As you come off the M6 to enter the town of Gretna, you will pass an old Black and White building on the right. This is the Old Toll Bar, and when we first started exploring the region around 2 years ago, it looked like this:
Old Toll Bar, Gretna
Sadly the building had been in a run down state for many years, although it contains a rich history. Its story begins in 1754, when marriages in England and Wales for under 21’s without parental consent were outlawed. The legal systems of the UK are in separate parts, with England & Wales together, and Scotland having it’s own. This meant that the law didn’t apply in Scotland. In fact, in Scotland the age of consent was only 16 and parental consent wasn’t required so many people started to run away to Scotland. The historic village of Gretna Green which predates Gretna town was the site of these elopements, at the famous Old Blacksmiths.
Around 1830 a new bridge was built over the River Sark, bringing with it a toll road up into Scotland and bypassing Gretna Green. A toll house was built just across the river to the left, the Toll Bar, with John Murray as the tollkeeper. The Toll Bar is much closer to the border than Gretna Green, and with a direct road here it became a well known place to elope too, and over 10,000 weddings have been held here, and you can even still do that today.
Over the bridge you can see the Gretna Chase Hotel. This was built by John Murray sometime around 1856, so that he could make money out of new couples arriving in the area, getting married at the Toll Bar and then needing somewhere to say. Unluckily for Mr Murray, just after he finished the Hotel a new act came into force in Scotland, the 1856 “Cooling Off” act which stated that anyone wishing to marry in Scotland must have been a resident for at least 21 days prior to the ceremony. It was eventually repealed but it ended John’s business, along with the fact that the Chase was built on the far side of the Sark in England so no marriages could be performed here without parental consent for young couples eloping. He went bankrupt but the two buildings survive today.
As I mentioned earlier the Old Toll Bar, known as both the First (heading North) and last (heading South) house in Scotland. Happily, in early 2014 the building was refurbished and reopened as a brand new cafe.
Old Toll Bar Cafe
The building now looks fantastic, with a new coat of paint and a brand new Scottish Saltire Flag flying above the main entrance. There is a sizeable car park to the rear, and the Gretna Gateway Shopping Village is located less than half a mile further up the road.
Inside, there are a few different areas of the building you can visit, with the old marriage room open to the public. It is a quaint little room, with a wooden floor and an old fireplace on the right. A visitors book is on the table, and there are entries from all over the world including Australia and the United States, as Gretna Green is frequently visited by coach loads of tourists who must have had time to stop here at the Cafe.
Three panels on the wall give a history of the building and the marriages laws, and it’s fascinating to be staring at a piece of history here.
The rest of the Cafe is split between the main Cafe and the Gift Shop, through which the marriage room is accessible. The Cafe is quite spacious, with various hot and cold drinks, savoury snacks, hot food and sandwiches available from the counter. You can sit near the windows with a view across the border, with the hills of the Lake District visible in the distance, or next to the old wood stove which is surrounded by old photographs of the area.
We picked a nice little corner with padded seats, which looked out onto the main road. A few cups of tea and some cake later, we were ready to go. As we stood up, we noticed a little in joke on the wall, where two clocks are situated.
For anyone reading this from abroad, the whole of Great Britain and Ireland are in the same time zone, hence the joke, although on these clocks Scotland does appear to be 1 minute fast!
We highly recommended the refurbished Toll Bar and Cafe, the new owners have really done the old building justice. It was a pleasure to visit and the food is excellent. You can find out more about the town of Gretna in my post here, and neighbouring Gretna Green in my post here. Other places of interesting include the old town of Longtown, the parish of Kirkandrews on Esk and the historic city of Carlisle.