Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

A Football Tourist’s Guide to Carlisle

After Blackpool’s Premier League campaign, my interest in football began to wane. I had almost completed the 92. Surely I had been everywhere and seen everything in my 20 years following Blackpool round the country?

But no. In reality, all I had done was visit the grounds and a pub or two in each town/city. Despite visiting most counties, there remains so much of this country that I haven’t seen. With the tourism industry hit hard by COVID these last 16 months – and Blackpool impacted particularly badly – I have decided it is time to get out there and explore more of the country on my travels this season.

But how could I possibly top my recent visit to the British Lawnmower Museum at Southport? What delights did the Carlisle area have to offer? Read on and find out…

My alarm went off at 7am. Now I’m not a huge fan of alarms (who is?) but matchdays are akin to hollibobs. I won’t go so far as to say I sprang out of bed (I must knock that late night vodka on the head), but I was in the shower with Suede blasting out before I knew it.

I had a traumatic experience at the opticians last week, where I sustained an eye injury during a routine eye test, so I had been advised not to wear my contact lenses all week and use eye drops. I’ve never liked wearing glasses – I think those square blue National Health glasses I wore from the age of 7 traumatised me more than I realised. Unbelievably, these are now making a comeback as a retro chic item. Er, not for me thanks…

This morning I had no dint in my eye and no angry red blood vessels, so I took a gamble on wearing my contact lenses for my day out. This would allow me to wear my beloved Maui Jim sunglasses and leave behind the taunts of ‘specky four eyes’ and ‘Plain Jane Superbrain’ that echoed through my brain every time I went out of the house wearing glasses.

We hit the road at 0810. I had factored in Lee’s faff time, so we were set to arrive at 1000, the opening time of the first venue. I’d brought the amazingly still half-full bag of Chewems for the journey, left over from our recent trip to Lincoln. But we didn’t have any drinks. Schoolgirl error. This necessitated a stop-off at Lancaster Services for an emergency bottle of ginger beer from M&S.

Devastatingly, it was only after examining the above photo when back on the road that I realised there was a button to press to make Percy Pig oink. Happily, we’re away at Morecambe next week, so I will make a point of revisiting him en route. I’ll be looking forward to that (more than the match, actually) all week.

Google Maps was guiding us today and, annoyingly, was quite insistent on taking us off the motorway at every opportunity. We couldn’t figure out why this was, as the M6 was pretty quiet and there was no sign of any roadworks or accidents. We ignored her and continued on the M6 as far as Carlisle without any problems. Our first stop on the tourist trail was half an hour out from Carlisle but when were we ever else up this way?

Hadrian’s Wall

Just after 10am we arrived at Birdoswald Roman Fort, part of Hadrian’s Wall. Of course I had heard of Hadrian’s Wall, but had never been there – and nor had Lee. On our approach, Lee began peppering me with questions.

‘Who was Hadrian?’

‘What was the wall built for?’

‘How long is it? Does it stretch all the way from coast to coast?’

I explained that I didn’t have the answers and that was why we were here – to find out. Lee explained that he assumed I was the font of all knowledge, given that I beat him at Trivial Pursuit on Alexa most days. I made a note to conduct extra research in future so as to maintain my status as, er, Superbrain. I always remember being mightily impressed with one lad in my Ancient History class at sixth form (Matty Dean) who always knew everything about the Romans before we had been taught it. Of course now I realise that he probably just read ahead. But it was still impressive.

We passed through the shop into a museum, with plaques explaining about the history of the Wall, how long it took to build, who built it, etc. It turned out Hadrian didn’t build it, but he came up with the idea. And, yes, it originally stretched the length of the country.

We headed out to view the wall and the remains of the fort.

It was a bit nippy, so I was pleased I had brought my cagoule. It was also beautifully scenic up here. And there were sheep everywhere. I had never seen sheep droppings before, but spent a good deal of time examining them as I took care not to step in any. There were also bits of wool everywhere.

It would have been idyllic up here – with just the sound of sheep baaing – had it not been for the tourists.

