Every Saturday morning I have a tradition. I walk down my street of brick row houses, their chimneys puffing smoke like lots of old, skinny men huddled together for warmth. I cross the stone bridge over a little river winding its quiet, dignified way through Carlisle, in northern England.
Across the street the well-preserved walls of Carlisle Castle – once the focal point of the Scots/English border wars for centuries – holds its peace under grey skies. I turn right and wander up cobbled streets, past a soaring Gothic cathedral with sections dating back to the 1100s, and duck into a narrow lane (creatively dubbed “long lane”) that spits me back out onto yet another cobbled street in the Carlisle city centre.
By now the city is starting to wake up, and I wind my way between clusters of young lads and spotlessly-dressed old women dragging two-wheeled shopping trolleys behind them. Past the butcher shop and the Kings Head Pub (serving ale in that location since the 10th century, if they’re to be believed), I detour into a cobbled courtyard for my weekly indulgence of choice – the Shabby Scholar.
Though not the oldest establishment on the block (by a few centuries), the Shabby Scholar is my eatery of choice for a quiet morning of reading a favorite book or writing letters home over a pot of hot chai tea with lemon, honey, and sometimes a little cream. A combination coffeeshop, cafe and bar, the Shabby Scholar embodies English “shabby chic” charm. It’s consistently busy, but on Saturdays it’s always hopping with locals coming in for a “cuppa” with friends or to try out this month’s seasonal menu.
The weather may be cold and rainy outside (in Carlisle, it usually is), but inside it’s a haven of warmth, and staff who greet me by name, and big band swing music playing beneath the soundtrack of thick Cumbrian accents and muted laughter. There’s something about the cozy atmosphere and a location steeped in history that just refreshes and inspires creativity. I let myself drift and wonder how many people for how many years have walked across those courtyard stones through the window.
Centuries of people, never faces in a crowd, each with their own stories of struggle and heartache and joy and relief and all the little moments that make life a little more worth living. One of the most charming benefits of making my temporary home in this quaint little city are the multitude of hole-in-the-wall businesses, no two alike, each with their own style and history and distinctive flavor.
Chain restaurants and franchise coffeeshops may be reliable, but they just don’t inspire me like these hidden jewels. Walls don’t really talk. That’s only a silly saying. But in this place, I feel like they do. And that’s almost the same thing.