Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Merry Christmas from Berwick

This is the scene on the steps of the Guildhall in Berwick at the official switching on of the Christmas lights a couple of weeks ago. The schoolchildren are in the centre, the cast of the pantomime staged every year by Spittal Variety Group are on the left of the picture, in costume and in character, the army cadets are at the back and the local clergy are presiding over everything. This seems to me a pretty good visual summary of how small town society works.

Despite booklets of carol lyrics being handed out at the start of proceedings, something went wrong and we ended up singing the first verse of Once in Royal David's City several times over and making no further progress with it. That's pretty typical of this time of year as well. Everybody has warm fuzzy memories of carol singing in their youth but nobody has ever quite mastered the words. It was a perishing cold day and most of us just wanted them to get a move on and switch on the lights so we could go home. But after the carols there was a little speech by the retiring vicar of the parish church, Canon Hughes, saying how happy he'd been working in 'this wonderful community'. When the lights on the tree did finally come on they were a little disappointing. The ones on the tree in Tweedmouth are better. This one in the picture below.

The lights switch-on was preceded by the official switch-on of the new Jubilee lamp. It looks to me much like any other street lamp, but it has a plaque on to explain that it is not merely a street lamp but was erected to commemorate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. For this the Duchess of Northumberland made a rare trip to the far north of the county of which she is now Lord Lieutenant (no, I don't know what that means either). She looked Christmassy in a smart cherry-red suit and posed cheerfully for the local press photographer. Unfortunately I didn't have a chance to get a photo of her before she was whisked away to another engagement. Many in the crowd were disappointed that she didn't switch on the tree lights as well, but if she had she might have upstaged the vicar's farewell speech, which would never do. Ah, the niceties of precedence between the landed aristocracy and the clergy of the established church.

Many visitors come to Berwick for their Christmas holidays, so for the next couple of weeks we'll have to put up with large groups of people talking loudly in southern accents as they walk the Walls about  how charming this place is, but of course everyone here is unemployed. But at least they tend to mislay a lot of garments on their walks, which us unemployed locals can pick up and sell to Cash4Clothes.

Until January then, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my readers. And our resident seal, now once again enjoying the celebrity lifestyle on its adopted sandbank by the bridge, sends greetings as well.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Dickensian Market

This is the carriage in which Father Christmas arrived  in Berwick today. It's a genuine 19th century horse-drawn carriage restored by a company in the Borders. Santa descended from it at the bottom of the steps of the Guildhall and then took his seat in the hall, where 'Victorian teas' were being served at the other end of the room. I'm not quite clear what makes a tea Victorian, other than the outfits that the waitresses were wearing. The photo below shows one of the rather splendid light fittings in the Guildhall as well as the Christmas tree that's in there just now.

Many towns hold some sort of Christmas market, but for some reason Berwick has decided to go with a Dickensian theme every year. The justification for this appears to be that the great man himself gave readings in the town twice. Given the celebrated energy and frequency with which Dickens toured the country to give readings from his books, I don't feel this confers any particular distinction on Berwick. I'm also rather twitchy about any event where the general public are encouraged to appear in fancy dress, since it seems just to further the belief that Britain in general and the Borders in particular have no future other than as a theme park for the amusement of overseas visitors. I spotted a Japanese woman insisting that her husband take a photo of her standing beside the carriage, which confirmed this suspicion. (She got a shock when the horses moved off.) It's not like there's anything special about the stalls at the Dickensian market - they're a mixture of the same old stuff that's on sale at the ordinary weekly market and the same old stuff that's on sale at every farmers' market. And frankly the standard of the coffee that's available at most of these sort of events makes one look more indulgently at Starbucks' creative accountancy. Fortunately most of the locals seem to enjoy it all a lot more than I do, so I keep quiet.

My first Dickensian market was during the unusually severe winter weather of two years ago. There was a great deal of grumbling afterwards about how much the takings were down because of the weather and how the snow had really spoiled everything. Nobody but me seemed to see any irony in objecting to the appearance of Dickensian weather. Apparently urchins cavorting joyfully in the snow is fine on Christmas cards, but in real life their parents say that children can't possibly go outside when it's so cold. The memory I treasure from that year is the sight of one of the organising committee who was dressed as the beadle from Oliver Twist in earnest conversation with an actual modern policeman about some law and order issue that had arisen. At the end of the conversation the beadle whipped his mobile phone out of the pocket of his caped and ribboned Victorian jacket and started issuing instructions. I would love to have a snapshot of this moment, but was afraid that there might be some sort of law against taking photos of a real policeman.

