The Fratry, Carlisle Cathedral by Feilden Fowles

Feilden Fowles has restored the Grade I-listed medieval Fratry and created a new café pavilion for Carlisle Cathedral


Project Info

Carlisle Cathedral, The Abbey, Carlisle, Cumbria CA3 8TZ
April/May 2014
Start on site
December 2018
June 2020
Site size
Site area – 1,500 sq m; existing gross internal area – 650 sq m; additional gross internal area – 185 sq m
Construction value
The National Lottery Heritage Fund, Friends of Carlisle Cathedral, other grant-making trusts and many individual donors
Commissioning client
Carlisle Cathedral
Feilden Fowles
Project architects
Ingrid Petit, Fergus Feilden

Words by Sophie Tolhurst
Images by Peter Cook

Feilden Fowles has completed a landmark project for Carlisle Cathedral, transforming its Grade I listed medieval Fratry building to welcome the public for the first time, creating additional teaching and learning spaces and building a new cafe pavilion. This significant project – for the architects, the cathedral and the city – has been a long time coming: the cathedral has been working on the project for 15 years, with Feilden Fowles on board for the past six. Some £2m for the project came from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, and Carlisle Cathedral was able to achieve its partner funding target thanks to the Friends of Carlisle Cathedral, grant-making trusts, generous individual public donations, and fund-raising activities.

The fully glazed bronze linking structure between the Fratry, undercroft and cafeThe fully glazed bronze linking structure between the Fratry, undercroft and cafe

The cathedral was built in 1122 and extended in the 13th and 14th centuries, while the Fratry building was constructed in the 1500s as the priory refectory. Unfortunately, the cathedral suffered extensive damage during the Reformation, losing a cloister as well as a considerable portion of its length. In more recent years, having such a short nave has left Carlisle Cathedral without a space often utilised for events or hire by other cathedrals. The cathedral needed an alternative. Its existing provisions in the undercroft were uninviting and inaccessible, and reached only by some awkward stairs.

The location of the cathedral precinct within the city of Carlisle means it has long been a popular public thoroughfare. This is lucky, explains the Dean of Carlisle, The Very Reverend Mark Boyling, because other cathedrals have suffered from being more isolated. But while there was potential to be an important public space and part of the life of the city, it was unfortunate that the route had ‘more tarmac than was wise’, detracting from the surroundings and discouraging people from stopping there. Now, Feilden Fowles’ red sandstone pavilion sits proudly within the thoroughfare. ‘The last thing we wanted to do is take an apologetic stance,’ explains director Fergus Feilden.

The new single-storey 185 sq m pavilion rests at 90° to the Fratry. Its scale and position was calculated to be prominent without blocking the route through, and its large, arched windows maintain views through to the other end of the cathedral precinct – if you’re not distracted by the welcoming and bustling cafe inside, or its equally popular outdoor seating.

There was extensive public consultation to decide on the location of the proposed new facilities, and it was decided the cafe would be located in the pavilion, with the teaching and learning spaces in the Fratry undercroft. The form of the pavilion went through a series of developments too: keen to avoid pastiche, Feilden Fowles first tried a modern rectilinear structure, before revising the elevation to adopt the dropped arches found throughout the cathedral and Fratry. The arches fan out to a leading edge, maintaining the rectilinear element, which also links it back to the cathedral’s Perpendicular Gothic elements. The arches, like that of the Fratry entrance, do not have a keystone; instead, there is a vertical join in the stone at the top of the arch.

The Smirke door at the Fratry entrance has been returned to its original placementThe Smirke door at the Fratry entrance has been returned to its original placement

While the architects were unable to see a full sample of the arch, the design was achieved using a mix of high-tech solutions, including CNC cutting, and 3D and 2D modelling with specialist hand finishing. The stone was cut by Cumbrian Stone, and installed by local stonemasons Askins + Little.

The structure is actually supported by a slender steel frame, but it is light enough to ‘let the stone do its job’, the architects explain. Dumfries red sandstone was chosen for its robustness, texture and colour, and to match the local St Bees sandstone of the cathedral precinct. The attractive, veined stone is combined with a pale mortar containing a dark fleck. The interior walls are finished in lime plaster tinted to match the exterior, and wooden furniture and terrazzo flooring complete this light and welcoming space.

