Back in 2009, I flew off to Carlisle for a few days – and when I say “flew”, I mean that I took the train. It’s quite a long way from Dorset (seven hours!) and even longer back because it was a Sunday and our beloved planned engineering works meant I had to make three changes before I even got to London.
I didn’t take any photos of the journey but I remember that the last couple of hours, across the Lake District and the very westermost borders of the Yorkshire Dales. I also remember listening to Will Young and I’m pretty sure the song was Grace. I’d also just discovered The Unbelievable Truth and I had the first two series on my iPod.
I’d booked myself a room in the Travelodge, mostly on the grounds that it was close to the station – I’m still a little wary of finding my way around new places but I’m less insistent about my hotel/hostel/campsite being the first thing I see when I arrive somewhere. Travelodges may not be original but you do know exactly what you’re getting and exactly what I got was the biggest room I have ever had in my life, plus a bathroom with bright red tiles.
My first impression of Carlisle was that it was very pink. I’m not entirely sure what stone and bricks everything is made of but it’s all pretty. I spent my first evening ambling around taking in the pinkness and getting my bearings and then the next morning I got up and headed for the castle.
It was October half term and the day before Halloween so there were tours running – ghost-themed tours, run by guides in Victorian costumes, with plenty of ghosts to pop out, scare us and then give us an interesting fact about the place. To show that we were on the tour, we were all given pumpkin stickers. Afterwards, I stuck it to the back of my iPod and it remains there to this day and is in fact in better condition than the iPod itself all these years later.
In the afternoon, having eaten bread and cheese in a children’s playground on the grounds that it had a picnic bench, I went into Denton Holme, an inner-city suburb of Carlisle which was once the industrial heart of the city and is now regarded as a village within the city. To be honest, once you’ve seen one untouristy inner-city residential neighbourhood, you’ve seen them all and other than looking exactly like my mental picture of Manchester – being more red and brown brick – there wasn’t really anything remarkable about it.
On Halloween itself, I returned to the station and went off to the little Lakeland market town of Penrith. I’m pretty well acquainted with small market towns, although apparently I took particular note of the presence of tractors, Aston Martins and Fiat 500s which had not at that point become ubiquitous and pink. What interested me was the castle – or the remains of the castle.
It’s a ruin, a big pinky-red square ruin and no one seems to know how it got in that state. The best English Heritage can provide me with is that it was fine while Richard III lived there but it was reported ruined by the mid sixteenth century. After the Civil War, it was partly dismantled and I guess the end result is what we have today. It’s interesting – it has entire walls intact, entire corners, enough to be able to immediately see what it used to look like, whereas my own ruined castle, Corfe, is virtually unrecognisable as having been a castle in the first place.
In the afternoon, I set off in search of Hadrian’s Wall and I decided the best and most convenient place to find it would be at Haltwhistle. Incidentally, this is exactly why I should be writing this all down – more than seven years later, it’s very difficult to remember, or to work out, where these small places where. I got lucky, I happened to take a photo of a train at the station which said it was going to Newcastle and I looked at all the intermediary stops between Carlisle and Newcastle and checked Google Maps to see which one matched the photos of the platforms.
Anyway. I don’t think I found Hadrian’s Wall – mostly because evidently it’s a whole three miles out of town and I didn’t stray from the town boundaries. Nonetheless, Haltwhistle is a pleasant enough place to spend a few hours aimlessly wandering.
Back at the station, waiting to return to Carlisle, I met a group of Geordie girls on the platform, either headed for a hen do or just an ordinary night out. They were pleasant enough but when I took a photo of an incoming train with a scoop on the front of it – a snowplough, as far as I was concerned, and quite possibly I’m right – they enquired, surprisingly politely, about whether I was a transpotter, and if I wasn’t, why was I taking photos of the train? As it turns out, I only took eleven photos at Haltwhistle and five of them were at the station. I like to take photos of stations and it turns out they’re useful for helping me to identify where I was seven years ago.
That was about it for that trip, really. The next day was Sunday and it was time for an epic cross-country train trip with so many changes. I didn’t get up to much on that trip but I quite enjoyed ambling aimlessly around decorative places, didn’t so much enjoy feeling so conspicuously southern (although I did notice that more people sounded Scottish than northern) and somehow acquired a fondness for Carlisle, to the extent that when I took the sleeper train to Edinburgh in August 2015 and woke up in Carlisle at half past five in the morning I muttered “hello, Carlisle, I’ve missed you!” I don’t know if I plan to go back but it’s a nice city and I used its station in the first draft of a novel I was writing at the time and which has never made it beyond that first draft.