If any of my readers are interested in visiting the hotel that boasts the above plaque, it's the Kings Arms on Hide Hill. But at the moment it's closed for major renovation work, after which they hope to be able to provide decent showers as well as a Dickensian ambience. 

Sunday, 2 December 2012

In Pursuit of the Seals, Again

Over the past couple of weeks I've been chasing up and down the quayside like an idiot, sliding on the wet ground and trying not to fall into the water, in an attempt to get some decent close-up shots of seals. So far I've been unsuccessful. At this time of year there are seals to be seen in the estuary almost every day, but it's very hard to get photos of them because they only keep their heads above water for a few seconds at a time. They can hold their breath underwater for about ten minutes, and can swim a long way in that time, so the next time your target surfaces it could be out at sea. I bring you this pathetic attempt on the left as proof that I was out there trying until it was nearly dark. At least the water is quite a pretty colour in the twilight. If you enlarge the picture to full size you can tell that black blob in the middle is a seal's head. Maybe.

In this one on the right the black blob is slightly larger and at full size it is quite clearly a seal's head. Honestly. Tweed Dock is in the background. If you want to see some decent pictures of seals, just click on the link to the Farne Rangers blog, over on the right of this template. They have all the gorgeous close-ups you could want. The autumn is the breeding season for the grey seals on the Farnes, and for the last couple of months the rangers have been very busy counting the pups. They say they average about 1,500 a year, though the mortality rate among pups is high. It's during the breeding season that seals are a common sight in the estuary of the Tweed, as they determinedly chase the fish they need to regain their strength up the river.

Yet again the weather has been terrible recently, with heavy rain and endlessly dark days. Many towns beside rivers have been flooded, but we don't seem to be in any danger of that here, even though we're right on the estuary. The walls of the quayside are high and strong and even at the highest tide after the heaviest rain the water is never even close to coming over them. But the waves do slosh through the gate of the slipway to the foreshore, as seen on the left. There's a row of parking spaces just outside this gate and experienced local drivers know to avoid the one directly in line with the slipway, where at high tide your car tyres are steadily bombarded with gravel by every big wave. Not to mention all the litter that gets washed up - don't get me started on that again. The weather has now turned bright and sunny but very cold. So now the challenge is to keep my gloves off long enough to photograph a seal.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Polski Sklep: a frontier trading post?

This is the Polish shop in Berwick, which has been open for a while now and always seems to be busy. I've been in there myself a couple of times; it sells very good sausages and also jars of pickled beetroot, which is a secret weakness of mine. I was the only customer who couldn't understand Polish but the staff were happy to speak English to me and translate some labels. The bottom photo shows the new Eastern European food section in the local Asda. It seems that the small Polski Sklep is doing good enough business to make the mighty Asda feel it needs to get in on the act.

The arrival of large numbers of Eastern European migrants over the last decade has been one of the most dramatic changes to British society that I've seen in my lifetime. While this phenomenon is now taken for granted in cities, friends in London are often surprised to learn that the community here in the Borders is large enough to support specialist shops. In fact, according to official figures as quoted by the local BBC news, the North East region of England has the second largest number of Eastern European settlers after London. And if you counted the ones who choose to live just on the other side of the border it would be an even more striking statistic. The ability of Eastern Europeans to find work in places where the conventional wisdom is that there are no jobs is truly remarkable, and raises questions about the mismatch between the skills of indigenous job-seekers and those which are in demand locally. I don't want to get into that controversial area here though. For the purposes of this blog the interesting point is how migration within the E.U. relates to the campaign for Scottish independence.

The policy of the Scottish National Party is to increase the population of Scotland by encouraging immigration. It can't do this at present because immigration policy is a power reserved to the Westminster parliament, which would like to reduce immigration to England. The present population of Scotland is around 5 million, which is comparable to some other countries whose independence nobody would question (Norway is the favourite example) but dwarfed by the 52 million or so in England. Also there's an awful lot of empty space in Scotland.The SNP assures us that the New Scots will be people of all backgrounds and ethnicities - although they'd still really rather not have too many immigrants from England, thanks.

Modern Scottish nationalism has always been based on the assumption of membership of the E.U. 'An independent Scotland within a federal Europe' was a slogan back in the 1970s. Current crises in the E.U. are making all those plans rather uncertain, and now the Westminster government is emphasising that Scotland could not remain in the E.U. after independence without formally applying for re-admission in its own name. In reality the legal situation is very unclear and, as I have said in earlier posts, having Berwick become a frontier town on the edge of the E.U. would be just so staggeringly impractical that it won't be allowed to happen. So we can safely assume that Poles and other E.U. citizens will retain their unrestricted right to enter Scotland and that Polski Skleps will continue to flourish north of the border as well. 

