Review: A Car-Free Adventure to Carlisle


The cathedral city of Carlisle may not be your first thought when planning your next weekend away, but the small border city has much more to offer than as a refuelling stop on the way to the Lake District.

From its Roman beginnings and royal connections to its hundreds of years of skirmishes with its neighbours north of the border, Carlisle is packed full of history.


The Journey

Duration: 2.5 hours

Mode: Train

We left from Haymarket at 11:15 am, arriving just after 12:00 pm and took the 10-minute walk from Glasgow Queen Street to Glasgow Central. Avanti West Coast provided flexible Standard Premium tickets which we were very thankful for as they offered a quiet comfortable respite for us to enjoy our lunch and read our books on the way to Carlisle. With our flexible tickets, we were able to catch the 12:40 pm from Glasgow Central to Carlisle and arrived to the classically grey but clear skies just before 2:00 pm.

Carlisle Station is in the centre of the town and when you step out you are met with the immediate pleasure of viewing the Citadel—a 16th-century city gate which had been updated in the 19th century to include two towers which once hosted the civil and criminal courts but are now partially opened to the public.



The Hotel

Our hotel was a five-minute walk to from the train station. We arrived too early, but the reception staff at The Halston took our bags and promised to deliver them to our room once it was ready.

Centrally located on a Warwick Road, the Halston is housed in beautiful – likely Dumfries – sandstone Edwardian buildings with Barton’s Yard, it’s café-bar on the left and its restaurant Penny Blue on the right. Just passed reception is a large elevator and staircase that took us to our first-floor deluxe apartment.

Our modern apartment consisted of a large, well-equipped open-plan living room and kitchen stocked with quality basics for a good cup of tea and a morning crumpet. The bathroom was reasonably spacious with its counter stocked with local toiletry brands. Most importantly me to me, however, was that the shower/tub combo had great water pressure. The king bedroom was sizeable and clean with a vanity and large wardrobe.

We had a fully packed schedule out over the next three days, but had we more downtime, we would have loved to spend more time inside to make use of its comfortable self-service features.

The Halston, 20-34 Warwick Rd, Carlisle. Two bedroom penthouses range from £270 per night (midweek) to £350 per night (weekend). One bed deluxe price range from £170 per night (midweek) up to £205 per night (weekend). Studio apartments range from £155 per night up to £185 per night.


Carlisle Highlights

The city

Carlisle’s centre isn’t large, but it is full of character. After checking our bags at the hotel, we strolled around to find our bearings. Born and raised in Dumfriesshire, my husband had been to Carlisle many times for school trips but had yet to explore the city as an adult.

Carlisle is a very walkable city with its large pavements and pedestrianised streets making it easy for residents and tourists to enjoy a day or night out. From our hotel, it took five minutes to walk to English Street, the bustling pedestrian-only street lined with both national and local high street shops leading up the Carlisle’s 17th-century Market Cross Monument and tourist centre.

Beyond the tourist centre there lies Carlisle’s more historical district filled with more indie shops, cafes and restaurants with the Lanes shopping district to the right. To the left of the tourist centre was the Guildhall Museum located inside an late 14th century home but sadly it is currently closed to the public.

It was quite driech during our stay, but we would have liked to explore the Swift’s Urban Nature Reserve and Bitts Park with the Hadrian’s Wall Trail along the River Eden.


Carlisle Cathedral’s choir


Carlisle Cathedral

Nestled on Castle Street with a large front garden filled with snowdrops this time of year, Carlisle Cathedral stands proudly as the heart of Carlisle.

The church was built in 1122 as an Augustinian priory but it wasn’t until 1133 that it was given cathedral status. It was refurbished over the years, including the addition of the Gothic-style choir, the arcades and east window glass in the 13th and 14th centuries. A city-wide fire, the Dissolution of the Monasteries and several wars all had their impact on the cathedral over the years until it was restored by Ewan Christian in the 19th century. Like Frankenstein, you can almost see the stitches of its nearly 900 years of history.

The cathedral has many showstoppers from its grand nearly floor-to-ceiling ‘Willis’ organ with blue and gold motif; the stunning Decorated Gothic 50-foot East Window designed by Ivo de Raghton that still retains much of its original medieval stained glass; the late 15th century painted panels; and the treasury, but my eyes were immediately captured by the royal blue and gold choir celestial ceiling done by Owen Jones in the late 19th century, inspired by Islamic architecture like Granada’s Alhambra.

