Sunday, 19 June 2016

And It's Goodbye From Me - Tweed to Tyne

This post will be my last on this blog for some time, possibly for good. It depends on whether there are any more dramatic developments affecting the border between England and Scotland. My original thinking regarding the referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union, now almost upon us, was that a vote to Leave would trigger a fresh outburst of campaigning for Scottish independence that I ought to write about, but that a vote to Remain would mean I could gracefully sign off from reporting on the Borders as the status quo would be assured. I now think that whatever happens in the referendum we are in for a turbulent time politically, so I may as well sign off before the fateful date of 23rd June.

Because the thing is, I'm not actually living in Berwick any more. I sold my flat there and went to the Antipodes for three months, as previously described on this blog, and I am now living mostly in Newcastle-upon-Tyne while I contemplate the possibility of returning to the Antipodes for a while. I found I couldn't bear to move out of the region described in the heading of this blog, the land between the rivers Forth and Tyne, but I am now living at the far end of it, on the bank of the Tyne. This photo shows two of the bridges across the Tyne, the railway and the swing bridges.

I chose this view because archaeologists have now discovered that the original Roman bridge across the Tyne, the Pons Aelius or Hadrian's Bridge, was on the same site as the modern swing bridge. Presumably because convenient crossing points don't change that much. So this post continues the theme of my last about the Roman sites at Wallsend and South Shields. The photo here on the right shows the entrance to the harbour at South Shields. On the left side of the picture is the town / village / suburb of Tynemouth. This is where the river we love so much flows out to sea.

I was fascinated to learn that matching altars to the Roman gods Oceanus and Neptune have been found near the swing bridge, and that Alexander the Great is known to have sacrificed to the same gods when he reached the mouth of the river Indus. Presumably the Romans were conscious that the mouth of a river was the point where they left the land and entered the realm of the sea gods, and so it would be prudent to ask for their protection.

This is the Shields ferry. It chugs between the two banks of the Tyne several times an hour, a journey of only five minutes or so but one rich in cultural associations within the region. This vessel is called Spirit of the Tyne, which is apt. There is a sculpture outside the Newcastle Civic Centre that is supposed to represent some sort of presiding deity of the Tyne. I hope that the spirit of the river was able to share in the sacrifices to Oceanus and Neptune.

I read somewhere that it may not be mere coincidence that so many rivers on the eastern side of Britain have names beginning with the letter T. The Tyne, the Tees, the Tweed, the Till, the Teviot ... they divide up the region and mark out areas of allegiance and affection. The suggestion from linguists is that these names may all derive from some ur-name beginning with a T that just meant a river, and that would mean there is unity in their diversity. I like that.

Recently I have become deeply gloomy about the political and social strains tearing at the fabric of life in the UK. Nobody could deny that this country faces some really serious problems and challenges. I think that's why I've come to find it so soothing to look at the rivers Tyne and Tweed and imagine the thousands of years that their waters have been flowing to the sea. We fight each other, but the land and the waters outlast us all.







Sunday, 1 May 2016

'Where Rome's great frontier begins'

This is the reconstruction of the West Gate of Arbeia,  the Roman fort on the south bank of the river Tyne, in present day South Shields. It is not part of Hadrian's Wall, which apparently confuses a lot of visitors who can't conceive of any Roman ruins not attached to the Wall, it guards the other side of the estuary of the Tyne, preventing Northern British enemies from sneaking down the coast and attacking from the south. The counterpart on the northern bank is Segedunum, in modern day Wallsend (duh!) and I talk about that below.

At a later date Arbeia became a supply base for the garrisons all the way along Hadrian's Wall. Excavations have shown that it had far more granaries than was normal  for a fort and also dug up an unusually large number of the metal tags bearing the Emperor's head used to seal supplies. So it seems that food was shipped from Continental Europe into the estuary, offloaded here, then transported to the line of forts stretching to the Solway Firth on the west coast.

