Carlisle came late to the party, joining England as recently as 1092, having been part of Scotland and therefore omitted from the compiling of the Domesday book. Having transferred allegiance, Carlisle quickly reverted to its original Romano-British purpose of keeping the rebellious Scots out. Industrialisation saw the decline of Carlisle’s military importance, although in 1698 the early English travel writer Celia Fiennes remarked that it was still ‘Rife with alcohol and prostitutes’ as befitted a proper garrison town. I wondered how things might have moved on.
Having parked outside the almost limitless disk-zone, I walked in to Carlisle via Botchergate, one of England’s most notorious drinking streets. Pubs, bars, and takeaways made up the entire trade of the road, a shabby vibrancy about the place, quiet and at rest now, preparing for the weekend ahead. It was Friday morning and all was at peace with just a few discarded glue bottles and empty cash bags littering the street and giving clues as to what was ahead.
Further towards the city centre, the road opens up into a large square. There was a lot of noise coming from it, made by a busker with a powerful amplifier singing in the dreary Ed Sheeran mould. He was audible from hundreds of yards away, and with his central position had ruined the majority of the city centre for anyone else who fancied a busk. Normally I like to say hello to fellow buskers and drop off a few coins, but this was selfish and entitled behaviour, so I ignored him and wandered around for a while instead, getting to know the city.
Inside the arcade was a bronze statue of Jimmy Dyer. A brass plaque informed me that he was “A well know itinerant fiddler and ballad singer.” Bearded and in a shabby coat and top hat, fiddle tucked under his arm, pipe at rest in a battered briefcase, he was out of time and place in the synthetic brightness. I searched for more information online. There was not a lot, other than that he was something of a fixture around the turn of the 20th century, a couple of photos showing a very ragged man with no discernible technique and who was apparently “infamous for his unconventional lifestyle.” I liked him already. In my Will Haven hoodie, dog-chewed baseball cap, and worn out fleece with paint stains and a melted zip that no longer fastens, I felt happy to assume his mantle for the day, and so stepped out into the streets again to find a spot away from the over-amplified wailing.
I picked one of the small medieval streets towards the cathedral that was sheltered from the din, and found a quiet spot opposite a pub. Things started slowly at first, but soon picked up and by lunchtime I’d made a good pile of coins, plus a fiver from a gentleman who when I told him about my project really wanted to cover my fiddle case in ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ stickers. I replied that I wasn’t very keen on antagonising people, seeing Brexit as the symptom rather than the cause, which he said was fair enough.
At lunch time, I met with a fellow called Richard who’d been recommended by a friend as someone worth meeting. He works in the planning department and probably knows Carlisle as well as anyone. With a ginger beard, and easy laugh, and an interest in good beer, we seemed somehow to get on very well. As we sat on a low wall outside the cathedral with our sausage sandwiches, I asked him what the big controversies were in the Carlisle planning department at the moment.
“Well, they want to move the swimming pool into a potential flood zone.”
“Makes sense. I suppose it won’t matter as much if it gets wet.”
“Tell you a story, you know that big chimney? Belongs to Dixon’s textile works.”
It was visible from nearly everywhere in Carlisle, a huge brick chimney, very tall and slender, tapering away into the sky.
“It was the biggest in the UK at one time, bloody huge. Well a few weeks ago on a Friday afternoon when things were a bit quiet, this little old lady turned up in the department with these hand drawn and coloured plans she’d made to put a revolving restaurant on top of it.”
“Genius. What did you say?”
“Well we didn’t want to offend her, so we told her we’d take it into consideration. What else can you do? Right, come with me, I’ll show you something else.”
We walked through town, down to the council offices, pretty much the only concrete brutalist block in Carlisle, to where Richard showed me the commemorative plaque, installed in 2015 to remember the 2005 floods. It was fitted at the exact level the water had reached.
“You see that line above it, where the wall changes colour? That’s where the water got to the day after they installed this plaque. They didn’t risk tempting fate again by putting a plaque up for that, just decided not to clean the wall.”
I told Richard that my plan was to visit Botchergate in the evening, to get a sense of it. He laughed and wished me good luck, and I went back to my busking.
The afternoon was a case of slowly diminishing returns. The weather grew colder till breath filled the air in white clouds, fingers turned cold on strings, and coins proved harder to dislodge from pockets. A schoolgirl grew tired of a chirping lad, and suddenly took him down with a slick rolling arm bar manoeuvre, earning cheers of delight from her friends. A man walked past with ostentatious headphones and a white beanie that said ‘DOPE’ across it in large letters.
