Written by Sarah Ledger

In The News

Letter to my hometown: Stay strong, Carlisle

Standard Issue writers are penning a letter to their hometown. In a devastating week for the city, Sarah Ledger pays tribute to the brave lass she came home to.

Carlisle Town Hall. Photo courtesy of WikiCommons.

Carlisle Town Hall. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I didn’t always love you. When we first met I hated you. It took me a long time to appreciate your raw manners, your abrasive wit, your self-deprecating charm. You are wary of strangers. It’s little wonder. From Romans to Reivers to Jacobites, strangers have laid claim to you, captured you and besieged you, but I didn’t understand that until I left you. You are remote: the city that is furthest away from any other city and you don’t take kindly to new ideas. ‘Only available in Carlisle’ was a marketing strategy for new products in the 1980s. The idea was, if it caught on in Carlisle, it would catch on anywhere.

In my adopted cities of Manchester and London, the mention of your name would be greeted with bemusement. “You don’t sound Welsh…” they’d say. And when I’d explain that you’re on the border of Scotland and England – no, not Newcastle, the other side – there’d be a glimmer of recognition. “Oh you mean Carlisle…” they’d say, stressing the second syllable of your name as if I didn’t know how to pronounce it properly. Because having been rootless and eager to be accepted, I’d taken on your cadences, roughened my vowels to sound like one of your own: acquired that peculiar clumsy lilt that belongs to no other city.

“When we first met I hated you. It took me a long time to appreciate your raw manners, your abrasive wit, your self-deprecating charm.”

I missed you while I was away. I missed your pink sandstone, the dark green ribbon of river that runs through you; your milky border skies. I left London and came home. It was nice to be able to say that.

But there have been such terrible times. In 2005, the floods were almost a mortal blow. I stood in disbelief on Eden Bridges where the waters had risen so high that Hardwicke Circus roundabout had become lake. We were cut off for days that time with no roads, no power: stranded in the depths of January with only candles and Radio Cumbria to keep us going. When the waters receded your roads were covered with sand and silt and shit, your damaged houses standing cold and dark on that long stretch down Warwick Road for months. Some of them took years to recover.

Carlisle Market Hall. Photo courtesy of WikiCommons.

Carlisle Market Hall. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

But they did recover and – brave lass that you are – so did you. It took a while but in the last couple of years it looked like you were not only in remission, but really going somewhere. I hardly recognised you. So what has happened now is all the more heart-breaking.

We’re used to your wild moods and last weekend when the rain turned horizontal and the wind threatened to wrench the roof off, there was little cause for alarm. It’s December. These things happen. I drove down to Rickerby Park and parked my car by the river’s edge. The steep bank into the park levels onto a plain. Some crazy Victorian planted the trees there in the formation of the regiments of the Battle of Waterloo. Oaks and chestnuts stand guard over the river. This is no pretty suburban park; like you, it’s a place of rough unpredictable beauty. If the river rises, the road floods; it’s been known for cars to float away. The puddles were joining up so I thought better of it, turned round and went home.

“Friends wrote in panic of escaping from torrents of water that burst the defences, surging up through the floorboards, through the doors and windows.”

As the day went on, the weather worsened. Friends from Kirkoswald posted pictures on Facebook of the waters rising. That water has to go somewhere and we all knew it was coming to you. But it couldn’t happen again could it? After the last time, flood defences were built. They’d held before – even at high tide. At ten o’clock I drove past Eden Bridges. The Police were there, the road blocked off. I could see the river at the top of the stone arches and I knew you were doomed.

I sat up all night, following your story on Twitter, scrolling through in horror. Friends wrote in panic of escaping from torrents of water that burst the defences, surging up through the floorboards, through the doors and windows. At 3.00am power went off, the street lights extinguished. The keening of alarms and sirens began, a helicopter thundered overhead. “It sounds like a disaster movie!” some idiot tweeted, not realising this is a fucking disaster: this is what disaster sounds like.

Once again Hardwicke Circus became a lake. Warwick Road stretches out in dank darkness, ruined houses gutted, furniture piled on the streets. Christmas trees have been dumped in the front gardens along with heaps of torn-down tinsel. Three of your secondary schools are underwater; 3000 children are out of education.

Your spirit remains strong. Your citizens have rallied and are supporting each other but then we know we have to rely on ourselves. Politicians have flown in and looked sad but their promises are hollow. Carlisle is the modest country cousin who can do without lavish gifts. The £50m you’ve been promised is not enough and if it’s anything like the last time, I doubt you’ll ever see much of it.

I don’t know what will happen next. That seems too big a question to face. I suppose like last time we will have to take it a day at a time and create a new future for ourselves. Meanwhile, Carlisle, I need to remind you that I love you and I hope you get better soon.


The Cumbria Foundation is raising money for a flood appeal. To help out, visit: www.cumbriafoundation.org.

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Written by Sarah Ledger

Champion soup maker; of a surprisingly nervous disposition. @sezl & sezl.wordpress.com