Saturday, 17 November 2012

'Keep Calm and Carry On'

The success of the slogan 'keep calm and carry on' is truly extraordinary, and since the source of that sales phenomenon is within the range of this blog I thought I might as well bring you some pictures. Barter Books, 'one of the largest second-hand bookshops in the country', located in Alnwick's former railway station, seems to have become fairly famous now and doesn't need any help from me publicity-wise, but that's no reason to ignore it. Ten years or so ago when I was living in Alnwick I treated Barter Books as an extension of my living-room and was deeply fond of the place. That affection has waned somewhat since it became  a major tourist attraction and installed a full scale cafe. Back in the days when the only coffee available was from the jugs shown in the photo, I spent many bleak winter afternoons snuggled up by the open fire in the old waiting room reading or writing. Nowadays you might as well try to work in a railway station that's still  operational.

This is an exterior view which shows the design of the original station building. I can just remember catching a train there as a very young child in the 1960s. It was a victim of the 'Beeching' wave of closures and was subsequently bought and converted into a second-hand bookshop by Mary and Stuart Manley. And since then it's just got bigger and bigger. At some point around the turn of the millennium they found an original Second World War poster bearing the now famous slogan and framed it to hang behind the till. It was so much admired by customers that they started selling reproductions of it. The rest is history. I was an early adopter of the poster and when they introduced mugs I even bought one of those, but I drew the line at the tee-shirt and I've now thrown out the poster and the mug because I am absolutely sick of seeing variations on the slogan everywhere I go.

I think that the original success of the poster had a lot to do with the national mood following 9/11, a mood which intensified after the 7/7 bombings. The top photo shows the full range of reproduction posters now available. (The precious original is kept securely behind the counter where it's hard to photograph without a crowd of heads in the way.) When the green one first went on display a few years ago a fellow customer turned to me and said with perfect seriousness that 'freedom is in peril - defend it with all your might' was a poster we should all be displaying because it was just as true then as it was when the poster was first issued. I'm fairly sure that it was the government he regarded as the threat to freedom. A lot of us felt that way then. This may be why I've failed to warm to all those 'keep calm and go shopping' etc etc variations. The memory of that frightening period when the original poster seemed to speak to us very directly is still too vivid. But now that I'm in Berwick, I do rather like the cross border variations that have appeared. The last time I was in Glasgow I saw a mug bearing the official Scottish translation, which is 'och wheesht and get oan wae it'. My sentiments exactly.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Votes for Borderers!

I'm recycling a photo this week. I used this picture of the bridge at Coldstream in one of the earliest posts I did on this blog, back in March. I reckon that most new readers won't scroll that far back, so here is another chance to see it. The river Tweed here forms the border between England and Scotland and if Scotland lost its membership of the European Union after independence it would become the border of the EU, with potentially dramatic consequences for local residents. This post is all updates on previous topics, because of a couple of items in the local paper which caught my eye this week.

Back in May I reported on the fascinating research being undertaken at the University of York on the accents of Berwickers and their opposite numbers across the border in Eyemouth. They're covering two towns on either side of the border at the western end as well, Carlisle and Gretna Green. The project is called Accent and Identity on the Scottish-English Border or AISEB. An exhibition is now being staged at the university of the work of the Department of Language and Linguistic Science which features the AISEB project. Principal investigator Dominic Watt was quoted in the Berwick Advertiser as saying that the vernaculars of our area have been relatively neglected by researchers, even though 'it has been claimed that the greatest concentration of distinctive linguistic features in the entire English speaking world is to be found along the Scottish-English border'. I am reasonably well travelled in the English speaking world and I think that claim is probably true. So hoorah for AISEB.

In April I wrote a piece about the problems of having a cross border postcode. Here in postcode TD nobody can tell which side of the border we're on. At one stage Channel 4 was showing me endless adverts urging me to be sure to complete the Scottish census as it was so important for the future of Scotland and for Scottish people like me. My April post was prompted by receiving an election flyer for a political party that wasn't actually fielding any candidates in England. Now we are about to have elections in England for the newly created post of police commissioner, and the old postcode problem has reared its head again. Some of the more politically engaged citizens of Berwick went online to learn about their local candidates, only to be told that they were not entitled to vote in this election as they lived in Scotland. Irate letters to the press ensued, denouncing this sinister attempt to disenfranchise the residents of the far north of the Northumbria police area. The website in question was the official Home Office site. That's right, the Home Office, that's the government department that's supposed to know about everything that's going on in the internal affairs of the UK. We are told that the mistake was caused merely by an unfortunate software glitch which has now been corrected. In reality we understand perfectly that it happened because the software was programmed to think that all TD postcodes were in Scotland. For heaven's sake, if it causes this much trouble, just change our postcode to NE and have done with it! Then we'll only get endless adverts for shops in Newcastle.