In fact it was a jolly important place, and the commanding officer accordingly enjoyed the ostentatiously large house you can see reconstructed in this photo on the right. One of the staff told me that even after the Romans had been there for 200 years and must have understood that the climate of North East England is not well suited to al fresco living, they still insisted on employing the standard house plan involving having to cross a roofless courtyard to get from one room to another. Adapting to local conditions would have meant an intolerable loss of status. Compare the British in India.

Because of these reconstructions, built on top of the foundations of the originals, Arbeia is more fun than the usual archaeological site where you just stare at a few old stones. It also has a small but wonderful museum of things found on site, some unique in Britain and all of amazing quality.

The fort is thought to have been originally called something else and to have been later nicknamed Arbeia, meaning 'place of the Arabs', after the employment of specialist boatmen from the river Tigris, in modern Iraq, to sail and fight on the Tyne. I can't tell you how much I love this image. Although of course this happened before the emergence of Islam, and those Arabs were probably Christians, I still see some sort of appropriateness in the modern presence of a mosque just down the road from the site. On this ancient imperial border, we see that the Romans were multi-cultural avant la lettre.


This picture on the left shows the archaelogical site of Segedunum, or Wallsend, on the northern bank of the Tyne estuary, with the building that is now used as the museum but was formerly the canteen of Swan Hunter shipyard, hence its resemblance to the prow of a ship.

This site presents a moving exploration of how successive layers of history were lived out and left their traces on the same site. Both Segedunum and Arbeia used to be covered with 19th century terraced housing that had to be demolished to expose the Roman sites, and some of Segedunum lay under the Swan Hunter yard. The piece of Wall that ran down the slope from the fort to the river was first exposed when the shipyard was being extended to make it large enough to build the Mauretania in the early 20th century. And a coal mine can still be seen adjacent to the surviving stretch of Wall on the other side of the fort. A considered decision was made to preserve some visible evidence of this mine and grant it the same respect and validity as the Roman remains.

I took some photos from the observation platform in the former shipyard workers' canteen, showing the striking landscape of river, abandoned shipyard, excavated ancient fort. This is the one with the least reflection of me and my camera - sorry it's still not great, but you get the idea. You can see a reconstruction of a bathhouse in the far corner of the site, sadly now closed to visitors because it's no longer structurally safe. They're still trying to work out how the Romans prevented a steamy bathhouse from rotting in the damp British climate.

A modern monument has been erected on the site bearing all the names of those Roman army personnel known from surviving records to have actually physically built the Wall, with space left to add any more discovered. When I first visited the site, Swan Hunter was still operational, and this juxtaposition of modern and ancient construction workers was very powerful. Now, the shipyard is as derelict as the fort. It has passed into history in its turn.

And what of the layer of history below the Roman one? The museum explains that the people who lived in North East England before the Roman colonisers arrived were called the Brigantes. Below the foundations of the fort archaeologists have found ploughed furrows that were never planted with anything. The invaders kicked the farmers off the land between ploughing and sowing. The Brigantian farms near the Wall were abandoned soon after, either because the Romans forcibly removed the local population for security reasons, or simply because their social and economic systems were so badly disrupted by having a giant wall built through the middle of their community that their lives became impossible and they moved of their own accord. This all sounds horribly familiar from more recent times. Brigantian farmers, Roman builders, Geordie shipwrights - all just local people trying to make a living on the banks of the great river.



Monday, 18 April 2016

Oh God, Not Another Referendum.

I'm now back from my three month adventure touring New Zealand and Australia. I've lost my acclimatisation to the bitter Borders wind, and I've spent the last week going round huddled in my thick winter coat telling everyone I can't believe it's still this cold, much to their bemusement since everybody who's spent the whole winter here thinks it's quite pleasant and spring-like, actually.

As if the weather wasn't enough to get used to again, the state of British politics is enough to make me want to jump straight back on a plane. The first I heard about the EU referendum was when I was lying on my bed in a hostel in the resort of Franz Josef Glacier, in the Southern Alps of the South Island of New Zealand, listening to the BBC news online. Ringing across cyberspace came the voice of David Cameron telling me that this was the most important political decision I would have to make in my lifetime. It quite spoiled the holiday mood, I can tell you.