But of course we were tourists ourselves today – and I am promoting tourism – so I shouldn’t complain. There were visitors here today from as far afield as London and America. It is amazing to think that foreign tourists might get to see – and appreciate – more of our country than we take the trouble to see for ourselves, simply because it’s on our doorstep.

The Londoners ahead of us were playing a tune on this, which – once they had dispersed – we learned was a Roman xylophone. I rummaged frantically in my handbag for a hard object to play the instrument with – ooh Swizzles from that pub in Southport – and eventually found a mini bottle of perfume (Jo Malone) that I had thrown in there this morning in case I got overly sweaty.

It was 1130 before we knew it. We had a lot to pack in today – and it was starting to get busy here now – so we made our way back to the car, only stopping to admire a rare sighting of a tandem.

Indeed there were a lot of cyclists, ramblers, joggers and dog walkers here, many of whom will have been attempting to traverse the country along Hadrian’s Wall. Indeed the idea of that walk was appealing to me by this point, as it was such a lovely part of the country. And I didn’t mind walking. And I did want to get fit. But of course we could do nothing of the sort right now, as we had a match to get to – plus a few other stops along the way.

Back in the car, we asked Google Maps to take us to the next stop. I threw my cagoule on the back seat and opened the windows to allow us to breathe. The sun had broken through the clouds and it was hotting up as forecast. Within minutes, there was a thud on the car door next to me – and I felt something slightly abrasive brush against my bare arm. Eek! What was that?

‘Oh don’t worry – it’ll be dead now, anyway.’

I tried to relax. But within another minute or so, there was a similar thud over Lee’s side of the car. And then I saw it.

A bee. Laid on its back, legs flailing, in the cup holder behind the gearstick. Now I know the right thing to do in this situation – on a narrow country lane – is to calmly ask Lee to pull over, perhaps with the pretence of feeling sick. Dear reader, that’s not what happened.

‘Shit! It’s a bee!’

‘A bee? Shit! Where is it?’

‘It’s there, right next to you. Pull over! Pull over!’

‘Shit! There’s nowhere to stop. Shit! Where is it?’

Fortunately, we didn’t crash and soon found a safe place to stop. By this time, however, the bee was no longer in his previous position. Of course I had taken my eye off him when I had leapt out of the passenger door as soon as the car had come to a stop. As is the norm where insects are involved, I leave the vicinity and let Lee get on with the insect removal. At home, spiders end up being gifted to our neighbour over her fence (by way of thanks for her dog barking constantly all summer last year). At length, the bee was located and removed and it was safe to get back in the car and continue to our next stop.

Solway Aviation Museum

Twenty minutes back in the direction of Carlisle was Solway Aviation Museum. We were here to see the Vulcan and to learn a little about the history of the area. Before we had parked the car, we were greeted by Steve, an enthusiastic volunteer, who was keen to tell us all about his passion of planes. He clearly loved spending his time here, sharing his stories. It was a joy to be in his company.

To those of you who consider pigeons a nuisance, let us remember those who served in the war on behalf of our great nation and offer them a little more respect. Plus they don’t kill our baby blackbirds like those rotten magpies.

We headed into the museum to view the objects on display, including a bunker, engines, cameras, rocket launch pads and pilot’s outfits. There was also an excerpt from a newspaper during WWII, advising civilians how they could play their part by making any vehicles inaccessible to the enemy, not giving away any information and reporting any intelligence directly to the police and not gossiping with neighbours. It was chilling and fascinating in equal measure.

Back outside, we admired the planes on display, referring constantly to the bargain £1 museum brochure to learn more about each plane.

We observed a man painting one of the planes and thought it was lovely to see the planes being taken such great care of. Spotting Lee filming, the painter climbed down for a chat. This was another volunteer called Steve. He was equally enthusiastic about the planes – and invited Lee for a wing-walk on a Phantom. Lee is terrified of flying, so I was delighted to finally see him on a plane.

I was then invited to sit in the cockpit of this little beauty: Bac Jet Provost XS209.

