Berwick On Tweed

It  is the most romantic of the Northumbrian towns. Its history no less than its position entitles it to that distinction. It seems to have come into existence after the Battle of Carham and the cession of the Lothians to Scotland ; that would be early in the eleventh century. From that time until the Battle of Halidon Hill it was the scene of recurrent conflicts between the English and the Scots, remaining on the whole a part of Scotland. Indeed if it was not the greatest town of that country it was at any rate the leading borough. Its position is as striking as its history. Those who know it only from the map think that it is low, as it stands close to the sea at the mouth of the Tweed, but that part of the coast is high and rocky, and as a matter of fact Berwick-on-Tweed always gives the feeling of height. It is seen to greatest advantage by the traveller approaching from the Etal road. There is a rise about two or three miles from the town from which a fine view may be obtained of the bay, the curving pier, Spittal with its sands on the south side of the river, and the town itself, a mass of red pantile roofs clustering round the town hall, an eighteenth century building standing where the old Red Hall of the Flemings used to stand. But looked at from the north it is still more interesting. At the back of the spectator is that semi-moorland country which merges into the Lammermuirs, and far away to the south are the shadowy ranges of Cheviot, blue and dreamy in the distance. At the foot of Berwick, so to speak, and reached by a precipitous descent, is the Tweed, and when the tide is back flowing as silvery as it does at Melrose or Coldstream. Thomas Hodgkin, the historian, who lived at Bamburgh before he went to Barmoor, once drew attention to a kind of duplication of everything in Berwick. It is a walled town and it has two sets of walls, one Edwardian and the other Elizabethan. It has two bridges, a fine, tall, many-arched railway bridge which comes with a splendid sweep over from Tweedmouth to the place where the castle once stood. Indeed almost the whole of the ancient masonry was removed in order to build the station. The other is the famous Border Bridge, built at the instance of King James, who seems to have had some difficulty with the old structure on his march south to take possession of the English Crown. It is a quaint and beautiful bridge passing over the river about a quarter of a mile below the railway bridge. It is narrow, with curious little refuges at the arches, where if a passenger did not seek safety he would be in danger of being jammed whenever two carts met, so narrow is the roadway.

According to the Lanercost Chronicler Berwick was in the thirteenth century ` ` so populous and of such trade that it might justly be called another Alexandria, whose riches was the sea, and the water its walls.” But I think the best description of it in its ancient glory is to be found in the poem attributed to Dunbar, called ” The Freiris of Berwik.” Critics are agreed that whether this be Dunbar or not it cannot be later than the fourteenth century.

In spite of Berwick’s antiquity there are, practically speaking, no old houses in the town. The ancient dwellings have been destroyed in the long succession of battles that have taken place.

The bridge – as we have said – dates from the reign of James I. On his procession southward no doubt the dignitaries of Berwick who welcomed him with pomp and enthusiasm took care that he should thoroughly understand the deficiencies of the bridge then standing. One cannot but wish, by-the-bye, that some successor of the Somerset Herald had accompanied James and written an equally picturesque account. The ” Narration of the Progresse and Entertainment of the King’s most excellent Majestie, with the Occurrents happening in the same Journey ” was obviously written by a courtier and a flatterer. It is very certain ” that the wisest fool in Christendom ” said and did many odd things in the course of this pilgrimage, especially as his hopes and vanity were equally inflated by it, but if so the recorder took care not to set them down. All that is interesting about his stay at Berwick is the description of the company who attended or met him. Everywhere” the Lords Wardens” of the border of England and Scotland received him, attended by ” the Lord Governour of Barwick ” with ” all the Counsell of Warre,” ” the Constables with their Cornets of horse, and divers of the Captaines, the Band of Gentlemen Pensioners, with divers Gentlemen,” and when he came near the gate ” in the clearnes of which faire time issued out of the Towne Mr. William Selbie, Gentleman Porter of Barwick, with divers Gentlemen of good repute.” Before that the guns had roared out a welcome, and this the chronicler describes with great zest : ” for from the mouths of dreadfull engins, not long before full fed by moderate artesmen, that knew how to stop and emptie the brasse and iron panches of those roring noises, came such a tempest, as deathfull, and sometimes more dreadfull than thunder, that all the ground thereabout trembled as in an earthquake, the houses and towers staggering, wrapping the whole Towne in a mantle of smoake, wherein the same was awhile hid from the sight of its Royall Owner.” He ventures the opinion, or rather he says he ” heard it credibly reported,” that ” a better peale of ordinance was never in any souldiers memorie (and there are some olde King Harrie’s lads in Barwick, I can tell you) discharged in that place.”

For centuries Berwick has had no suburbs or outlying districts. The tradition that safety lay within its walls has long survived – a strange anachronism handed down from the miseries of Border warfare ! Even yet the children play the game of ” Scotch and English ” in fierce realism. One consequence of the congestion of the town within its stone boundaries is the scarcity of gardens, the only gardens being attached to the houses within the vicinity of the Walls where grassy spaces still invite the washerwoman to dry her linen in the strong air from the sea.

