Carlisle, where England, Scotland and the sea meet, can thank its location for its fiery and fascinating past. Carlisle United can offer no thanks for the location of Brunton Park, the century-old ground set by a bow in the River Eden and a bend in the Petteril, so flooded twice in ten years that the aerial shots don’t begin to do justice to the damage caused.
England’s biggest football ground still with terracing, Carlisle’s home since 1909 had a filmic role in the 2010 docudrama ‘United’ about the Munich Air Disaster, convincingly doubling up as Old Trafford circa 1958.
This is football as it used to be, more akin to Annan and Dumfries just over the border than watching a game in the new-builds of Morecambe or Fleetwood, the footballing communities of north-west Lancashire the same distance from Carlisle as Newcastle at the other end of Hadrian’s Wall.
This is as remote as it gets in English League football. Cumbrian rivals Workington dropped out of the old Fourth Division in 1977, replaced by Wimbledon. Barrow lost the re-election vote in 1972 but are currently knocking on the door of the 92 after 45 years.
Workington, in fact, was where the game first took root in what was then Cumberland. A form of medieval rugby had been played there for centuries but the modern game arrived from the cradle of English football, Dronfield. Home of Sheffield FC, the world’s oldest team, this industrial community in north Derbyshire near Sheffield sent Workington 1,500 steelworkers, who popularised the game and formed Workington AFC.
Over the years, The Reds had to compete for gate money with local rugby sides. It was a similar story over in the county town, where Carlisle RFC were formed in 1873. Two main clubs played soccer: Shaddongate at Millholme Bank and Red Rose close by at Boundary Road.
In 1904, Shaddongate were renamed Carlisle United – which would indicate a merger with Red Rose, though the two actually met the following year in the FA Cup.
Originally playing at Millholme Bank, the new club also used Carlisle RFC’s ground, next to today’s Brunton Park on Warwick Road. After a short stay at nearby Devonshire Park, United moved to Brunton Park in 1909.
Playing in blue – perhaps another hangover from the Shaddongate days, no-one is really quite sure – Carlisle gained a mascot when a certain Colonel Salkeld, a prominent huntsman from a long line of local Salkelds, donated the club a fox. Named Olga after his daughter, the fox would be paraded around Brunton Park before Carlisle did battle in some gritty fixture in the North Eastern League.
After her death, Olga the stuffed fox would be ceremonially presented before kick-off by a man dressed as another famous Cumbrian huntsman, John Peel (as in ‘D’ye Ken’ not DJ).
Once Carlisle became a Football League side in 1928, boosted by a memorable stint from Bill Shankly making his managerial debut in the late 1940s, the club gained more prominence and designed a club badge with Olga its key feature. When Carlisle famously led the First Division in 1974-75 – under Alan Ashman, whose playing days at Carlisle missed Shankly by weeks – they had Olga leaping in gold on their shirts.
Having evaded capture by the leading local huntsmen of the Victorian era, Olga was eventually culled by Michael Knighton, who bought the club and changed its badge. Knighton, best known for his laughable publicity stunt in his failed attempt to take over Manchester United, became ever more unpopular at Brunton Park, his era ending with administration and, later, floods.
Olga’s centre-circle presentation is still part of the match-day ritual – though whether she will lead The Cumbrians away from the flood plain and up to the proposed new pastures of Kingmoor Park is another matter.
The nearest airport to Carlisle is Newcastle, 90km (56 miles) away. It’s a direct hop on the metro every 12min from the airport to Newcastle Central Station (24min journey time, £3.30). An hourly train to Carlisle (£7.50) then takes 1hr 30min.
From London Euston, the fastest direct service takes 3hr 15min, cheapest tickets £27 in advance. The slower service takes 4hr 15min. From Manchester Piccadilly, there’s an hourly direct service (1hr 50min), cheapest advance tickets £10. Hourly direct from Birmingham New Street (cheapest £19) takes 2hr 45min.
Carlisle station is right by the town centre, with the main bus hub, Court Square, alongside. Warwick Road starts nearby, the ground a good 25min walk along it.
Adding a PlusBus levy of £2.80 to your train ticket allows you all-day travel with Stagecoach, Arriva and Telford’s services.
AAA Taxis (01228 808 777) is based by Carlisle station and offers airport transfers – though it’s a hefty £90 to Newcastle’s.
Accommodation options line Warwick Road, close to the ground. Along with the standard chain Premier Inn Carlisle Central just over the narrow waterway past the stadium, there’s a row of friendly, family-run B&Bs in large, red-brick Victorian properties. Each has a handful of en-suite rooms and offers a hearty breakfast.
There are another four or five in similar vein along Warwick Road the nearer you get to town. In a different category, providing the best stay in town, The Halston is a luxury aparthotel with a top-notch spa, bar and bistro, being expanded to add 19 new ‘studios’ when it fills the adjoining former Lonsdale cinema.
Opposite the station, the 70-room Hallmark Carlisle has its own wine bar and restaurant, a decent one.
If you’ve come to elope, then Smiths at Gretna Green offers luxury boutique lodging beside the blacksmiths shop where runaway couples have flitted for 300 years.
All kinds of drinkeries dot Lowther Street, Botchergate and Fisher Street. Facing the station and beside the bus terminal, The Griffin has breathed new life into a gorgeous old pub, with a varied menu and live sport, too. A few pubs down, Woodrow Wilson is one of two Wetherspoons, this one named after the World War I president whose mother came from Carlisle. The other, alongside, also has historic overtones, The William Rufus.
Staying on Botchergate, The Caledonian is a landmark institution with a winning combination of TV sport and fine ales.
On the continuation of London Road, the St Nicholas Arms, always popular for live matches, has recently been refurbished – alongside, The Cranemakers, more known as a live-music venue, also provides TV sport.
Back in the centre of town, the King’s Head on Fisher Street is cask-ale heaven, with a TV screen to boot. The Howard Arms on Lowther Street is a real local favourite, homely and traditional, its bar counter lined with ales, and a TV if required.
Closer to the river, in the Hungry Horse chain, the Turf Tavern is a convenient place to feed the kids and catch the match.
Further round the Eden, one stop from Carlisle by train, picturesque Wetheral gives an easily accessible flavour of the celebrated Cumbrian landscape, with rural pubs such as The Wheatsheaf and the Crown Hotel by the station.