I was overwhelmed by the dashboard and controls but Steve assured me that this was easier to control than a car. I guess at least there are no pedestrians to contend with in the air.

Now it was time to head over to the piece de resistance: The Vulcan. No, it wasn’t Critch. Or T’Pol. Or Spock. It was this magnificent beast.

Here we met up again with the Steve who had greeted us on our arrival. He told us how the Vulcan had been built to despatch nuclear weapons during the Cold War with Russia. The blue trailer at the front of the photo was used to transport the nuclear missiles. Mercifully they were never required, but the Vulcan was utilised to despatch bombs during the Falklands War in 1982.

We could have stayed here much longer, but it was now 1330 and our stomachs were growling, which meant it was time to head into Carlisle. On the journey, I engaged in Twitter chat with a local beer connoisseur, who also offered tips on local cuisine. Both are an important part of my football tourism campaign.

By now, I had ascertained that the chippie (sic) van at the ground was open and accessible to away fans (being situated outside the ground). There was no way I was missing out on that, so I had to silence my food with beer for the time being. My favoured pub of the day, The Fat Gadgie, was currently closed, and the Howard Arms was only really on my itinerary for food purposes – just in case there was none elsewhere. We therefore headed to a pub that hadn’t been part of our plans – but had been recommended by our new local guide.

The Kings Head

This pub was owned by the same man who had The Fat Gadgie. He advised us that his craft beer bar remained closed owing to depleted staffing levels, and more staff being required here at the Kings Head, being the larger pub.

This was a great pub, though. It was also a rare treat to be allowed to stand at the bar, study the pump clips and order at the bar.

I contemplated the Black Dragon, which sounded interesting, but my questioning soon revealed it to be a cider, so I focussed my attention on the other pumps. I ordered a half each of The Carlisle Brewing Company Citadel and the Cumbrian Ales Esthwaite Bitter. I had tried neither before. We retired to the beer courtyard to enjoy our drinks al fresco.

The courtyard was delightful – and was built to combat all the elements. With four walls, there was no wind to trouble us. The walls were tall, so the sun wasn’t in sight to burn us. There were heaters and a retractable roof to combat the cold and rain when required. There was a projector and screen, as well as a perimeter shelf for standing drinkers to rest their beers on. There were several tables and chairs out here today, most of which were occupied, but there was one spare for us. How delightful this was.

I paid a visit to the Ladies – more to have a nose at the inside of the pub than anything else – and was delighted to spot a jukebox on my route. There are so many delights to be found on the inside of pubs that I had quite forgotten about during all the COVID restrictions of Go Straight To Your Seat, Do Not Stand At The Bar, Do Not Move Around The Pub. It is a pure delight to be able to enjoy the whole of a pub again.

Around 1415 we tootled off back down Fisher Street towards the car park where we had left the car. I was amused by this sign en route.

But what about tandems?

But back to the car park. Now this has to be my favourite car park of all time. It had confused us on arrival by the simplicity of its instructions. Park your car and pay at the machine when you leave. Yeah but don’t we need a ticket to pay and display or something? Apparently not. Confused but at the same time happy about this – if true – we had simply parked up and strolled straight off to the pub. Now back at the car, we went to the machine, which asked us for our car registration. We input this and it immediately knew what time we had arrived (via number plate recognition) and asked us if we were happy with the arrival time and the £1 fee. Er, yes on both counts! What a polite and magic little car park this was. We liked it up here.

The Chippie Van

Now I had been following Carlisle United on Twitter for several weeks, since the announcement of this friendly fixture against Blackpool. The reason for this was so I could find out news about the sale of tickets for the match, as Blackpool are not the best at communicating this sort of information in good time. During this period, I had been very excited to learn of their partnerships with local businesses – most specifically a fish and chip van that would be offering catering at Brunton Park for home matches. There was no way I was missing out on this today. I have been wanting one of these at Bloomfield Road for some time. After all, doesn’t everyone want fish and chips when they come to Blackpool?

I salivated as I skipped towards The Chippie Van.

