try to get out and see more of England as often as possible, and whenever the school organises a day trip for the students I try to hop on. A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit Carlisle with two friends who are equal parts fun companions and fellow history buffs. One is Austrian and the other is Australian, and we had a grand day trip exploring the town of Carlisle.
When visiting a city I nearly always head for a church first. It seems that the oldest parts of a city are its church and its castle, and if you are interested in old things like I am then those are the places to go. Each represents one of the two major areas of Medieval life: secular life dominated by government, and spiritual life dominated by the church.
|Reivers raid Gilnockie Tower|
The Curse of CarlisleThe history of this city has a lot to do with its location. It is situated right on the border between England and Scotland, which made it a prime target whenever there was strife between the two countries.
And that was pretty often.
A great menace to both the English and the Scots was the Border Reivers. These were lawless bands of men who rode the borderlands, destroying and looting both sides with cruel efficiency. The Reivers' military skills had one admirer in Queen Elizabeth I, who is said to have noted, "with ten thousand such men, James VI could shake any throne in Europe."
The deadly Reivers were such a menace to Carlisle that in 1525 an archbishop put a violent curse upon them. It was quite long, but here is a sample:
I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain, their mouth, their nose....
May all the malevolent wishes and curses ever known, since the beginning of the world, to this hour, light on them. May the malediction of God, that fell upon Lucifer and all his fellows, that cast them from the high Heaven to the deep hell, light upon them.
Today this curse has been set into a piece of public art. I had no idea what it was when I first saw it sitting in the middle of a walkway running under the main road. It is a hard-to-miss 14-ton boulder covered in the words of the curse, and below it the walkway's paving carries the names of Reiver families. At least one local council member asserts that this stone has been responsible for some real bad luck ever since it was erected.
Carlisle has a savage and destructive past, but amazingly its spectacular cathedral survived all of this violence.
The cathedral has been around since 1122, when King Henry I was on the throne (To spark your memory, he was the son of William the Conqueror, and may or may not have killed his older brother in that nasty little New Forest incident). Since then it's been through some tempestuous times. The church is quite a bit smaller than it once was because a large chunk of the nave was destroyed by the Scottish Presbyterian Army when they needed to shore up the defences of the castle. Some of the Medieval stained glass was saved, though, and if you didn't know that the church was mended back together you might never notice.
This cathedral is one of the most beautiful I've seen so far, and the one that feels most like a "church." Most cathedrals seem more like museums than places of worship, but the atmosphere of this one is different.
There are plaques scattered everywhere that guide visitors through a "pilgrim trail" of sensory experiences. In one place I was encouraged to light a candle, farther along I held a shell to my ear and listened to the sound of air, and elsewhere I reached out to touch the ancient stone carvings. It was a unique way of interacting with the cathedral that made me think, meditate, and really experience the building.
The most striking part of the cathedral (in my humble opinion) is the barrel roof. The paint is a relatively new addition, a bit of Victorian elegance, but rather than being gaudy I think it's spectacular. I kept craning my neck just to take it all in.
We then stepped back out into the blustery cold English afternoon and walked the short distance to Carlisle Castle. (A word to the wise if you want to visit this place in the off-season: from November to February it's only open on weekends.) After we bought our tickets and stepped inside it felt as if we were the only ones there. We only noticed a few other tourists as we made our way around the walls and buildings. Slightly eerie, but also fun. It's easier to let your imagination run wild about the ancient past when there aren't hordes of camera-clicking, coin-jingling, kid-screaming visitors around.
This is no fairytale castle. It means business. For nearly its entire history this massive, earthy fortress has been caught in the crossfire between two hotheaded nations, making it the most besieged place in the British Isles. And there are plenty of stories that recount the scars.
In 1745, after the castle's last battle during which the Jacobites attempted to defend it against King George II, many Scottish prisoners were killed here in the most ghastly ways possible. It's said that the sad refrain of the song "The Bonny, Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond" has its roots in a doomed love story from this time.
There were other times when Scots were attacking the castle and the English fended them off. We walked along the battlements, peering at the gray town below through eerily thin loopholes, knowing that this might have been the very spot where a brave woman hurled paving stones down on invaders' heads.
Mysterious carvings of who-knows-what survive on prison walls within the castle keep. Were they scribbles by a bored jailer? Some 15th century code? No one really knows what they are or what they mean.
After a good long time at the castle we left to find lunch. We'd seen a cute café on a side street and made for it. That turned out to be a stroke of genius. It was called Foxes, and was the perfect example of a trendy coffee bar with quirky atmosphere, intelligent decorating, cramped tables, and delicious, generous, reasonably priced food. I ordered a BBC sandwich (bacon, brie, and cranberry) and tucked in gratefully. We chatted and took advantage of the free WiFi for a long while before hauling ourselves out the door and into the coach that would take us home from our adventures.