The space in the town has been wonderfully utilised. All the streets have” entries ” that often contain the secluded pleasant houses that the merchants of the past were content to dwell. The stranger passing these dark openings would expect within only a few back doors. Instead, he dives into a little street with no outlet or view except perhaps the spire of the Town Hall piercing the windy sky. There is possibly not another country town in England within whose confines so little verdure or leafage cheers the eyes of the inhabitants. The only colour comes from the many red roofs which give Berwick such a delightful aspect from the railway viaduct or from the Tweedmouth side, the town ascending from the bank and clustering round the dominating Town Hall. There are several entries worth penetrating. In the Palace is Bishop’s Entry, where the houses almost meet. It leads to the old bowling green and the Governor’s House contained in an old quiet square. The Palace is entered by the Sandgate on one side or at the entrance to the Ness Gate, towards the pier, where the old Grammar School stands.

Church Street has many entries to be looked into. Above one is the sign :

Fear to offende Or marke the ende

In Eastern Lane is a fine seventeenth century house with a handsome staircase, now divided up in smaller dwellings. But in Bridge Street, into which Eastern Lane steeply descends, is one of the most alluring byways in Berwick. It is the Sallyport, and connects the street with the quay and has a flight of ancient and irregular steps to the Walls above. The Sallyport is very narrow, with high gloomy walls and old houses that peer into the sunless opposite walls. But here again venture through one of the suspicious faced entries up which usually blows a shrill, biting draught. The visitor may find a spacious cobbled enclosure with a few humble but pleasant habitations, about which the linen of mariners flaps as white as the wing of the clamorous gull wheeling unexpectedly overhead. The mariners are most likely workers about the quay, and the gull is but a scavenger there for all his white-winged brotherhood with the waves. Walking along the Walls in an evening past the old fashioned houses of prosperous citizens, comes a strange feeling of recognition of the romance of the past and the forgotten inhabitants of this crowded town passionate with race antipathy. Suddenly the houses break, and in the gap the setting sun illumines the upper stories in the Sallyport, and below a sea-faring man lurches over the cobbles towards the dark entry to the quay with the peculiar sway of the fishermen. It is only a fleeting impression, but gathering twilight and solitary figure and the dark passage receiving it conjure up some of the unknown tragedies enacted beneath these forbidding walls.

Not far from the entrance to the Sallyport in Bridge Street there used to be a very old hostelry which had some fine carved wood, a haunt once of the sailors who used to frequent Berwick when there was a larger sea trade. The quay in summer is busy-with the herring boats – Silver Queen, Two Brothers, the, etc., but the white fishing has declined owing to the trawlers. Close against the quay, rising very gradually and strongly, the old Bridge, the pride of Berwick, spans the Tweed, and the masts of the fishing boats seem to overtop it.

The unsubdued past of Berwick speaks in its enduring gates. The nail-studded oak, the massive keys, the archways’ gloomy strength, are no uncertain tribute to the marauding Scots and Border hate.

On a summer day, to pass from the glittering Parade, flanked by its handsome barracks, and the shadowless wall of the old churchyard where no citizen is buried now, beneath the Cowgate is to’ find a strange coolness, a lifeless quietness. The sun ceases for a minute, the past claims its due, the spear of the shadowy warder drops some antique salute, and the distant voice of the sergeant drilling his awkward Scottish Borderers, is but the echo of the Captain of the Guard three hundred years ago. We pass beneath the shadow, and before us lies the sun-bathed buttercup meadows of the Magdalene Fields (where stood the Hospital of St. Mary), and on the rim of the sky the quivering blue, the unforgettable blue of June on the North Sea. Another sea gate, the Ness Gate, frames a picture as sudden, but with the noble pier and lighthouse dividing river and sea. The Ness Street is a narrow grey thoroughfare where even in high summer the air is keen. It has some entries where lurk attractive cottages that receive the sun denied to the street. At the end is an entrance to the Walls, where one day in the year a sentry stands forbidding entrance, thus preserving the rights of the War Office. Just in front is the dark archway, not so wide as the Cowgate, sandy Spittal Point straight beyond, with the restless Bar narrowed by the long line of the pier, and the light-house, a strong tower often in winter white with the spray of the terrible storms which sweep down the coast. The pier is a great promenade, and owing to the changeful character of the sea and river mouth it never becomes monotonous.

The encircling Walls also provide a unique walk. Cannon still stand on Meg’s Mount, and there used to be cannon placed against the loopholes opposite the Carr Rock where the storm drum hangs. From the top of the Scots Gate we look down on the busy High Street, and from the heights above, on the river and its two bridges, Tweedmouth and Spittal, and the sea beyond.

But the whole area of the Walls is delightful, with sea and town. The fortifications, grass-grown now, have been the playground of generations of children.