There were two items on the menu:

  • Fish & Chips
  • Sausage & Chips with Gravy / Curry

Not being afraid to ask for a slight tweak from what appears on the menu (a tip I learned from Slimming World, although not granted in this exact context), I ordered my usual fayre of fish, chips and gravy. This flummoxed the staff somewhat and, after some conferring, I was advised that it would be extra for the gravy. Yes, yes, that’s fine, thank you.

It was getting close to kick-off now, so our chips remained unboxed as we made our way round to the away end. I hoped they would let us in with our food! It was quite a long walk round to the away end (isn’t it always?) and, when we got there, there was an issue with the scanning of tickets, so we had a little wait while that was resolved. I decided to put this time to good use and tucked into my lunch heartily.

What a delight to have some actual proper food at a match! Indeed there was also a local farm produce stall next to The Chippie Van, selling steak burgers and the like. Could this be the future of food at football stadia? Please…?

Carlisle United v Blackpool

Finally we entered the ground and I headed immediately to the refreshment kiosk, as I had forgotten to buy a drink and it was boiling hot in the lunchtime sun. On the concourse, I got chatting to Ian and Sue, who enquired which museum I had been to this morning, having been amused by my anecdotes of Hilda Ogden’s lawnmower on my last awayday. From our conversation, I learned that Sue’s dad had worked on the construction of the Vulcan.

On entering the stand, I placed my fish and chips and bottle of water on the floor as I retrieved my ticket from my handbag. A friendly steward offered assistance.

‘Do you like climbing?’

‘Er…no. It’s a particular bugbear of mine, actually.’

‘Well, look all the way up there. See that woman in the black? Well your seat is further back than that.’

‘Oh…’

‘The good news is you can sit anywhere you like.’

‘Oh thank you so much!’

I perched on one of the nearest seats and resolved to now give my full attention to my food.

Lee soon joined me and our attention was switched to the match. In as much as a pre-season friendly ever holds our attention. I was pleased that I had obtained a teamsheet (50p) from a man walking outside the ground with them (‘people are going mad for these today – the first 100 were gone in no time – we’ve had to do a second print run’).

Our squad was more COVID-ravaged than we had anticipated.

The match was pleasant enough in a pre-season friendly stylee. Tayt Trusty (great name – and we all had to look him up) performed enthusiastically well. It was actually lovely to see some youngsters getting a chance in a first-team environment.

At half-time I returned to the refreshment kiosk because we’d been sitting in the sun and thus that bottle of water was already gone. I resolved to pick up two more. The queue was long and I took the time to observe the mask etiquette, now we are not obliged to wear them. I had noted that, in the service station and pub, most people had chosen to wear a mask. Here in the ground, I had observed none in the stand (fair enough, as outdoors and hot) and only two on the concourse. There were only c250 travelling fans here today, so it wasn’t as if the concourse was crowded, nor did it feel unsafe, although I did take a step back at one point when a friend was standing a little closer than I was comfortable with.

As I neared the front of the queue, I spotted those crisps that Boolman had recommended. I couldn’t face them now on the back of my chippy, but I bought them anyway and stowed them away in my handbag for future snackage. I realised now why I needed a bigger handbag, even in these cashless times.

I spent much of the game admiring the architecture of Brunton Park. What a treat to see a proper, traditional ground with three sides of terracing. And those floodlights were so unusual. I had been here before, of course, but my last visit had been in the dark and previous visits to that (a) a long time ago; and (b) with beer goggles on.

We got our first glimpse of new signing Richard Keogh when he came off the bench later on. However, by that time, we had replaced most of the team and our performance had deteriorated somewhat. Nevertheless, we managed to hold on to the 1-0 lead obtained in the first half, courtesy of Demi Mitchell’s third goal in as many matches. I think we’ve now established that he’s not a full-back.

