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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe …. Part 22

It was an almost perfect school holiday early afternoon as I wheeled my bicycle into the centre of Carlisle. For the first time on the journey, I’m feeling fit and fresh and enjoying the exertion. I’ve covered the forty miles I’d planned, had a host of hotels and hostels to choose from. But, there were still hours left in the day and strength in my legs. The world was my oyster and Carlisle was the pearl.

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The local youth have captured the market cross; the holiday equivalent of seizing the back seat of the bus; it isn’t the most comfortable and no-one else wants it.

They’re practising being grown-ups. These are the ones with some GCSEs in the bag. They mix comfortably with each other; easy in company and loyal to the shared experience of school, exams and now, fashion and a summer holiday stretching out. They are a handsome bunch in jeans and strappy tops. No cigarettes, no lager. Not even cans of energy drink. Just sunshine, friendship and a sense of satisfaction.

Carlisle has a very green centre. The whole of the centre is pedestrianised and has been for long enough for trees to reach a good size. They allow the buildings behind to make their presence felt without displaying the usual parade of plastic signs that make all English towns alike and a little sad. Against a perfect summer’s sky; azure blue with cotton wool clouds floating on midsummer zephyrs; the whole square looks a picture.

The sound is of people. The car has been banished and Carlisle hasn’t troubled itself with thoughts of going back to the tram or the trolley bus. The sounds you hear are people talking. It’s most pleasant until a local busker introduces a grotesque lack of ability to the gathered throngs. The good news is that he’s playing without amplification. As a result he gets a couple of Johnson pounds for keeping an eye on my bicycle. I downright refuse to give money to any busker who has a microphone and speakers. The bad news is that he is playing the saxophone and, even when played badly, and believe me this one was being strangled, the saxophone is a very loud instrument.

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I don’t care much for the sax. In the hands of John Coltrane or Lester Young it can reduce me to tears, but on the whole I can manage quite nicely without. This fellow wasn’t far off reducing half the sunny population of the border city to tears.

With some regrets I plump for Marks and Spencer for lunch. I’d like to choose somewhere local but I’m surrounded by the usual retailers and M & S guarantee something tasty and clean. After walking all the way through acres of women’s ware including an accidental diversion into a splendid lingerie department, I come to the opposite doors without locating any food at all. The store continues across the next road and here I find salad bars and sandwiches. It’s late lunch time and the girl with the reduced labelling machine is busy and I buy twice what I otherwise would have done. A big bowl of Caesar Salad and an equally oversized coleslaw and prawn based salad. I add a baguette and return to the square where an elderly man, smart in moleskin trousers and a Vyella shirt and woven tie, makes room for me on his bench.

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He’s enjoying the weather, the location and is even making contented small talk with the picnicking cyclist. The tones of jazz standards being massacred brings an occasional wince to his face. Georgia Brown is not so sweet today in north Cumbria.

“As Louis sang; It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” I observe.

“He’d turn in his grave.”

“Is he a regular?”

“Every bloody day this summer. I wouldn’t mind so much if he played modern songs but he plays songs that I like.”

“Maybe he’s deaf.” I suggest.

“I wish I was when he starts to play.”

It’s broken the ice nicely. He’s eating a pastry from Greggs. We chat amiably in the summer sun. He tells me about the city. Occasionally there’s a small falling out over by the cross and two young Carlislites chase each other and when they catch they forget why they were chasing and embrace. It’s quite a tactile town. There’s a lot of gentle touching going on. Is it the sunshine, the skimpy summer clothes or is this a seriously amorous city?

My elderly friend and I are suitably chaste. We’re observers not performers. He tells me where to find the cathedral, the castle and the best way to find quiet back roads towards Gretna and the Scottish border. He doesn’t think of it as a border town. He likes living here but that’s because he’s always lived here. “It does me fine. It’s got all that I need and I like to sit here while the wife does her bit of shopping.”

I leave him and explore the outsides of the squat and dumpy cathedral. Like a village church up on bricks. It’s one of the smallest of all the English cathedral churches. I can’t find anywhere I trust to leave my bicycle, so it’s exteriors only here and at the castle.

Carlisle has one heck of a history. From 1066 to 1603 this was largely about problems between England and Scotland. Either armies passing through to fight battles, put down rebellion or deal with the cross border crime spree that provided whole careers and gave the world the word “Reiver”. Basically border raiders, though nationality meant little if a profitable enterprise was a foot.

Carlisle also has a smattering of local celebrities. Border television was based up here and in the days when broadcasters struggled to fill three channels, this company made a national figure out of Derek Batey; a chubby, ageing, personality free television host who fronted Border’s only nationally networked programme. The 450 episode running Mr and Mrs. Not content in giving the world one contender for most pointless television presenter award; Carlisle went on to give both Richard Madeley and Richard Hammond their big breaks. The city, wisely, allowed them to move on.

Carlisle has produced few modern celebrities, but the ones that they have produced, are of the first order. Melvyn Bragg has probably done more for the arts in Britain in the last fifty years than anyone else. He’s walked the tight rope between serious art and mass audience with dignity and flair. The South Bank Show ran for even longer than Mr and Mrs and left behind slightly more than a catchy theme tune. Mike Figgis had the early sense to leave behind being in Bryan Ferry’s first band and has gone on to become one of Britain’s most successful film makers. You may not enjoy every moment of a Mike Figgis film but you know you’ve been in the cinema. He’s varied his output, producing documentaries, television work and major feature films. I’m quite a fan.

I don’t drink wine anymore but I’ve always had time for Jancis Robinson. She’s from Carlisle and has given a steadying credibility to an often dis-credited job. While television food shows employed a collection of people that made you squirm, to tell you about wine; people who I wouldn’t trust to be able to tell bollinger from brolac; Jancis gave dignity and authority to the role of wine sniffer and gurgler. It’s an easy job for a charlatan and this makes it all the more important to have someone you can trust and our Mrs Robinson has always been that.

Making up an impressive quartet is Hunter Davies; first and best biographer of the Beatles, Punch columnist, predecessor to Mariella Frostrup as Radio 4s voice of books and someone who had actually read most of those he discussed and one of the best sports’ journalists of his generation.

I’ve had a very nice time in Carlisle. I’ve seen a town of surprises and buildings I’d like to explore more fully. I’ve seen a city at ease with itself. There are supposed to be problem areas and even talk of no-go areas but I never saw any of this. It’s got two rivers and a history to shame most English cities. It guards one end of the English Scottish border and unlike Berwick at the other end, Carlisle is 100% English and proud of it.