You’d forgive the good people of Berwick upon Tweed for having an identity crisis. England’s most northerly town is nestled on the north bank at the mouth of the River Tweed, long held to be the nominal border between England and Scotland. English it is though, with the official border north of the town, for now at least. It’s reported that its position led to it changing hands between the English and Scots 14 times up until 1482, since which time it has enjoyed a more stable time. Still if you listen to the locals talk its an interesting mix of Geordie, Scottish and I don’t know just what, that gives the accent a unique timbre. Even when you hear those voices cheering for the local football team, its worth noting that this is the only English team (Berwick Rangers) that play in the Scottish league. Now I’m confused.
We popped into the helpful Tourist information Office on Marygate to discover that the tour of the Town Hall started in 5 mins. Up the hill we ran (puff, puff) towards the majestic Town Hall, said to have stood on this site since at least the 16th century, just making it to the right door by the 10:30 start time. Our host for the tour was the very informative Michael and at £2 it turned out to be a real bargain. Michael’s party piece was asking us if we knew that Berwick (not the rest of England) was still at war with Russia until 1966? Whilst Berwick was specifically mentioned by Queen Victoria in the declaration of war on Russia in 1853, it was not mentioned in the Treaty that concluded the war in 1856. So that the Russian people could "sleep peacefully in their beds", the Mayor of Berwick put this right by signing a peace treaty in 1966.
Whilst tales of the Guild of Freemen, who governed the town before councils took over, were informative it was the debtors jail that was really interesting. As well as the drunks cell and the condemned cell, there was an array of gory relics to remind you this wasn’t a nice place to be. The branding iron, used before some prisoners were sent to Australia, sent chills down my spine.
Heading back out into the sunshine (it was such a glorious day) it was time to have a look at the bridges I’d been told about. By far the most impressive was the Royal Border Railway Viaduct, which was the last link in completing a continuous railway line running between London and Edinburgh. Designed by Robert Stephenson, it sits imperious at 126 feet high over the Tweedmouth, sporting 28 semicircular arches, 13 of which are over the river. A photographic opportunity … I think so.
We couldn't have picked a more perfect day to enjoy the largely intact town wall. We started where it crosses the road at Castlegate and it’s said that you can make it round the whole thing in 45 minutes. We took so much longer, slowly ambling along marvelling at the artillery bastions, the Tweed, the North Sea and the beautiful countryside. Its the sort of place you could grab a seat, wonder at the gliding elegance of the many swans in the river mouth and gently watch the world go by. Also linger by The White Wall where you can see the remnants of the tower and passages there, but also some of the best views of the Viaduct. There’s also a Lowry Trail to enjoy, in honour of the artist L.S.Lowry, who used to holiday here. I didn’t see any matchstick men though, or indeed matchstick cats and dogs (you’re humming the song now aren’t you).
Back at Castlegate the rumbling in my stomach told me it was a long time since breakfast and we popped into Deyn’s Deli close by for some tea and a snack. This is a lovely cafe to rest your legs and as we walked in he was cooking bacon, ahhh the smell, mouthwatering. So now to decide. Do we head off to the Barracks, built in the 1700s following the Jacobite uprising, enjoy more of the Georgian buildings and cobbled streets in the town or head off and find the sandy beach and promenade at Spittle. As it turns out we made the wrong choice and just as we got to Spittle the heavens opened and a walk along the prom seemed much less appealing.
Without doubt this is a town worth exploring, so I’d recommend making time to enjoy it if you’re in the area, don’t be tempted to charge right past on the A1.
One small tip if you’re arriving by car, the council seem to be changing to a system of permits for parking, so ring the tourist information office for clarification of the current rules before you arrive.