It is a walk almost devoid of trees but always bracing with the clean salt air. Only in one hollow is a melancholy grove of trees that rustle continually above the families who once walked the pavements of the old town and now surround the parish church. The trees grow so thickly beneath the shadow of the fortifications that gloom invades the wanderer who meditates there. The eye cannot pierce the sighing leafage, but little imagination is needed to see the grassy mounds and mossed headstones of citizens and freemen of Berwick. The church was built during the Protectorate, and on the same spot David Bruce was married to Joan, sister of Edward II. She, poor thing, was called Make Peace, a bone flung amidst the embittered rivalry of the two nations. John Knox preached for two years in the church now standing, and later in the sixteenth century James Melville, who in exile wrote his famous diary.

Not far from this point in the Walls lie, on the outside of them, against the Magdalene Fields, the grounds called the ” Stanks,” used for skating in winter. As Berwickers use many perversions of speech, outsiders have supposed that the word was ” tanks ” with a superfluous “s.” But it is probable that ” stanks” is derived from the Gaelic slang, a ditch with stagnant water. We know water ditches surrounded the walls. Another word of perplexing etymology whose use has aroused the curiosity of visitors is ” Dover,” the water in which salmon is boiled and which is always served in Berwick with the fish. It is possibly from the old Celtic word which would be pronounced dóvör, from which is derived the modern Welsh word dwr (pronounced door), water. This derivation possibly links us to the remote times in which the luxury of sauces was introduced.

At the north end of the town, stretching towards the Magdalene Fields, parallel with the ruins and ditch of the Edwardian wall and the Bell Tower, Iie the fishermen’s quarters, known as Low and High Greenses. Here generations of a stalwart race of Burgons, Manuels, Buglasses, Pattersons, Jamiesons, etc., pursue the hereditary calling of toilers of the deep. They are not so numerous now, as since the advent of trawlers the line fishermen have not prospered notwithstanding a benevolent Government’s assistance. The young men, it is to be feared, increasingly seek land occupations, though happily the navy found many recruits from their ranks, for the sea is in their blood.

The comfortable are apt to talk of the laziness of fishermen when they hang about the stile at the Fields watching for signs of the weather and discussing its endless vagaries. The towns-man sees perhaps the sun shining, or a sweet grey gleaming sky arching the wide meadows to the edge of the circle that touches the distant moving water girdling the Fields. He thinks as he takes his easy constitutional or proceeds to his quiet office or shop that the fisherman is neglecting his duty of riding the waves and procuring his breakfast fish. He may not reflect that the baccy-chewing, spitting, jerseyed figure may have put out at 4 a.m. and had to return owing to heavy seas. Perhaps he may have got only a few fish in the clinging damp or biting wind with the salt water eating into his blistered, ” gathered ” hands as he pulled in the long dripping lines. As for pains of rheumatism or toothache, the fisherman, were he minded, could tell him many a tale. The days he spends” looking at the sea.” are too often descanted upon by those whose feet have never squelched in wintry brine, whose arms have never ached pulling the heavy oar, or swollen with the sting of jelly fish in summer heat. Ask the fisherman’s wife who, though usually happy and healthy, sits for weary hours baiting the lines with the ” lug ” she has dug up in the cold early morning on the wet sands behind the pier. And along the cliffs she has gathered the fine grass that she lays between the baited hooks. There are no women now, except perhaps an occasional Eyemouth or Spittal wife, who hawk round fish in creels on their backs, and they no longer stand in short petticoats with copious pockets and chaffer at stalls in the High Street, and praise shrilly and picturesquely the quality of their husbands’ haddies, ling, and cod. Such a one was old Eppie, a Spittal wife who used to protest volubly with many an ” eh, hinny, it’s dirt cheap,” as she smacked the scaly codling or haddie on the slippery board. But never for an instant did she expect or perhaps desire that her original price should not e well beaten down by the wary customer who usually prefaced her haggling interview with the belligerent inquiry ” Hoo dear’s it?”

” Scratch a Russian and find a Tartar,” and a fisherman of board schools is kith and kin to a remote ancestry who read the stars and feared the supernatural in every form; and found it in details of life so trivial that it is impossible to work out the origin of their superstitions. Yet a diligent student might perhaps find out here and there some reason behind their blind dread. A typical example is that of a fisherman who traced a string of misfortunes to meeting a woman going boatward in the morning. As a first mishap he will tell you he slipped going down the cobbled way and his lines got tangled. After infinite trouble this would be rectified, but getting into the boat he would twist his leg, then an oar would drop overboard, the wind would rise and the sail refuse to be adjusted. Then at sea he cast his line, but it got fastened to another man’s or caught by a trawler or among the rocks, and after losing a good part of it the remainder was pulled up to exhibit as his catch a few starfish. He may cast it again, but the result is only what he expected – nil. Disheartened, he thinks he will go and pull up his crab pot which was set a few days ago. He finds the mark of its whereabouts gone and cannot trace it anywhere. Finally, after having cut his fingers somehow and being knocked over by the mast and sworn at by his mates, he gets to harbour through a heavy sea, having just escaped with his life. One listens to all this circumstantial tale, which cannot be told in less than an hour, with many references to the signs in the sky, and the boats that were passed, and the wisdom with which his mates foretold disaster, and wonders at the childlike credulity from a man who is full of natural wit and shrewdness.