We have had English Heritage membership for the past 12 months now and, after recently renewing our membership, we’ve decided to visit as many English Heritage sites as possible this year. Finding ourselves without plans this weekend, we decided to embark on one our famous family road trips and make the most of our English Heritage membership.
Checking the map in our English Heritage booklet, we noticed quite a number of sites in Cumbria, a county we have only fleetingly visited in the past. We made Carlisle Castle the first stop on our road trip.
Carlisle Castle – A Potted History
Lying close to the remnants of Hadrian’s wall, Carlisle castle is a surprisingly large and remarkably for the most part in tact structure. A military presence has been at the site of Carlisle castle since the Roman occupation of Britain. In AD 72, a Roman fortress was built on the site. This particular site has great military significance, lying on the ancient border of England and Scotland. The stone castle was initially constructed under the orders of King William II (1087-1100) (also known as William Rufus). The medieval kings, like their Roman predecessors, used the castle as a defence work against the continuous Scottish threat. Throughout the medieval period, additions were made to the castle. Given its strategic border location, the castle has witnessed a huge amount of bloodshed and suffered many a siege. Carlisle Castle saw action during the War of the Roses (1455-1487) as well as the English Civil War (1642-1651). One of its most famous residents is Mary, Queen of Scots who stayed here in 1567.
Unusually among castles, this structure has been occupied since it was first built in 1092. In the nineteenth century, the British army began to use the site as barracks and built a number of additional buildings on the grounds. The army still use the site today, although the castle itself has not been used by the army since the 1950’s. Indeed when we visited, we were treated to the spectacle of cadets practising their drills.
Our Visit to the Castle
The exterior of the castle is most impressive. Approaching the castle, we were impressed by the ‘curtain wall’ (the outer walls of the castle). Visitors enter the site through the gatehouse and pay the entrance fee, or produce their English Heritage membership in the gift shop.
My children were instantly drawn to the huge keep and so this is the first place we decided to explore.
This is pretty much what you can expect from a medieval castle – room after room full of emptiness and drafts. Yet with Carlisle Castle, the history of the building seems to ooze from the walls. It seems more than a drafty old castle, the energy in this building is unmistakable.
The keep covers four floors (and so involves a lot of stair climbing). The most impressive of all was the second floor. ‘Doodles’ cover parts of the wall on this particular floor believed to be from the 15th century. They are protected by panes of glass, however you can still observe them and try to figure out their meanings.
The Castle Exhibition
After exploring the keep and the ruins of towers, we visited the castle exhibition. This small display was really information and took us on an informative tour through the history of the castle. I was pleased to see that the exhibition was also interactive, so, while we read all about the history of the site, my toddler could play with some of the activities.
Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life
As a medieval historian, museums which focus on modern history tend to be of little interest to me. While we were there, we decided to visit the Museum of Military Life. In addition, as members of English Heritage, admittance for us was free. I must admit, I was extremely pleasantly surprised. The museum took us through 300 years of British military history and the way it was presented was outstanding. Furthermore, the artefacts were effectively used and truly brought history to life.
Pay and display car parks are located close to the castle. Disabled parking is available in the castle grounds. A small gift shop stocks a wide range of English Heritage memorabilia. There are a few benches within the grounds to sit and each a picnic. There is also a cafe in the Museum of Military Life. Toilets are located in the castle, as well as in the Museum.
Had it not been such a treacherously windy day, we would have walked along the castle walls and taken in the spectacular views of Carlisle. Consequently, we will have to plan a return visit to the castle in the near future.2