Carlisle, city of two halves

The third stop on the Empty Shops Network tour (the second, Shoreham, was so manic it goes unblogged) is Carlisle.

It’s a bewildering, beautiful and bewitching city. I’m staying in a moderately grotty guesthouse a few minutes outside the city centre. The straight route here is down Botchergate (‘bid the dishonest man mend himself; if he mend, he is no longer dishonest; if he cannot, let the botcher mend him’).

Botchergate is the main road into the town, but it’s shabby and semi-derelict at the bottom end, and at the top end is a string of pubs and rough alehouses. The drunkenness on a Friday and Saturday night is so bad that they actually close the road to traffic, to stop people falling under passing cars. Locals are obsessed with how bad the street is, and it’s certainly in need of some love and attention, especially as it’s the gateway to the city.

The other side of the city is where I spent today, starting in the gentle, intimate cathedral. It’s a magnificently shambolic building; some of the arches are wonky, and in one place a pillar sunk during building and the line of detail above is interrupted. The local stone changes colour from a white to a deep red, sometimes in one block, giving the building an even more haphazard feel, like patchwork made from favourite scraps. The ceiling holds the whole together; a dramatic blue with gold stars, best viewed by laying on your back on the stone floor and relaxing for five minutes. Which amuses local schoolchildren no end.

Tullie House Museum is equally eccentric, with Stanley Spencer paintings hung in stairwells and corridors where it’s almost impossible to see them and appreciate their incredible beauty. There’s a Peter Blake tucked away in a stairwell amongst some far less impressive portraits, as if they didn’t quite know where to hang it. And the Roman galleries, with a mock up of Hadrian’s Wall, butt up against a gallery about railway history which includes replica First and Third Class carriages with a view across to the castle.

The Cathedral and Tullie House are in a beautiful quarter, all rambling cobbled streets and corners with arches and turrets like a Harry Potter film set. It’s also home to the perfect Foxes cafe lounge, a quirky and eccentric eaterie with great staff, art on the walls, and comfy seats. The ideal way to end a day exploring.

It’s been difficult to get to grips with Carlisle this week, with the clash between rough drinking and ancient history and contemporary art making it hard to understand. But it’s a great city once you explore and just accept the accidental collisions, chance encounters and culture clashes.

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