Longtown stands astride the main A7 road, the traditional route from Edinburgh to Carlisle, some seven miles north of the latter and just under three miles from the closest approach of the Scottish border. It occupies a low lying location on the south-east bank of the River Esk as the river flows down towards the Solway Firth, and is also served by main roads heading towards Brampton to the south-east and Gretna to the west.
Though most traffic between England and Scotland now follows the M6/M74 to the west, Longtown remains a very busy place. A major contributor to this is the presence, on the north-west side of the River Esk opposite the town, of the largest sheep market in the UK, which is also home to a cattle auction. As a result Longtown's broad main street can at times appear to be home to a steady stream of lorries giving off bleating noises as sheep are taken either to the market, or to new homes or abattoirs having been sold. The scale of the market is huge, with up to 25,000 sheep being sold in a single day.
Longtown developed as a planned town. In the 1750s the Reverend Robert Graham inherited the family estate of the Grahams of Netherby. He began by building Longtown Bridge, which crosses the River Esk on the line of the Edinburgh to Carlisle road in 1756. The bridge was widened and strengthened in 1889 and again more recently. The Reverend Graham was an active and a wealthy man. He also built Netherby Hall, which stands close to the River Esk some two miles north-east of Longtown. More importantly for our purposes, he commissioned plans to drain 1,000 acres of land south of Longtown Bridge, on which he laid out the broad street pattern of the town you see today. As Longtown is very much the creation of Reverend Graham, it is perhaps fitting that the most dominant building in the centre is the three storey Graham Arms Hotel.
The A7 follows the line of Longtown's main street, which is variously named in sections (from north to south) as Bridge Street, High Street and English Street, and this has running off both sides of it a series of cross streets, some of which are nearly as wide and ambitious in scale as the main street itself. The effect of the broad streets is to give Longtown a very open aspect: with differently styled buildings it could almost be at home in the Midwestern USA.
Longtown is home to a range of shops and other facilities. We can highly recommend the Sycamore Tree, a cafe towards the northern end of the main street which serves excellent bacon rolls (and much else besides).
In 1861 Longtown gained a railway station on the North British Railway. This stood on the north-west bank of the river not far from the far end of Longtown Bridge. It closed in 1969 and both the station and the rail bridge which once carried the railway across the river here have since been demolished.
Longtown stands in the parish of Arthuret. Arthuret Parish Church, dedicated to St Michael and All Angels, can be found on slightly higher ground about half a mile south of the town. There is said to have been a place of worship in this site since the 500s, though the present building dates back to 1609. By some accounts, Arthuret Church is the last resting place of King Arthur: though in truth there are stronger candidates for this.
The area around the church has been the site of two major battles, widely separated in time. The Battle of Solway Moss took place on 24 November 1542, when a Scottish army of up to 18,000 men crossed the River Esk. They were met by a force of around 3,000 English. The Scots were suffering from lack of clear leadership and became bogged down in the marshy landscape. The result was a rout, with many Scots killed by their opponents or drowned in the River Esk while trying to escape.
Nearly a thousand years earlier, the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 is believed to have taken place in roughly the same location. This battle, in which some sources claim an unfeasibly large number of combatants were killed, saw a victory by King Rhydderch Hael of Strathclyde over Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio, a Brythonic or British king who ruled Arfderydd, a kingdom including parts of what are now Scotland and England in the area around Carlisle. It seems likely that it was the name of the kingdom destroyed as a result of the battle here that caused the parish to be named Arthuret, rather than the identity of anyone buried (or probably not buried) here. By coincidence another figure of Arthurian legend, Merlin, does seem to have had links with this place. He served as a bard to Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio and in the aftermath of the Battle of Arfderydd went mad, retreating to live as a prophet and recluse in the forests of Tweeddale.
Longtown also has much more recent military connections. On the opposite bank of the River Esk is a large ammunition storage area known as DMC Longtown. This is the main surviving part of a vast munitions manufacturing and storage complex which, at its height in the First World War, occupied a series of locations extending nearly seven miles from east to west and straddling the Anglo-Scottish border.