My first thought was that I really resent having to go through this referendum business all over again after being put through the wringer less than two years ago over the Scottish independence vote. This has continued to be my dominant feeling about the whole thing, and now that I'm back in the Borders I can confirm that it seems to be most people's overriding reaction here. There is a kind of weariness about the way people discuss the EU vote. Or, in fact, don't discuss it, because it is clear that most people are avoiding stating their views openly in social situations for fear of falling out with their friends and acquaintances, in exactly the same way as they did with the question of Scottish independence. One of my Berwick friends told me, 'we just don't talk about it to anyone, especially in Scotland, we're afraid there may be murder done'. What makes it trickier is that, unlike the Indyref, it's impossible to predict what any one person's opinion will be on EU membership. It cuts right across all other political alignments.

There is no doubt that the prospect of a Leave result in the EU referendum triggering a second Indyref in Scotland has reactivated all the fears and uncertainties over the future status of the border between England and Scotland. Property prices in Berwick are still falling, with masses of lovely houses up for grabs and not shifting. Nobody except me seems willing to come right out and say so, but I am sure that the property market in this area is being depressed long term by an unwillingness to live on a border that could yet become the frontier of the EU. I'm glad I sold my flat when I did.

Being in New Zealand at the time of the announcement of the Euroref, if I'm allowed to call it that on the analogy of the Indyref, has given me a rather different perspective on it to the way I saw it before. The Kiwis see the EU as 'a hostile trading bloc' and resent being relegated from a favoured 'daughter' of Britain to just another non-EU country, stuck in the longer queue for passport checking at Heathrow and told that their butter has no privileged access to European markets any more. And they really, really resent the way EU farmers are showered with subsidies and handouts while Kiwi farmers just have to stand on their own two feet in the market. Actually I think I agree with them about that. Today the National Farmers' Union came out in favour of remaining within the EU. Gosh, there's a surprise.

I look forward to seeing how Anne-Marie Trevelyan, our new Conservative MP, balances the demands of subsidy-seeking farmers and immigrant-loathing housing applicants in her constituency over the next few months. I reckon that even if it achieves nothing else, the Euroref could well destroy the Conservative party. And that result would be worth any amount of biting our lips and changing TV channels between now and June 23rd.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

So Where Exactly Does the United Kingdom End?

As I come to the end of my period of travelling around Australia and New Zealand, I am thinking more than ever about the future of 'the United Kingdom'. One of the things I'm looking forward to about returning to 'the UK' is that the people who live there hardly ever call it 'the UK'. We think we live in Britain, but when I offer this in response to the person on the ticket desk of some museum who is dutifully collecting visitors' origins for their stats, they often look a bit confused. Then they look down their list of options and say, 'So that'll be the United Kingdom then'. If I get the opportunity, I explain that in the wake of the Scottish indyref the term United Kingdom has become associated with an explicitly Unionist political agenda and 'Britain' is more neutral. Nobody much in Australasia seems to understand this, and really, why should they.

I do think though that the management of Best Western Australia could be expected to have a firmer grasp of political geography than that demonstrated by their online hotel booking form. It gave me the options of saying I was from: a) United Kingdom - Great Britain, b) United Kingdom - Scotland, or c) United Kingdom - Wales. Being from England is not possible except by identifying England with Great Britain, a bad habit the English already have that ought not to be encouraged, and being from Northern Ireland is not an option at all, an egregious howler since the correct differentiation between Britain and the UK is that the latter includes Northern Ireland and the former does not. But hey, Best Western is run by Americans, what can you expect.

