Berwick unveils its tumultuous past

PUBLISHED: 08:47 08 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:37 20 February 2013

The Shoregate allowed ships to unload beneath it and enter through the Elizabethan walls into the old town area of Sandgate

The Shoregate allowed ships to unload beneath it and enter through the Elizabethan walls into the old town area of Sandgate

Berwick, the most northerly town in England, bears the scars and trappings of the fortress it often was forced to become during its long history. Steve Newman discovers that ancient rivalries continue to divide the local people

There is probably no other town in Britain that has had such a long and hostile history as Berwick-upon-Tweed. The towns location on the Border made it a strategic target in the endless wars between the English and the Scots and as a result it changed hands no less 13 times over a period of 300 years.


You can detect this in the local accent and dialect, which is part Northumbrian and part Scottish, and where the people too are divided in their loyalties. Although the town is in England, both the football and rugby teams play in the Scottish league. In fact, on international days in the rugby club its not unusual to see members wearing England shirts roaring the team on with broad Scottish accents, and the reverse is equally true.


Berwick was laid out as one of the original early 12th Century Scottish Burghs. Its importance is shown in it having four market places radiating out from the Guildhall, as opposed to the usual one or two.


The old town still has many surviving examples of small medieval closes and courts. Inside the Elizabethan walls, Berwick has a host of treasures for the visitor to enjoy.


Situated on Hyde Hill is the Kings Arms Hotel, one of the great coaching inns where Charles Dickens stayed on many an occasion. Tucked away behind the walls to the south of the town is the old heart of Berwick, where the Governors Palace still stand in a leafy square, while ships figureheads thrust themselves out from house walls.


The maritime history is shown further just to the north in a long lawn called The Avenue that was originally used by the rope factory to lay out the new ropes in order to let them dry. Berwick had several other industries it was famous for; indeed the production of shoes was a major employer for many years. The granaries around Dewers Lane still stand and at Bankside and Ravensdowne the ice houses, where ice for the salmon trade was stored, can still be seen.


A strong tie makes many Berwickers return home from far flung corners of the world.


Caroline Wilson, who runs her wedding photography business in the town, said: I was born and grew up here and came back after university. The town and the surrounding countryside offer so many beautiful locations for wedding and portrait photography.


Because it was a major port, Berwick suffered from its fair share of crime and the ancient Guildhall still holds the exercise walk for the prisoners of the town jail on the balcony beneath the clock and the town stocks are still present. Indeed, tours are given daily where you can see the cells and the carvings made by the prisoners.


In 1558 Queen Mary Tudor ordered the medieval town walls strengthened against further attacks by the Scots. When Mary died she was succeed by her sister, Elizabeth, and the need for the completion of the walls as a defence became even more urgent.


Still known today as the Elizabethan Walls, they are the finest preserved late medieval walls in Europe and a walk around them brings you face to face with the towns history. The Eastern gate into the town is known as Cowgate, so called because as late as the 1950s farmers brought their cattle in through it.


Nestling inside the northern walls opposite the barracks is the parish church built at the time of Cromwell, thus it has no bells and is one of only two churches built in this era. The houses on the walls above the old quayside have large cellars beneath them and if you descend on to the quayside below youll see huge doors cut into the wall by the merchants who owned the houses above.


This commercial side of life still thrives inside the walls, with firms such as chartered accountants Greaves West and Ayre, which has five offices all located within the Bridge Street area of the old town.


What you say about Berwick having dual nationality is perfectly true, said partner Colin Frame. We act for thousands of clients living on both sides of the Border and we need to be very aware of the differences between both sides. The range of clients we have, both in terms of size and in the sectors they operate, make Greaves West and Ayre a challenging practice.


This last comment realy sums up what living in Berwick is all about. In many ways its an enigma with a dual personality that can blend into one when threatened and just as easily split again when circumstnaces dictate.


But, thankfully Berwick still has its own uniqueness. In standard English the question Can you see the old man with the dog? is fairly straightforward. In Berwick, however, the phrase Can ye deek the gadgy with the jougal? still reigns supreme, and long may it continue to do so.



On the trail of the matchstalk painter


One of Britain's most favourite artists, L S Lowry, visited Berwick many times from the mid-1930s until 1974. The Berwick Lowry Trail identifies the sites of 18 of his finest paintings and drawings of the town and allows you to follow in his footsteps and stand where he painted. A leaflet about the trail is available in the town's tourist office.


In all, Lowry produced more than 30 drawings and paintings of the Berwick area. He stayed in the Castle Inn near the railway station and often gave one of the receptionists little drawings. Unfortunately, she was not impressed and threw them away.


What is not often realized is that Berwick also has a sizeable part of the world-famous Burrell Collection. The Glasgow shipping millionaire, Sir William Burrell, lived nearby at Hutton Castle across the Tweed in Berwickshire and the town's museum has many paintings by masters such as Boudin and Degas and a comprehensive display of Oriental porcelain and historic glass donated by Burrell to the town.


Berwick is a thriving port still to this day. The main cargoes include fertiliser, grain, cement, animal feed and timber. More unusual cargoes such as turbine blades and towers for the Border wind farms have also been landed. The port has a frequent trade to the Baltic and the Mediterranean ports.

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