After a while I was forced to retreat to the gents toilets in the arcade to warm my frozen busker’s fingers up in the powerful Tornado hand dryer. I needed £100 from my two days here to break even, and I’d have to wring every last pound out of busking. £36 on fuel, £30 for my B&B, leaving a notional budget of £34 for food and drink. I’d already had a sausage sandwich and a coffee, and Botchergate would be a serious night’s work. I headed back out into the gloom of dusk. A young man was on the street with a hangdrum, a metal saucer the size of a small table that makes different notes depending on where you spank it. It made a beautiful sound, but as I came to realise, only had one trick. I asked him about it. He said he’d gone into the shop looking for a djembe and ended up with this instead, then he’d learnt to busk. I found a space where I made a meagre £9 in the last hour as the darkness fell, and defeated, set off to find out what sort of lodging my £30 had bought me.
To my surprise, and slight disappointment, it was perfectly decent, and well on the way to being en-suite. I tidied myself up, counted my coins (£58 in nearly 4 hours) and hit the town again. I went for dinner in a bar called ‘The Last Zebra’. Having been found a table, I was brought a menu titled ‘Drinky Poos’, printed in pink on white and utterly unreadable under the similarly pink LED arrays that illuminated the central section of the bar. I speculatively ordered a pint of bitter, a chicken burger and a salad. The thought of eating the salad under the watery pink lights was not appetising. When it arrived, I asked if I could move to a table on the fringes where the light was more yellow and normal. Instead of this, the waiter pulled out a tablet and loaded an app.
“What colour lighting would Sir desire?”
I was not ready for this question, and hurriedly cycled through a few colours, searching for one that would suitably illuminate my lettuce, all the while aware of the eyes upon me from other denizens of The Last Zebra, wondering who this twat was who needed green lighting before he could enjoy his pint.
But when did I start writing restaurant reviews? I’m more interested in what these places tell me about a town. The young people running the Last Zebra were doing what hard working young people are doing all over the country. Trying to make a go of something and stand out in a difficult market. The food was great, the beer well kept. Perhaps this is why there are so many quality coffee shops around the country. If you’re young and ambitious and not qualified for one of the few well paid industries remaining like engineering, you’re left with a choice between shelf-stacking and running your own business. The Last Zebra was great, if you know in advance what colour light you want.
I paid up and moved on. It was time to meet another friend, Lucy. We met at the Fat Gadgie and had a warm up pint. A Carlisle native, she was to be my guide for the rest of the night. I wanted to see Botchergate in full revelry and needed the best local knowledge.
At 9pm on a Friday and Saturday, Botchergate, part of the A6, is shut to all traffic, with gates drawn across and diversions opened. It’s not worth the risk of leaving it open as people flood from bar to bar in growing states of drunkenness. Friday is payday and Carlisle knows how to celebrate this. I thought it would be good to start my adventure by being present for the ceremonial closing of the gates. In my mind, this was sure to be a performance. I imagined a hooded and robed figure, the Master of the Gates, surrounded by flaming torch bearers, emerging from the darkness by the laserquest and closing the gates dramatically to the wailing of bagpipes and shamanic chanting of a febrile crowd.
At 9pm we were at the South end of Botchergate and not a lot was happening. The moon was full and rising slowly over the kebab house. At 9:10pm, we started to doubt ourselves and wonder if perhaps it wasn’t happening tonight for some reason. Finally, a high-vis uniform appeared in the distance, heading down from the station. It was a young police officer and was clearly surprised to see us waiting for him like this. This was not normal, and there was a small moment of worry as I got my notebook out to ask him all about it. He said they shared the job out from week to week between the officers. He went round the corner to activate the diversion signs, and returned to close the gates themselves. As the second gate clanged shut and he locked it in place, we gave a polite but enthusiastic round of applause and I asked if he wouldn’t mind posing by the gate for a moment for a photograph. This he did, his community policing training narrowly overcoming the obvious need to get away from the nutters, his quiet evening task transformed to a choreographed performance under critical appraisal. Photos taken and interview done, we let him go, and he ran off into the night as fast as professional dignity would let him.
If there’s a measure of Botchergate’s significance in the panoply of English drinking streets, it’s the two cavernous Wetherspoons almost next door to one another. It was into the higher up of the two, the William Rufus, we poured ourselves a little later on. It was still early on in the grand scheme of things, and conversation was just about possible under the music. Having tried and failed to explain fractals to me, Lucy rolled a cigarette and headed out of the nearby door to smoke it. I pulled on my hoodie and followed her. The bouncer was onto me in a flash, irate that we’d dared to walk out of this particular door.
“Can’t you fucking read what it says?” he bellowed.
I pulled the door back a bit and carefully read the sign back to him.
“Push bar to open.”
He did not appreciate this answer at all.
“You can’t go out of there, it’s a fucking FIRE DOOR.”
“I’m terribly sorry, it wasn’t obvious, but now you have explained my error to me, I promise not to make such a mistake in the future.”
The bouncer desperately searched for something to object to in this, failed, slammed the door behind me and gestured through the glass in the direction of the approved but otherwise identical door of re-entry. I rejoined Lucy.
“You got me in the shit, there.”
“Yes, it was pretty funny to watch.”