On the grounds, you can find a café that fits in remarkably well despite its modern design, the Fratry and the Gatehouse.


St Cuthbert


St Cuthbert Church

Just a stone’s throw away for Carlisle Cathedral lies St Cuthbert’s Church, the small – in comparison to Carlisle Cathedral – building makes for a less grand but more intimate experience. A church has been that spot since the 7th century, the structure rebuilt a few times over the years until we have the current 18th century building. Inside, the Georgian nave with blue pews and white galleries look onto a simple but gorgeous altar and chancel. The nave’s stained-glass windows depict St Cuthbert’s life.

You can find many Scottish connections to this church with a framed registry page of Sir Walter Scott and bride Charlotte Carpenter on the wall after a whirlwind courtship. Looking along the gravestones on in the churchyard, you can also spot evidence of the Jacobite Rebellion.



Carlisle Castle

Built by William II at the end of the 11th century, like the Cathedral, Henry I’s visit in 1122 changed the history of Carlisle Castle, transforming it from a simple enclosure into the fortified castle with its massive keep that would help protect it from northern invasion. The castle changed hands many times over the years and new additions were added to reflect the needs and demands of the time.

Other interesting features to note are the Outer Gatehouse which you first pass through to grab your tickets and leads out to the Outer Ward which looks onto the moat, Alma Bloch which house the Cumbria Museum of Military life, the Captain’s Tower and the Half-Moon Battery – a must see stop for those interested in the castle’s defence.

Just passed the Captain’s Tower is the inner ward which is a more confined space which hosts the castles day-to-day buildings including the keep, Queen Mary’s Tower, Kitchens, Great Hall and Great Chamber and other rooms we took our time exploring. We particularly enjoyed walking the castle’s walls with a view of its holdings and into Carlisle.

The castle has ‘hosted’ many famous Scottish visitors over the years, including King David I who occupied the castle in the 12th century, a besiegement by Robert the Bruce in the 14th century, Mary Queen of Scots who was a rather comfortable and expensive prisoner in the 16th century and many Jacobite soldiers who were housed in the 18th century and are said to have left ‘dips’ in the wall from attempting to lick the dampness from the walls to stay alive.

There are many nooks and crannies of this medieval fort to explore, so I recommend setting aside an afternoon to allow yourself to wander through each room, poke your head in fireplaces and absorb its extensive history.




Bookcase & Bookends

I simply cannot go to a new city without finding a bookshop. Rather than a compass leading me north, east, south or west, I open my maps app and let it take me in the direction of the nearest independent bookshop.

If you can’t decide whether to browse new releases or uncover used gems, have no fear: this bookshop, or rather these bookshops, have both. On the right side is Bookends which sells new books and on the left is Bookcase which hosts a wide selection of used books from modern fiction to graphic novels to antiquarian delights.

Book and coffee go hand-in-hand, so if you find yourself feeling a little peckish or parches, wander the aisles to the back of the shop to the aptly named Cakes & Ale café which has a wonderful selection of sweets, some savoury and a decent selection of teas, coffees and of course, ales.



Italian food enthusiasts, Carlisle is calling you. There might just be an Italian restaurant on every street we passed. Including one that I was drawn to outside Carlisle Cathedral because of its excellent choice of name—Amato’s.

However, if you’re not fancying Italian, there is plenty of choice from comforting looking restaurants with fresh flavours like Siam Thai to modern pub food at The Shabby Scholar to the colourful plant-based bites at In the Meantime. We stopped at Vietnamese takeaway called Viet Street Food & Bubble Tea and grabbed the latter from the very friendly proprietor to quench our thirst as we wandered the city.

For dinner, however, we stayed in the hotel both nights to dine at Penny Blue Bar & Restaurant and we were far from the disappointed. The restaurant has a stylish, modern feel to it that can straddle the line between upscale date night and casual night out with friends. The menu holds mouth-watering classic dishes like fish & chips and a selection of steaks mixed with creative and intriguing dishes that promise bursts of flavour.

Pan Fried Duck Breast with Orange Glaze

The first night I had the Pan Fried Duck Breast with Orange Glaze done medium rare. I’m a firm believer that a duck breast done well – not be mistaken with well done – is just as good as a steak and Penny Blue proved this theory. The duck was flavourful on its own but mixed with the orange, Pomme Anna potato, croquette and parsnip crisps, I savoured each bite of this rich and scrumptious dish.

