It was just as the bus hit the Broomielaw that I decided on Carlisle. I had vague notions of Stirling, Dundee even, but in the end the chance to go on a Virgin Pendolino won. Lunch was bought and I parked myself in a seat, just in time for a rabble of young folk heading to Manchester for the weekend to rock up. So earphones were donned though to be fair there were times when their music, the Stone Roses, Paolo Nutini and the Zutons so quite retro for folk who were younger than me, was better than mine. They were out and ready to have a good time, not really causing a bother to anyone though I was glad to get off all the same.
Carlisle is a place I visit maybe once a year. The last time was one afternoon last year, another day when it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, when I sat in the grounds of Tullie House for an hour with a book. It was too damp for that, sadly; by the time I walked upstairs at Tullie House, the rain was bouncing down. Before it did, I had time to walk about the gardens and sit a while underneath a tree. There was an intriguing photo exhibition around the gardens, featuring images of older LGBT people and what it’s like to be thus in a rural community. They were quite subtle and arty, black-and-white, and to be honest I’m not sure what I thought of the images themselves. If I didn’t know the subject, I would be none the wiser.
Tullie House is the art gallery and museum in Carlisle. It is run by a trust so they can get away with charging admission rather than letting folk in for free as most public museums do. Mm. Anyway, Tullie House has a hotchpotch of galleries about the local area and its history, some modern, others really not. There were some new galleries since my last visit, most notably a gallery about the Vikings, including a silver hoard found at Silverdale in 2011 that was in excellent condition, having required minimal cleaning in its journey from the ground to museum display. I also liked how the Viking gallery was displayed with a mixture of objects, text and interactives, pitched at just the right level to reach most audiences somewhere. The panels were well-written, including a paragraph that cheered the historian in me up immensely:
‘Most of the accounts that we have about the Vikings were written by people who were raided by them. These tend to reflect the Vikings’ warlike aspects. Archaeology can show a more rounded picture.’
I sat a little while later in the natural history gallery, laid out with old-fashioned dioramas of natural scenes around Cumbria. In recent months, I have learned from experience and tried to pace myself walking around museums so I don’t get overloaded. What I had never noticed before was how above the curved gallery was a dome which went light and dark at various intervals with sound effects for different times of day. It was probably about as old as I am but it wasn’t so dated that it was cheesy. I thought it showed imagination and added to the experience.
Later on, I walked around the display about the Border Reivers. Carlisle is a border city and along the border in centuries past bands of reivers pillaged and stole in raids across the frontier. Below the museum is an underpass that leads to the Castle. On the ground are the names of reiving families, leading to a stone bearing the words of a bitter diatribe written by the Bishop of Glasgow, Gavin Douglas, in 1526, denouncing the reivers in the bitterest terms. The part of the border nearest Carlisle was known as the Debatable Lands, not quite Scotland, not quite England, with no one nation’s law applying there. It’s a fascinating part of Scotland’s history and one I need to read into that bit more.
The border theme continued downstairs at Tullie House in the Roman galleries. Carlisle is not so far from Hadrian’s Wall, the frontier of the Roman empire built in 122 AD that stretched from the Solway Firth to Wallsend, just outside Newcastle, and Tullie House has partnered with the British Museum to produce a gallery all about it. Interestingly, though, it also features a stone from the Antonine Wall, which was a later addition that pretty much split the Scottish Central Belt for a couple of decades after 146 AD, and discussions of divided communities today from across the world, including in Palestine and Northern Ireland.
Before my train, I sat for a bit at the station. I like Carlisle because you can get a train far and wide, to Newcastle, Dumfries, Barrow-in-Furness or even London. I like sitting and watching, plus it is quite a nice station architecturally. At the moment, the station is all scaffolding though I could still sit and people-watch for a bit. Soon enough, the Pendolino came and I was back in Glasgow in an hour, feeling all the benefit of just sitting on a train for a bit. That there was some history involved only added to the adventure.