, the county town of Cumbria and its only city, is also the repository of much of the region's history. Its strategic location has been fought over for more than 2000 years. The original Celtic settlement was superseded by a Roman town, whose first fort was raised here in 72 AD. Carlisle thrived during the construction of Hadrian's Wall and then, long after the Romans had gone, the Saxon settlement was repeatedly fought over by the Danes and the Scots - the latter losing it eventually to the Normans. The struggle with the Scots defined the very nature of Carlisle as a border city: William Wallace was repelled in 1297 and Robert the Bruce eighteen years later, but Bonnie Prince Charlie's troops took Carlisle in 1745 after a six-day siege, holding it for only six weeks before surrendering to the Duke of Cumberland, who bombarded the city with cannon dragged from Whitehaven.
The main thoroughfare of English Street is pedestrianized as far as the expansive
square, formerly heart of the medieval city, though a huge fire in 1392 destroyed its buildings and layout. The only historic survivors are the market cross (1682), the Elizabethan former town hall behind it, which now houses the tourist office and the timber-framed Guildhall beyond that (at the southern end of Fisher Street). The much-restored Guildhall now contains a small
(Easter-Sept Tues-Sun noon-4.30pm; free) of guild and civic artefacts.
It's only a few steps along to
(Mon-Sat 7.45am-6.15pm, Sun 7.45am-5pm; E2 donation requested), founded in 1122 but embracing a considerably older heritage. Christianity was established in sixth-century Carlisle by St Kentigern (often known as St Mungo), who became the first bishop and patron saint of Glasgow. The cathedral's sandstone bulk has endured the ravages of time and siege: Parliamentarian troops during the Civil War destroyed all but two powerful arches of the original eight bays of the Norman nave, but there's still much to admire in the ornate fifteenth-century choir stalls and the glorious
, which features some of the finest pieces of fourteenth-century stained glass in the country. Opposite the main entrance the reconstructed
, or monastic building, houses the cathedral library, while its undercroft doubles as the
, a daytime cafe (Mon-Sat 10am-4pm) aptly using space that was once the monks' dining hall.
For more on Carlisle's history, head for the
Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery
(Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm; E5), reached up Castle Street or through the cathedral grounds, via Abbey Street. This takes a highly imaginative approach to Carlisle's turbulent past, with special emphasis put on life on the edge of the Roman Empire - climbing a reconstruction of part of Hadrian's Wall you learn about catapults and stone-throwers. There's also plenty on the Jacobite siege of 1745, as well as a dramatic attempt to convey the intensity of the feuds between the "Reivers", border families who lived beyond the jurisdiction of the Scottish and English authorities from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century in the so-called "Debatable Lands".
A subway from outside Tullie House, or the eye-catching Irishgate Bridge - incorporating design elements from the city's former medieval Irish Gate - both cross the fast Castle Way road to
(daily: Easter-Oct 9.30am-6pm; Nov-Easter 10am-4pm; E3.10; EH). This was originally built by William Rufus on the site of a Celtic hillfort, though having now clocked up over nine hundred years of continuous military use, the castle has undergone considerable changes. These are most evident in its outer bailey, which is filled with fairly modern buildings named after battles from the Napoleonic Wars and World War I. Apart from the gatehouse, with its reconstructed warden's quarters, it's the
surrounding the keep that's the real draw. It was here, in 1568, that Elizabeth I kept Mary Queen of Scots as her "guest". There's a
located in the former armoury, but much more interesting are the excellent displays in the
and the elegant heraldic carvings made by prisoners in a second-floor alcove.
of the castle (Easter-Oct daily; ask at the entrance; an extra E1.50) help bring the history to life. Don't leave without climbing to the battlements for a view of the Carlisle rooftops.