My stay in New Zealand (or Aotearoa as its inhabitants increasingly like to call it) coincided with its referendum on changing the flag. The photo above shows the present flag flying beside the war memorial at Bluff, the southernmost point of the New Zealand mainland. It was a pet project of the current prime minister, John Key, to change the flag to one that does not include the flag of the United Kingdom and thus could be seen as representing the modern independent nation rather than the former colony. The previously chosen alternative is shown below - it keeps the stars of the Southern Cross but replaces the UK flag with the Silver Fern long associated with NZ. The result of the referendum has just come in and the Kiwis have rejected the proposed alternative and opted to keep the old flag. Not by as large a margin as predicted though, the result was 57: 43, and as I understand it a lot of No voters were motivated more by dislike of Mr Key and all his pet projects than by devotion to the traditional flag.

I am not, of course, entitled to have an opinion on what flag Kiwis ought to adopt, that's entirely a matter for them. I am though entitled to have an opinion on the attitudes to 'the mother country' that were displayed during the referendum debate, and I found a lot of them exasperating. I was told by one tour guide that it was appropriate to keep the UK flag because 'we are still part of the Commonwealth'. Very few countries of the Commonwealth have chosen to reference the UK in their post-independence flags, and anyway, the sad truth is that hardly anybody in Britain outside Buckingham Palace gives a damn about the Commonwealth. There seems to be a widespread view overseas that the Union Jack has something to do with the Queen. It doesn't.

I even read one letter in a newspaper that said NZ was still part of the United Kingdom, and considered writing to the paper to point out that it very definitely is not, but wasn't quite sure if the letter was intended satirically. Even if that particular writer was being sarcastic, there is certainly a degree of attachment to the UK in New Zealand that is not reciprocated and seems embarrassingly inappropriate to a British visitor. All the more so because the proportion of New Zealanders who have Scottish ancestry is very great and you would think that some anti-Union sentiments would have travelled out there with them.

I started off by telling people that if Scotland becomes independent, which everyone I know believes is inevitable eventually, and the United Kingdom breaks up, NZ is going to look a bit daft using the flag of a country that doesn't exist any more. Then I realised that the NZ flag has taken on a range of associations that are no longer anything to do with the UK. The most emotive argument used by the No to the New Flag lobby was that thousands of New Zealanders had fought and died under the present one. The photo above of it flying beside the war memorial on a weather-beaten coast seems to me to capture a lot of the emotions evoked by this argument. It was tempting to say, So doesn't that just prove that Kiwis ought not to have got involved in British wars? But I could see that would have been insulting to those who feel deeply about this. The Returned Services' Association in Aotearoa New Zealand will keep flying a flag that includes the one created to celebrate the Union of England and Scotland, regardless of what happens in Holyrood. Such are the vagaries of colonial history.


Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Scotland of the South

Hello again from the southern hemisphere. I am still working my way around New Zealand by bus, and have now made it right down to the bottom end, to the province of Otago. This is the statue of Rabbie Burns in the centre of the city of Dunedin. When I first saw it I was impressed by this evidence of the residents' devotion to literature, or perhaps to the egalitarian ideals of the poet. I then discovered that the city was founded by a Rev. Thomas Burns who was a nephew of Rabbie, and deduced that erecting a great big statue of his famous uncle was a way of perpetuating the family name somewhat more subtle than putting up a great big statue of the founder himself.

Dunedin is the old Gaelic name for Edinburgh - it is still used in modern Gaelic - and the settlement in Otago was a conscious attempt to re-create Edinburgh in a new land. The main street of Dunedin is called Princes Street. Other streets in the central city are called George, Stuart, Moray, Hanover and St. Andrew. There are suburbs called Mornington and Corstorphine. Luckily the discovery of gold in Otago later generated the wealth to enable the New Edinburgh to be built in a fitting style.

The city's coat of arms shows a Maori and a Scottish Highlander standing side by side. In fact, apparently, Lowlanders were actively preferred for migration to the early settlement, as they were felt to be more sober and Protestant, and the names of the small towns in Central Otago sound like a lullaby of home to a visitor from the Scottish Borders: Roxburgh, Teviot, Ettrick, Kelso. There is even a Berwick just outside Dunedin.

