I’m Ross, long-term traveller, digital nomad and borderline alcoholic. Over my years of worldwide adventure travel I have collected a large set of stories. The content of each varies wildly, from hilarity to destitution, from kindness to fear and from mishap to perfection. Join me in my new segment for the Travellers Post as each week I recount a different story from my life on the road.
The nature of the stone that a city is built from seems to me to permeate through to its personality. The great northern Scottish cities could be surmised by the granite with which they are synonymous. Hardened, steadfast, impervious to bad weather and scarred by years of neglect. The Roman heritage cities of the south, built from light coloured limestone, are beautiful, etherial and show the wealth of their heritage. The industrial cities of the midlands are red-brick, purposeful, iconic but outdated.
The most historic and identifiable buildings in Carlisle are built from sandstone. This red-orange sedimentary rock is, as the name suggests, merely solidified sand. It is rough cut, hard to maintain, crumbles under pressure and allows for little detail or aesthetic measure to be added. I struggle to think of a more apt metaphor for my city.
It’s a cold northern winter Friday night as my train pulls into the station. As I step foot on the platform and take my first breath of the damp northern air, a man wearing nothing but a furry Santa thong and matching hat sprints past, followed closely by three police officers. I crack a smile, reminded instantly that this night marks one of the North’s great traditions.
“Black Eye Friday”, takes place on the last Friday before Christmas. The cities tradesmen all put in a half day before the Christmas break, attending their respective Christmas parties afterward. By mid afternoon, the city is awash with half cut and exuberant individuals, often spoiling for a fight. You can keep your Hogmanay, St Patrick’s or Notting Hill, I’m home.
“Oi mate, someone nicked yer sleeves”, is hollered at me from across the road, supported by the howling laughter of his tinny wielding mates.
I laugh as I round the corner onto Devonshire street and to my destination. As much as it has one, this is the more upmarket end of the city. With a selection of independent, if identical, bars. I enter the ‘Thin White Duke’, hit the bar and sink a pint of Theakstons Northern Bitter. The décor that surrounds me a not entirely displeasing cry for kitsch individuality, with exposed brick, an eclectic mix of furniture and deliberately stressed wooden flooring.I get my surprisingly decent amount of change back and order another. Some things about returning home aren’t too bad.
In accordance with the whimsical sign, I ‘duck not grouse’ down the narrow staircase into the cellar, and see my friends at a corner table. We hug, laugh, drink and reminisce. We sit for hours in that bar, getting drunk and telling stories of other times we got drunk.
If there is one thing that the city has instilled in me and my friends, and everyone I know, it is a healthy appetite for booze. I’m not sure from where it stems, and perhaps this is not something that differs so much elsewhere. When we were younger, the cities lax age limit enforcement and incredibly cheap prices made the act of going to the pub our recreational activity of choice from a very young age. As we grew, with terrible weather and little else to occupy our time there, the default of meeting in the pub was, and remains the norm.
I stumble home in the early hours of the evening, welcoming the collapse into the bed of my youth and the place in this world where I still sleep the soundest.
Saturday morning seems unwelcome in its beginning, but we soon leave the house for a family walk, the tyres of the old Land Rover whipping the cold surface water of the road into a frenzied mist that marks our progress. We park atop Etterby Scaur, a rocky outcrop that follows the rivers northern edge. The walk looks over the cities ‘skyline’. We see the castle, once the holding cells of Mary, Queen of scots, and the subject of many a fierce battle in the ancient border wars. Further, Dixons Chimney, our answer to the Industrial revolution and once the 8th largest chimney in the world pierces the gray, high above the tree tops of Bitts park. To our backs, the Sands Centre, Carlisle’s answer to a music venue, theatre, gym and sports complex, famous patrons of which include, UB40, The Smiths, Status Quo and The Jam. I find myself wondering if Paul Weller was asked to help clear away the folding chairs after his show to make way for the next mornings table top sale. Dominating it all is the the ‘civic centre’ the tallest building in the city. This bastion of 1960s city planning; a concrete and speckle-dashed monstrosity, should look incongruous amongst the greens and oranges, like a solitary black tooth degrading an otherwise respectable smile. Somehow, however, it does not look out of place, rather tying the rest of the scene together into an assortment that could be called eclectic rather than random and perhaps in part inspired the interior décor of the cities bars.
As I leave, days later, I try to take some time to reflect on the city that shaped me. I am never sure if I should thank or condemn it. It has, in its way instilled in me the desire I have now to travel. The life I lived there, while rich in friends and family left me often disquieted, like I should always be looking for something more, yet feeling that I will likely never find what that is.
The other part of me loves it, loves it for its ease and simplicity, for the freedom of life there. Living in Carlisle, you need not worry about commuting, traffic or hassle. The cost of living is low enough that it does afford the opportunity to live well, or to leave if you wish and I know plenty who are truly happy there.
Perhaps my own dissatisfaction is merely ill aimed at a city that provided well for me, I maybe blame the cold grey northern skies for an inner conflict that is mine to resolve.
As my plane touches back down in Barcelona, however, it does seem like the metaphorical clouds dissipate alongside the real. While my inner satisfaction may not, in reality be based in my geographical location, I find it distinctly more difficult to worry about as I walk my dog along the beach front, stop for an espresso in a chic café or stare up at a magnificent gothic building, one not made from sandstone.
Photo Credits: John Lord, Flickr, Creative Commons – https://www.flickr.com/photos/yellowbookltd/