One place we have been through (and stopped) many times is Gretna, and I have put our various trips together to paint a picture of the first town in Scotland…
Status: Dumfries & Galloway, Town, Scotland
Travel: Car, Scotrail (Carlisle – Gretna Green)
Eating & Sleeping: Gretna Chase Hotel, Nando’s Chippy, Solway Pizzeria, Solway Lodge, Garden House Hotel, Memets Chippy
Attractions: Scottish/English Border, First & Last House in Scotland, Gretna Green Blacksmiths Shop, Solway Firth, Anvil Hall etc
Whilst history in the area goes back hundreds of years thanks to the nearby village of Gretna Green, the main settlement of Gretna which you can visit now dates back to World War I.
In 1915 there was a shortage or artillery shells available to the British Army during World War I, so HM Factory Gretna was constructed, as a enormous facility stretching 12 miles from near Longtown in England up to Eastriggs in Scotand. There were four sites that made up the Factory:
Site 1 – Smalmstown near Longtown
Site 2 – Mossbound near the River Esk (that flows through Longtown and Metal Bridge into the Solway Firth
Site 3 – Eastriggs
Site 4 – Gretna
To house the works for this incredible series of factories, the town of Gretna was constructed next to it near the English/Scottish Border, as a separate settlement to the pre-existing village of Gretna Green. The village of Eastriggs was also constructed to house workers at the other end of the complex.
Gretna has a history dating back to at least 1612, when a customs post was set up between England and Scotland prior to the Union in 1707 however most history of the time is centred around Gretna Green, and you can find out more about the much older settlement of Gretna Green in my dedicated post here.
If you enter Gretna via the Motorway Network, you can come off the M6 at it’s final Junction, number 45 or you can continue on up the road, as the M6 becomes the A74(M) towards Glasgow, and come off at Junction 22 into Gretna Green. Either way, you should be able to see the large sign welcoming you to Scotland, or in Gaelic “Failte gu Alba”, Alba being Scotland. You can also walk under the motorway bridge once you are into Gretna if you walk down the river Sark, and you get a great view up at the sign just before you pass underneath.
If you are not using the motorway or the train from Glasgow or Carlisle (the two terminus points of the line) then you will probably come over the Sark Bridge if you are coming in from England. The River Sark flows beneath it, and marks the border between England and Scotland. The Sark continues from here out into the Solway Firth, but more on that in a minute.
The Sark Bridge was built by Thomas Telford (1757 – 1834) in 1814, as part of the Carlisle to Glasgow Turnpike Road. In 2001 it was widened to allow more traffic into the town, and you can see that the side facing the camera in the picture looks newer than the far side, as it was extended this way.
On the far side of the bridge is the Gretna Chase Hotel, built by John Murray in 1856, opposite the original Gretna Toll Bar. It offered stabling for horses so people travelling long distances could change horses here, as well as in nearby Longtown at the Graham Arms. Today you can still stay in the charming old rooms, and the building also contains a restaurant. It is actually located on the English side of the border so it’s technically still Cumbria.
You can walk down to the Solway Firth by following the River Sark through the fields to the Channel of the River Esk, which it meets. As you head down, you will pass the above ruins, which is all that remains of an old railway bridge carrying the Military Narrow Gauge Railway between the different sites of HM Factory Gretna. In total there were 125 miles worth of track, with 34 different locomotives. They were used to transport materials and supplies around the different sites.
The views over the firth are quite something, from the peaks of the Lake District in National Park over in the English County of Cumbria at the far side of the Firth, as well as the local countryside. When the sun shines on a clear day it reflects beautifully off the water, and illuminates everything in its path. We have been down here many times, for a general walk or just to relax.
Starting off as the channel that the Sark and Esk rivers drain into, the Solway Firth continues to run out to sea and separates Cumbria from Dumfries and Galloway. An old viaduct once crossed the firth from Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria to Annan in Scotland, carrying an old railway line that transported Iron Ore from the ports. It had a total of 193 spans, and opened in 1869 after three and a half years of construction. During it’s busiest period it carried both freight and passengers directly over the Solway to avoid travelling via Carlisle.
The line shut down after 1881 when Port Carlisle began to silt up and trade was no longer viable.
Moving back to the main road itself there are information boards in the area giving a bit of history about this part of Scotland, including one on the Scottish side of the Sark Bridge. If you continue along this road, you will pass the First/Last House in Scotland, so named as it is the the last house in Scotland as you travel South to England, and also the first house you reach in Scotland as you travel North into Scotland from England.
It was very famous back in it’s day, as the laws for marriage in England and Scotland differed. Many people would run away from England, over the border, and be married by the local blacksmith here as in England a parent could object and prevent the marriage. In Scotland however it didn’t apply so boys could marry at 14, and girls at 12, without parental consent. After the ceremony the couple would bang the anvil to make the marriage official.
You can find out more about the house in my dedicated post here, as the house is now a local cafe which you can visit for a meal, a drink and a history lesson.
If you continue along this road into the centre of town, you will pass the signs welcoming you to Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway, and then Gretna. These are popular with tourists who stop to pose with the signs. The Garden House Hotel sits opposite the First/Last House and is popular with visiting tourists.
The high street is the centre of the town, and contains the main shops as well as the Registrar’s Office. There is also the old Gretna Cinema on this street, just off the left of the picture. Today it is the local Bingo Hall and is currently undergoing a refurbishment.
There are a number of churches in Gretna, and one of these stands at the top of the high street, and is called All Saints Church, built when the rest of Gretna was built to house the munitions factory workers. It is a quite impressing and imposing building, however it is dwarfed by it’s neighbour…
Further up the road is the Anvil Hall, a historic building that has been at the heart of the area for many years. It has a capacity for 180 people with 60 seats, and rises up above many of the houses here. It sits at the end of a pleasant tree lined avenue and is a well known place with regular weddings and other functions going on.
It is very impressive and is almost Cathedral like and is easily the largest building in the area. We went to a fireworks display here once and it is very much the centre of the Gretna community.
Even though Gretna was built fairly recently the architecture is still quite varied and interesting, such as the Police Station, which was formerly called the Barracks which housed the cells. Today it is still used as the local constabulary station and is the first law enforcement centre north of the English Border.
The building itself is quite interesting, with a distinctive and powerful shape overlooking the town.
One of the newer developments in Gretna is the Gretna Gateway Outlet Village, a small shopping village with a variety of shops and cafe’s. The Gateway was opened in 1999 by Princess Anne, and sits directly next to the A74(M), a ceremony which Gemma actually attended.
The high street contains the Gretna Bakery, the Spar, Post Office and local government buildings as well as the local Doctor’s Surgery and is the heart of the town. The library and a children’s play park are also located here along with a locally renowned chippy, called Nando’s (distinct from the major chain of restaurants called Nando’s). There are a few churches in the town, including St Andrews (1918) and All Saints Episcopal Church (1917). The Anvil Hall is a third church nearby as you enter Gretna Green Village, which was originally called St Ninians, and dates back to 1918.
Gretna has good transport links, with trains coming from Glasgow, Annan, Dumfries and Carlisle, where you can connect for the West Coast Main Line towards Preston, London, Glasgow, Birmingham and Edinburgh. Local buses run to Dumfries and Carlisle via Longtown and Annan, and from Carlisle there is a direct bus to Edinburgh Bus Station. Newcastle has the nearest airport, 63 miles East.
Gretna is an interesting place to visit as the whole area contains a wealth of history, and Gretna Green is famous worldwide with coach loads of tourists arriving everyday.