After the match, we headed out of the ground, lost in conversation with the Yorkshire Seasiders (they get everywhere). We went our separate ways at the main road (them to the station, us towards our car). Of course we weren’t heading straight home. Google and I were both going to make sure of that…

Spinners Arms

I had factored in a visit here as I believed it to be the home of The Carlisle Brewing Company. Of course I had already sampled their beer at the Kings Head earlier this afternoon, but it was on the way home, so it therefore warranted a visit.

This pub has apparently long been a mainstay of the Good Beer Guide. I confess I don’t subscribe to the GBG these days. My beer and pub requirements transcend CAMRA guidelines these days and I do enjoy micropubs, craft beer houses and brewery taps, which don’t always make the GBG. Plus, I have the wonderful pub bloggers Retired Martin and BRAPA to keep me up to date with the best GBG pubbage in any given town.

Having already sampled the Citadel in the Kings Head, I opted for half of each of the Spun Gold and La’al Clarty Jewkle. I never thought to question the naming convention of the latter at the time – being more concerned with the colour of the beer in question (I was offered a sample – what a treat!).

Yay! A brewery dog! Alas the brewery has recently relocated away from the Spinners, so we were unable to meet this excellent pup.

We did, however, engage in chat with the locals, including a Carlisle United fan, who told us all about their proud history, including reaching the League Cup semi final.

We soon continued our journey homeward bound. It was all very scenic but we realised that we seemed to be avoiding the motorway again. After a brief investigation, close to Penrith, we realised that Google Maps was actually set to ‘avoid motorways’ – and by this time our journey had already been extended unnecessarily by an hour. We were by now quite ravenous once again, so I was tasked with finding somewhere nice to eat.

‘Oh there’ll be a pub pop up soon enough.’

Dear reader, we didn’t pass a single pub, so I referred to Trip Advisor, who came up with the top pub for food in the Penrith area.

Clickham Inn

‘Have you made a reservation?’

‘Er…do we need one?’

Blimey. This place was popular. Mercifully, a table was found for us. On our way there, I had clocked the Loweswater Gold on the bar, so I was happy.

We were confused by the ‘Bretzel buns’ on the menu. I guessed that this was a brioche/pretzel hybrid and was quite satisfied with this. However further research reveals that this is an acceptable alternative spelling for pretzel. I wish I’d asked now. Anyway, pretzels are a migraine trigger – and I can never resist a curry – so I ordered this…

…and Lee ordered the scampi and chips.

There was a curious tall, silver item on the adjacent vacant table. Was it a pepper pot? I didn’t think so. Well what was it? I turned to the table behind me – and saw one in action. It was a whizzy thing – a fan, I thought. I charged Lee with commandeering the one from the vacant table while I nipped to use the facilities. When I returned, it was duly positioned on our table. Whilst exciting, when it was in action, the windmilling took up much of our small table, so we replaced it back on the other table.

Dear reader, the food was really delicious. Indeed we might go so far as to say this is the best food we have ever eaten in a pub. Lee particularly loved the chips and insisted I try one. I’m usually disappointed with any chips outside of a chippy environment (and sadly too often in a chippy environment), but these were lovely and fluffy on the inside and tasted great. My curry was lush as well, with a really flavoursome sauce (or is it technically gravy…?).

Our food attracted other guests to our table. One was an irksome little fly. I then had a lightbulb moment. Those windmill things were fly deterrents! By this time, ‘our’ windmill had been taken from the vacant table by the couple at the next table, so we grabbed one from the table round the corner. And – as If by magic – the air currents sent the little fly packing. Result!

A more welcome guest was the pubdog, Oscar the shih tzu. I had at first thought he was with the big group seated behind us, as he was happily sitting at their feet. Then, when our food came, he came over to join us. And then to the couple at the next table when their food came. He seemed very much at home here and he is my favourite pubdog of all time. There was even a painting of him on the wall. He was so adorable. If you like dogs, good food and beer – or any of the above – the Clickham Inn is well worth a visit if you are in the vicinity of Penrith.

Now, with Google Maps set to factor in motorways, we set off home full and happy after a damn fine day out enjoying Cumbria. Great food, friendly people, top dogs. What’s not to love?

Next stop Morecambe (via Lancaster)…

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