We tried the other Wetherspoons next door. It had an older clientele, no music, and pro Brexit brochures on every table, castigating the Prime Minister for not being Brexity enough. I’m never sure how to feel about Wetherspoons. It handles more cask ale from a wider range of breweries than anyone else in the country, provides poor people with a night out at the pub on a budget unmatched by anyone else, but uses that platform to push a pretty extreme political agenda.
This second Wetherspoons was a mess, crowded and dirty. The gents had a row of shitty footprints leading to an abandoned 5 Amp fuse, a series of clues I was unable to interpret. We soon drank up and tried our luck at ‘Concrete’, a night club. It was dead, so we went back down Botchergate again. It wasn’t quite the riot I’d been expecting. There were a lot of bored bouncers, some resigned to their fate, others like matey in the first Wetherspoons looking for any minor infringement to leap on so to justify their existence.
“It’s coming up to Christmas. Fridays are dead, everyone goes out Saturday this time of year.”
Such was my luck. We went into a nightclub called ‘Bronx’ with a bottle bar and a £5 pool cue deposit. We played pool. I made a strong start and cleared all my reds away. Lucy fluffed a shot and dropped her cue in despair. As we were about to abandon the match, we received another of my occasional visitations from the fairy kingdom. A little old fellow with thinning blonde hair and a soft Cumbrian accent was suddenly by her side.
“You must nivva give up, lass, nivva give up.”
He seemed to freeze the time around the table, a bubble of calm. He carefully picked up the cue, and with permission took up her cause. I had one shot on the black and it wasn’t pottable so I moved it into the middle of the table for next time. The little old fellow then carefully and methodically potted yellow after yellow, never hitting it hard, just rolling the balls gently into the pockets. After the black followed them all in, he handed the cue back to Lucy and holding her hand, looked her in the eye and repeated the message;
“Nivva give up. In pool, or in life.”
Lucy turned to me and said;
“I think I love him.”
We looked back, and he had gone.
It was now well past midnight, and with two Coronas for £5 we were wondering what to do next. A bunch of lads came in and headed straight for the boxing machine, where the investment of 50p causes a punch bag to lower from the top allowing punches to be measured for their power. It’s remarkable how often the score would just narrowly exceed the previous effort, causing the lads to find a further 50p for another more definitive round. After a while of watching this, Lucy told me that she used to go out with the brother of one of the lads, and shouted them over.
I was amazed at just how open they all were with me. Within a short while I was learning all sorts. One lad was approximately the middle child of eleven. In his words “She had 11 kids because she was too lazy to want to work.” Other stories were of relatives lost to drug addiction, wasted on the streets. They didn’t show much compassion for these characters they described. This wasn’t for a lack of humanity, but when there’s so many problems to deal with, you have to prioritise those who seem most worth spending your compassion on. Sometimes, people just had to be cut for the sake of others. It was a survival tactic, and it was bleak. I told him how much it made me realise my own upbringing had been incredibly cushy, and I was sorry it’d been so tough for him.
“Nah, not at all. It makes you who you are doesn’t it? I’ve got four of me own now and I’ll look after them.”
It was 1am in the Bronx nightclub and people were just stood around talking candidly about the most personal details of their lives to near strangers. Carlisle is like that. It’s rough and tough, but friendly to the point of innocence. Your weekend night out takes on some pretty big significance if your life is fairly bleak the rest of the time.
At 1:45am I finally had to admit that Lucy, a woman half my size, had drunk me under the table, and I went back to my B&B, leaving her in the club with the lads, and fell asleep with my notepad open on the bed.
I set an alarm for 8:45am and barely responded to it, the refusal to miss a breakfast I’d already paid for the only thing dragging me out of bed and into the dining room. I was soon back on the street, walking into Carlisle again. A traffic warden had parked on double yellows whilst he went into the newsagent. A woman handled a pair on mannequin legs in the window of a big shop. The legs had trousers on which fell to the ankles and made her job entertainingly impossible. On the main road, two BetFreds looked across at each other in smug satisfaction. I tried busking in yesterday’s most successful spot, but a bleary eyed publican politely asked me if he could have some more sleep after his 18hr shift, so I moved on.
I slogged away at it all morning and by 1:15pm had £45 to show. Hardly a fortune for three hour’s playing, but I’d just hit my goal for the two days. It was lunchtime. Saveloys were being loaded into the hot cabinet in the chippy. The arcade security guard had his sunglasses on. The Christmas lights were up, and looked pretty Soviet. I bagged my coins up and walked Botchergate one more time. Brewdog were opening a new bar which was currently hidden behind chipboard and scaffolding. A man and his wife were staring at the big Brewdog logo. It wasn’t familiar to them.
“Whatever is that? I just don’t know!”
Botchergate wasn’t going to lose its crown any time soon and in a few hours, the gates would swing shut again for another night’s revelry.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to firstname.lastname@example.org or through the button in the archive – link here.
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!