How do you incorporate a café serving food and drink in a nearly 1,000-year-old cathedral?

Carlisle Cathedral. Photo: Peter CookCarlisle Cathedral. Photo: Peter Cook

The architects at Feilden Fowles gave the new building a bit of an open-and-close drawer feel to the historic setting

The cathedral in the town of Carlisle just a few miles from the Scottish border dates from 1122 and is one of the gems among Great Britain’s places of worship. It now has an old gem added to it, namely the former refectory or phratry of the adjacent cathedral priories. In its 800-year history, it was once the monks’ dining room, later an arsenal for the royal army, a storeroom during the Civil War, then a brewery, granary, barn, and library. Most recently, the long hall was left to its own devices.

Now it has been modernized and revitalized, and from a modern point of view: instead of being a place for monastic life as it once was, it now serves for culture and education – exhibitions, library visits, events, and more. “The project realizes our vision for the Cathedral as a place of discovery, celebration, and challenge,“ reads the Cathedral’s webpage.

And the facility now also has a café – it was added to the hall in an L-shape.

This was a special challenge for the architects of Feilden Fowles. After all, such new places with modern functions should not stand out too much in such surroundings, but on the other hand, as a new building, should also stand out sufficiently clearly from the old.

Carlisle Cathedral. Photo: David GrandorgeCarlisle Cathedral. Photo: Archiv / John Cheel

The result is a kind of flat drawer, as it seemed to us when we looked at the photos: the café, unlike the old buildings around it, does not give the impression of being immovably set in stone.

We would not have been surprised if the photographers had sent pictures where the café had disappeared in the evening. We know something like this from soccer stadiums, where the whole pitch can be moved in and out before and after the game.

In terms of material, red sandstone, the walls of the café (red Dumfries sandstone from nearby Locharbriggs) unmistakably belong to the Cathedral (St Bees stone, darkened over the centuries).

And also, the style of the pointed arches in the walls is – almost – identical to the originals in the walls next door. But at the latest when you notice the windows in the café from the ceiling to the floor, you know which century the building is from.

Carlisle Cathedral. Photo: Peter Cook

It is pleasant that the architects have set the interior of the café apart from the medieval atmosphere around it. On the floor you will not find stone slabs as in a cloister, but polished concrete; the walls are plastered with red plaster and do not carry the stone of the outer walls.

The outer stone walls, by the way, are not load-bearing. The load of the roof is carried by a steel frame hidden in the masonry.

Innovations in the hall are described in detail on the web page of the architectural office.

The planning for the modernization of the hall took 15 years on the church side, and the architects were involved for a total of 6 years. The total cost was £ 2.5 million.

The modernization of the refectory was the “most significant development at Carlisle Cathedral in living memory,“ it says on the cathedral’s webpage.

Carlisle Cathedral

Feilden Fowles

Photos: Peter Cook, David Grandorge

Carlisle Cathedral. Photo: Peter CookCarlisle Cathedral. Photo: Peter Cook

(27.11.2023, USA: 11.27.2023)