Big Churches in Little Europe: Carlisle

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The Holy and Undivided Trinity, Carlisle

In the good ol' days the Romans and the Scots had an agreement. That agreement was made explicit in a wall built on Emperor Hadrian's orders by his Legions. As a defensive structure it was OK but it did wonders for capturing customs and excise. The Romans left and over the next millennium the Christians eventually took over and prospered, especially in Carlisle. Eventually they built a Cathedral of impressive dimensions, turning swords into plough shears (as the bible would have it) or, more literally, old army walls and forts into a church of fabulous dimensions.

Then it so happened that peace settled on the border and Christians worshipped together happily promoting brotherly love. Well not really. Carlisle was essentially under martial law for the first 500 years after the Norman invasion which meant that the local authorities were able to do what they liked, provided it protected the King's interests and, whatever they did, it didn't bode well for the Scots. The Cathedral was a towering testament to the local powers and, like Durham on the other coast of England, the castle was right next door. The city walls were not there just to help collect tax, they were there for war.

It is of some irony that when Cromwell came through with his model army, he re-militarised the stones from Hadrian's wall leaving the town with half a Cathedral and a much, much larger castle. What the army giveth, the army taketh away (blessed be the name of the army). Even more fun, he used Scots troops to do the work, which is confusing on a number of levels not least because if I were a Scot at that time, I would have wanted neither the castle nor the church.

Going into Carlisle cathedral is good fun. If you have some familiarity with your typical post-Norman cathedral building it is quite a bewildering experience because half of it just isn't there. It isn't as if they are working towards building the next (larger) stage. It is more as if it once was there and now it isn't. What remains is quite magnificent. The roof is a picture of stars, the windows are huge and lovely and everything that is there captures the history as well as implicitly highlighting the bits that aren't. Where the half way point would be, can be seen a huge square tower of similar dimensions to Durham. Where the main part of any church would be and the people would spend most their time, there is a blank wall and then, on the other side, grass. I suppose that makes this one church where everybody has to sit up the front together.

I should probably keep this review to half length (or include a tour of the castle). However, there are two delightful things to mention.

One is the very large window in the eastern end which contains, as is typical of these windows, pictures of stories from the gospels in the bible. However, some things are harder to paint on glass than others and Christ's resurrection from a sarcophagus is famously towards the trickier end of these. So look out for the picture of bearded man stepping gingerly out of the deep stone bath wrapped in what looks to be a towel. It is right in the centre.

The other thing is the people. For various reasons I don't go to services in Carlisle very often. However on the occasions I have, the people have been really nice as, indeed, have been the staff (both in robes and out). If you are there and a church service takes your fancy, should they offer you a cup of something warm and liquid afterwards, say "yes" and you should be up for an entertaining half hour.

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