It seems that when raising sheep in the rolling hills of Otago became a big thing, Highlanders were then thought the best people to do it, hence the man with the kilt and the crook. Though, to be honest, most of the Scottish diaspora seems to have adopted tartan-ism as the most obvious signifier of the old country, without bothering to distinguish Highland and Lowland traditions. The motto means 'by following in the steps of our forefathers'. My O' level Latin can't really see that in it but I will have to take the word of Dunedin city council.

I am writing this in the city of Invercargill, on the very tip of the South Island, with only a few small islands between it and Antarctica. The weather here would make any migrant from the Debatable Land feel right at home. I've had to finally pack away the hot weather clothes and buy an anorak.

 The town was named after the William Cargill commemorated on this plaque, the joint founder of Otago. Note the motifs on the corners of the plaque. The image of the thistle entwined with the fern has long been the symbol of the Scots in New Zealand, as in this 19th c. poem, while the juxtaposition of the fern and the Southern Cross constellation anticipates the design of the proposed new NZ flag.

The glorious thing about Invercargill is that all of the streets in the city centre are named after Scottish rivers. The main shopping area is on Dee, Tay and Esk streets. Keep going and  you come to Spey, Clyde, Don, Forth, Ness. Most poignantly to a Borderer, there are streets named Jed, Gala, Eye, Yarrow, and yes, Tweed. They've even allowed the Tyne to sneak in. The southern gales blow me through a permanent memory of home, a lyrical grid plan of settlers' nostalgia. I can't decide if I feel homesick or I feel at home. Probably the early settlers experienced the same ambivalence.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Warkworth's Namesake in New Zealand

In my last post some weeks ago, when I explained that I was about to depart for Australasia, I promised that I would post about anything I came across there that seemed relevant to the remit of the Debatable Land blog, and this seems to fit the bill.

Warkworth is a village in North Northumberland, about twenty minutes' drive from Alnwick, where I grew up. Yesterday I visited the town of Warkworth in New Zealand, which was named after the Northumbrian one. The tourist blurb describes it as a 'captivating historic village', and while in truth it is increasingly becoming a commuter suburb of Auckland, from where it is less than an hour's drive north, its setting on the bank of the Mahurangi river is not dissimilar to Northumbrian Warkworth's lovely location on the bank of the river Coquet.

Warkworth in Northumberland has a sign at the entrance to the village announcing that it is twinned with Warkworth in New Zealand, so I was happy to see that the latter returns the favour. Although at present the sign is somewhat obscured by the flowers of the southern hemisphere summer, you can see that Warkworth NZ  has sibling and friendship arrangements with a number of other places too.

According to the New Zealand History website, Warkworth NZ was founded by John Anderson Brown, who bought the land in 1843 and named the town after his birthplace in Northumberland.

 He went on to name one of the original streets after Alnwick, and of course I just had to go and check that out. After labouring some distance uphill in heat of around 30 oC, I was rather disappointed to find that Alnwick Street is, at least to the British eye, a not particularly historic looking stretch of unremarkable houses.

Before doing this I called in to the visitor information centre - in New Zealand these are given the rather brilliant name of the i-site - and found the staff less excited about the arrival of a visitor from Northumberland than I hoped they might be. They did though let me have an original copy of the leaflet with the map in, rather than the photocopy they were giving everyone else due to leaflet stocks having reached a critical level. I asked them how they pronounce Alnwick - in the original town the l and w are elided to end up with Anick, but the street named after it is just pronounced the way it looks. This got me wondering whether John Anderson Brown pronounced it that way himself or whether the Northumbrian pronounciation was gradually lost over time. Alas, we may now never know.

Lilburn Street, also seen here, is named after another village in Northumberland. The Lilburns were a prominent family among the Border Reivers, but that probably wasn't the association intended for the street.


Less commendably in my eyes, Mr Brown named several streets of his new settlement after families of Northumbrian nobility - Percy, Neville and Bertram. It was some consolation to see that the main feature of Percy Street is now a large branch of the appropriately named New World supermarket chain. I found it pleasing to see the family name of the Duke of Northumberland attached to this most egalitarian and mundane feature of modern life, rather than to the elegant 19th c. town houses that still constitute Percy Street and Percy Terrace in Alnwick.