The old and new buildings are joined with a lightweight, fully glazed bronze linking structure, which features a ceiling with an elegant diagrid design, inspired by the stone ceiling of the Fratry pulpit. It provides a much improved public entrance, made fully accessible with a lift, serving both the raised-level Fratry and the undercroft below. But the place where these volumes met coincided with a Roman culvert and provided a particular challenge that meant the link had to ‘work very hard’, explains Peter Laidler, director of structural engineers Structure Workshop.

There were also previous additions to negotiate, including a 19th-century porch by architect G.E. Street, whose installation had meant the reversing and lowering of the earlier Robert Smirke door that serves as the entrance to the Fratry hall. Feeling it did not provide a fitting entrance for a Grade I listed building, the architects decided to demolish the porch and return the Smirke door to its original placement and orientation. New hand carving integrates the arch back into position, but the lock remains on the ‘wrong’ side of the door; to further highlight rather than hide these revisions, the architects created a contrast in the flooring around the reoriented door.

The renovated Fratry Hall

It’s intended that the Fratry hall becomes a venue for exhibitions, meetings and events while also serving as a deserving home for one of the UK’s most significant cathedral book collections, comprising a large number of post-Reformation texts, many of which have been marked with the date of purchase and cost of the item at the time. The cathedral wants to make this collection accessible to the public, with the more popular volumes out for display and a rotating selection of ‘books of the month’.

The Fratry’s restoration involved repointing, installing a discreet AV system and flexible lighting, and replacing and supplementing the heating system. Heavy dividing curtains had made the hall a gloomy and foreboding space.These have been removed and the space left open, with built-in oak benches along one side, and some G.E. Street bookcases displaying the collection along the other.

The undercroft below has been left similarly pared back, again with oak benches, mixed here with unobtrusive lighting and a poured concrete floor. Now with its accessible entrance via the pavilion, the undercroft provides space for both local schools and Cumbria University. It can accommodate up to 80 people and its flexible set-up allows it to also be used as a cafe overspill area when required.

The undercroft below features built-in oak benches and a poured concrete floor
The undercroft below features built-in oak benches and a poured concrete floor

As a Grade I listed scheduled monument, it was as the Dean reflects, ‘not a project for the faint-hearted,’ requiring a great deal of commitment from all involved. The architects endured several years of 5:30am trains from London to Carlisle, but project architect Ingrid Petit describes the process as ‘truly rewarding.’

Though the practice has since been Stirling-prize shortlisted for The Weston, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, it was still relatively inexperienced upon winning the job. In creating a space that celebrates a long-neglected building and provides much-needed space for the community and cathedral functions, this project is another success to add to the practice’s fast-growing accomplishments.

The new cafe has proved extremely popular, despite the challenges of opening during a pandemic, and the cathedral team is thrilled with the renovations to the Fratry, with the Dean commenting that ‘the result is a building worthy of this site, which in every way meets the brief… to make the Fratry an asset to the cathedral’.


Key Suppliers

Surveyor of the Fabric
Buttress Architects (Nicholas Rank)

Structural engineer
Structure Workshop (Peter Laidler and Cameron Bailey)

Conservation structural engineer
Stand Consulting Engineers (Stuart Tappin)

Services engineer
BCA (Bob Costello and Dan Mullineux)

Concept landscape architect
Petherick, Urquhart and Hunt (Adam Hunt)

Project manager/QS
FWP (Kate Shuttleworth and Sam Shuttleworth)

Cumbria Archaeology (Gerry Martin)

Main contractor
Cubby Construction (Colin Graham and David Bell, site manager)

Cubby Joinery

Cumbrian Stone

Stone installation
Askins + Little

M&E installations
JJ Group

Windows, doors, curtain walling
Martec Engineering

Bronze structure
Victoria John of London

Zinc roofing

Premier Lifts

Set in Stone Flooring

Progressive Media International Limited. Registered Office: 40-42 Hatton Garden, London, EC1N 8EB, UK.Copyright 2024, All rights reserved.