My husband went with the safer choice of Beer Batter Haddock & Triple Cooked Chips which he said was a delicious, upscale version of the classic with the pea mayo being a game-changer.

On the second night I had Pan Fried Filler of Red Mullet cooked with saffron braised potato, asparagus, golden pepper sauce and mango salsa. This was a truly creative dish with a range of flavours and textures that complemented each other nicely without overpowering the delicate flavour of the fish.

Deciding to branch out a little, my husband chose the Lemon & Ginger Glazed Salmon with avocado chimichurri, crushed potatoes, roasted red pepper and courgette ragout, and crispy kale.

On the first night I was too full for pudding – a rarity – but I made sure not to miss it on the second night and went for one that I cannot refuse despite my slight dairy intolerance: the Classic Crème Brule. Served with lavender shortbread, this was truly a decadent desert.


Car-Free Day Trips

With a train station located centrally, its easy to hop on and go on a day trip to a nearby city or town such as Newcastle or Manchester in under or just over two hours.

However, if you’re looking to explore the beauty of the Cumbria, then look to Stagecoach. The bus company has a multitude of routes from the city to locations in the Lakes District, West Cumbria, and more easterly towns with noteworthy historical landmarks such as Hexham and Alnwick.

Anna Gray from Cumbria’s Blue Badge Guides arranged and guided a tour for us from Carlisle to the market town of Brampton, with a stop at Warwick Bridge Corn Mill along the way. We were lucky to have Anna along as she was fountain of knowledge, answering our questions about Cumbria and sharing titbits of history we north of the border are bound to find interesting. If you fancy a trip to Hadrian’s Wall or other local Cumbrian historic sites, Anna has guided tours.



Warwick Bridge Corn Mill (18 min from Carlisle)

Just like Carlisle was an unexpected pleasure, the Warwick Bride Corn Mill next to the River Eden was a surprising treasure. We had a private tour with one of the mill’s volunteers who informed us of the health and safety before walking us through the mill’s history with the waterwheel, dated to 1845 and standing at 14 ft tall and 10 ft wide, working in the background.

Afterwards, we were guided through to the hurst floor which holds the pit gears that power the mill. It was slightly frightening witnessing the powerful gears in action but also awe-inspiring. And speaking of awe-inspiring, as we were guided through the old drying room to the granary floor to the stone floor and its millstones, we got to witness the whole process being done through one of the mill’s two paid employees Karen, who went about her job with steely determination and strength I don’t know where she hid.

As we were guided through each room and every step of the process, we could all feel the passion from everyone who works for the mill. And as a majority volunteer run business, there has to be. Afterwards, we were led to the bakery where we got to experience the quality of the flour first hand with their delicious tray bakes.


Brampton (25 minutes from Carlisle)

After enjoyed our baked goods at the Warwick Bridge Mill Tour, we got back on the Stagecoach bus for just over ten minutes more, located right outside the mill, and headed towards the market town of Brampton.


Our first stop in Brampton was St Martin’s Church designed by Pre-Raphaelite architect Philip Webb. Guided by a church volunteer, we were told its history from its original location on a Roman fort up. The church itself is small and simple but the stained glass windows designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and carried out by William Morris don’t need any other fanfare. They are stunning both in clarity and colour.

After the tour of the church, we were given an hour to explore the small town and we headed to the Cumbrian Antique Centre just a stone’s throw away. Filled with both British antiques and colonial treasures from around the globe, it truly was like walking into another world.

There are few other antique shops in the small town, but feeling peckish, we headed towards the Howard Arms Hotel and had a friendly greeting from the serving staff and the adorably lazy dog sprawled across the floor and enjoyed a steak sandwich in the atmospheric pub.

Other locations to visit from Carlisle via Stagecoach:

Wigton or Longtown, 30 min on multiple bus lines; Skiddaw Mountain Peak, Just over 1hr on #544; Lanercost Priory, 50 min on #79, transfer to the BR3; Hexham, 30 min on #79



Light District

One for one of reasons for our visit was the Crown and Coronation light show put on by the Cumberland Council and Luxmaralis which combines fine art project onto buildings using light with sound in the background to delight nearly all senses.

These amazing exhibits were projected on several historical buildings including the Carlisle Cathedral and Carlisle Castle that would have seen withstood the change in crown over the years. My favourite display was inside the cathedral in the Choir which had an exhibit running up the walls and transforming the whole space with Latin chanting from speakers in the background. Truly breathtaking.