In fact, there is a fascinating ambiguity in the use of Old World names in the settler societies of the New World that is difficult to appreciate without making the journey between them. Was the founder intending to honour the nobility of the country he had left by naming streets after them, or to subtly bring them down to earth by attaching their names to a rough pioneer settlement? There is also the consideration that the Percy and Neville families were bitter rivals and might have taken a poor view of seeing their names attached to parallel streets, to stand side by side on a map for ever more.

In a new country old names take on new significances and associations that are just as valid as the original ones. The people who go about their daily lives in the shops and cafes of Neville Street don't care tuppence about what the Nevilles of Northumberland were getting up to at the time of the Norman Conquest, and nor should they.

The original Warkworth is dominated by the ruin of a medieval castle, apparently such a textbook example of a motte and bailey castle construction that school parties regularly go to study it. Warkworth NZ seeks to draw the visitor's attention to its historic cement works. There is a nice parallel there of an Old World building designed to maintain the power of the nobility and a New World facility for producing the material for sheltering ordinary people.

Let's not get too idealistic though - the most prominent and historic looking buildings in the centre of Warkworth NZ nowadays are this Masonic Hall and the Bank of New Zealand, which is a pretty clear indication of the early residents' priorities.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Debatable Land Heads for the Antipodes

This is the monument to Captain James Cook at Whitby. He stands on the headland of this chilly, windswept piece of the North Yorkshire coast, gazing out to sea. Whitby is outside the usual geographical range of this blog but it just about qualifies as north-east England. At any rate, Arriva buses do a North East Explorer day ticket whose validity stretches to the far side of Whitby, which is good enough for me.

More importantly, this monument to 'a great Yorkshire seaman' symbolises my imminent departure for Australia and New Zealand. I've been there before, in fact I had visited Auckland before I visited Whitby, which was perhaps a little unusual of me, but made my emotional reaction to the port from which Cook sailed on the voyages of discovery that led to the founding of the modern nations of Australia and New Zealand much stronger than it would have been if I'd remembered it from my childhood. I've just visited the town again and the plaques on this monument made me cry all over again. I know that it is now considered insensitive to talk about 'discovering' a land mass that was already occupied by other groups of people, but I don't believe that invalidates the spirit of adventure and enquiry that prompted the voyages.

I have also just visited the birthplace of James Cook, for what I'm ashamed to say was the first time ever.  It has now been incorporated into a lovely public park in Middlesborough, a city historically part of Yorkshire but now the centre of the modern urban county of Cleveland. Sadly the cottage where the great man was born was knocked down about fifty years later, though luckily he was sufficiently famous by then for the site to be marked. There's now a rather elegant stone urn on the spot, and round the base has been carved Cook's famous remark about wanting to go, 'not just farther than any man has been before, but as far as it is possible for a man to go'.

This line - at least in a revised gender-neutral version - has been my inspiration and motto ever since I first heard it. It has become confused in my mind with the classic opening of Star Trek about exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new civilisations, but I think that's fine because I'm sure the example of the great sea voyages has influenced the writers of fictional space voyages. One of my friends in NZ told me that Cook literally did go as far as it was possible to go, because he took his ship up to the edge of the ice of Antarctica. But of course the sentiment can also be taken metaphorically. It is absolutely right that it should be carved on the site of the humble cottage where he was born, in what is now an ordinary public park in an unglamorous town. It reminds us that genius can emerge from any background, a fact from which the contemporary British education system seems to be in determined retreat.

I was able to book my own voyage to Australia and then on to New Zealand with just a few distinctly non-epic mouse clicks. I leave on New Years Eve and arrive on New Years Day - appropriate or what? So this blog will be in a state of semi suspension for a few months. But if I come across anything relevant to the English-Scottish Borders while I'm out there - which is more likely than you might think - I'll post about it. And if there are any seismic political developments at Holyrood or Westminster that will affect the Borders - also not that unlikely - I will be on the case. In the meantime, wish me haere ra (Maori for bon voyage).