Friday, 2 November 2012


It was of course Halloween this week, so here is the splendid lantern produced by the hard-working and ever-cheerful young staff of Berwick youth hostel and perched on the corner of their reception desk. I'm a regular in the cafe there, where you get a great cup of coffee for about 50p less than in any of the fancy coffee shops. Berwick youth hostel is located in a converted granary famous for its lean, clearly visible in the photo below. Until a few years ago it was so derelict that it was in danger of toppling over altogether, but it has now been beautifully restored. If you fancy staying there look it up here.

I want to take this opportunity - since to be honest it's the only one I'll get - to say something about the whole controversy over: Is Halloween purely an American import? It seems to be fashionable now to say that Halloween is just a piece of commercial nonsense that nobody in the British Isles had heard of until Hollywood brought it our attention. The answer to this is not straightforward. Pumpkin lanterns definitely were unknown in this country until we saw them in the scream-queen movies, and supermarkets here only sell them at this time of year. If you want to buy a pumpkin to eat in any week except the end of October you will struggle to find one. In fact I'm not sure that all the children making lanterns out of them have realised that pumpkins are edible. But the basic principle of making Halloween lanterns is indigenous - when I was a child we made them out of turnips. This custom appears to have been unknown in the south of England, and my southern friends at university gawped in disbelief when I told them about it, but it was an old tradition in the north of England and Scotland and also, I believe, in Ireland. So when pumpkins arrived the south took up lantern making from scratch and the north switched from turnips to pumpkins, a change embraced with some thankfulness because turnips are very hard work to carve.

The term Trick or Treat is also an American import but the general concept was already current. In my childhood, which was a regrettable number of decades ago, we used to get dressed up as witches or ghosts and go round our neighbours to show ourselves off, and they would usually give us small amounts of money - possibly sweets as well but I mostly remember money. This custom tended to blur into Penny for the Guy, which is the tradition of taking a 'guy', a stuffed model human figure in a pram or wheelbarrow, around from door to door on 5th November in memory of the Guy Fawkes plot and being given money to spend on buying fireworks.  Penny for the Guy lingered on into the 1980s but has now almost completely died out as Trick or Treat has become universal. And also children aren't allowed to buy fireworks any more, which is probably for the best.

There is a very famous book by the folklorist couple Iona and Peter Opie called The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, documenting childhood customs in Britain in the 1950s. They reported that October 31st was a major festival for children in some parts of the country, as big as Christmas. It was associated with licensed disorder and in some places was in fact known as Mischief Night. Children felt entitled to play all kinds of tricks on their adult neighbours with complete impunity for this one night. A favourite was removing garden gates and hiding them in outbuildings or throwing them in a handy pond. I feel that if this custom were revived we would hear a lot in the media about the failure of modern parenting. The present Americanised practice of Trick or Treating is a form of Mischief Night, exported to the United States by emigrants from the British Isles, sanitised over time, then re-exported back to us by Hollywood. 

Saturday, 27 October 2012

FAQs about Berwick upon Tweed

This is a photo of the railway bridge in Berwick on a nice sunny day, by way of contrast from my last post.

I've realised that some people who have only started to look at my blog recently may be unclear about where Berwick upon Tweed is and what's so special about it. So I thought that I'd provide a handy summary in the form of questions often asked by visitors.

Is Berwick in Scotland or England? I'm confused ...

Leaving aside the question of whether it ought to be or not, Berwick is, at the present time, as a matter of legal fact, in England.

So is the county of Berwickshire in England as well then?

No. Originally Berwick was the county town of Berwickshire, but the town was taken over by England while the county was left in Scotland. This is why the local press has to produce two separate newspapers, the Berwick Advertiser and the Berwickshire News, and struggle to find enough news to fill both of them.

How many times has Berwick been handed back and forth between England and Scotland?

According to all the books, fourteen. Most of these handovers were due to military conquest, they took place over a relatively short historical period and they were sometimes only a few months apart. The last time Berwick changed hands was in 1482 and it has been in England ever since. More precisely, it hasn't been owned by the Scots since then. For a long time the English regarded it as an occupied part of Scotland rather than as a proper part of England, similar to the English outpost at Calais. Until 1746 it was mentioned  in Acts of Parliament as a separate legal entity. At some point the authorities stopped doing this and started treating Berwick as a true part of England and of the county of Northumberland, but none of the books seem very sure when. Hence the 'grey area' in the title of my blog. And hence the belief of many Scots that it is still occupied territory.

Is it true that Berwick is still at war with Russia?

Probably not. Because of the persistence of the habit of listing Berwick separately in official documents, there is a hoary old story that the declaration of the Crimean War listed Berwick as a belligerent power but the peace treaty did not, and so Berwick is still technically at war with Russia. But the highly knowledgeable local historian Francis Cowe says that this story is not true.

And the Tweed is the river Berwick is built on, yes? That's the river in the photo?

That's right. Berwick is built on the north bank of the estuary of the river Tweed, which was at one time the border between England and Scotland. It's likely that it was called Berwick upon Tweed to distinguish it from the town of North Berwick which is up the road a bit (in Scotland). The village on the south bank of the Tweed is called Tweedmouth and it has never been in Scotland. In fact it's only been in Northumberland since 1835, it used to be part of the possessions of Durham Cathedral. It is now part of the Borough of Berwick, but both Berwickers and Tweedmouthers still talk about 'crossing the bridge' as if it were a big deal involving foreign travel.

What does the name Berwick mean?

All of the standard reference books about place names explain the name Berwick as meaning a barley farm. 'Bere' means barley and 'wick' is a common place name element meaning a farm. One book I've consulted says that 'wick' means specifically a small farm outlying from a larger estate. Francis Cowe says that the whole word 'berewic' means this. The town crest shows a bear and a wych elm tree - 'bear' and 'wych', get it? That's just a joke (actually it's called a rebus) but it confuses a lot of people.

Notwithstanding the consensus of all the books, a keen Scottish amateur historian once pinned me down for a good twenty minutes to explain his conviction that 'wick' comes from the Viking word for a bay. I suggested that if that's true then it's hard to explain why there are so many towns with 'wick' in their names that aren't on the coast. His answer was that it might mean 'farm' in England but in Scotland it comes from a different language and it means 'bay'. Not sure where this leaves Hawick, thirty miles inland and definitely on the Scottish side of the border. I think this is taking linguistic separatism too far.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Ford Village

This is the Old Forge in Ford, a picture perfect village in North Northumberland, about twenty minutes drive south-west of Berwick. I was there today to talk business with the proprietors of the antiques shop which has recently set up inside it, but, email confirmation notwithstanding, when I got there it was closed. So as not to let the trip be a complete waste, I took a few photos. The new owners of the Forge claim that it's the most photographed building in the county, and they could be right. The doorway is designed in the shape of a horseshoe, which never ceases to delight visitors.

It was a dank, misty day, the light so poor that the flash on my camera was triggered (hence the reflections on the door I'm afraid). The autumn leaves were slowly falling from the trees and turning into mulch on the sodden ground. Far from depressing me though this somehow made me happy. This is the way I will always think of Northumberland - grey stone buildings, grey skies, chilly air, damp ground smelling of wet leaves, browsing sheep looming out of the mist. Days of bright sunshine here are relatively scarce and somehow always seem like a bit of an anomaly. My childhood memories are located mostly in an eternal autumn.

The photo below of the churchyard, the mist and the autumn trees captures this perfectly. Sorry if it just looks like a gloomy picture of graves to you. I think that if I were ever living in some foreign land of endless sunshine, seeing this photo would make me cry with homesickness. But one 16th century courtier sent north to serve the English king on the border famously wrote home begging to be relieved of his post in 'this accursed country where the sun never comes'.

I've been waiting for an opportunity to recommend an artist called Peter Podmore, and this seems to be a suitable time. Although he is not a native of the area he has lived in North Northumberland for a long time and paints landscapes which capture the spirit of the place wonderfully. Round here we have a great many bad artists inflicting feeble watercolours of local views on us, but Mr Podmore is not just manufacturing souvenirs for tourists, his paintings express the darkness and harshness of this region as well as its beauty. He has now published a gorgeous and most desirable book of his work called Cold Breeze, Dark Fire: Paintings and Drawings of North Northumberland. Have a look at his website and see what I mean. Then come and visit us in autumn after the crowds have gone and see it first-hand!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

'An Historic Day' - the Referendum Comes Closer

This week for the first time ever Debatable Land has travelled to the extreme limit of its range and brings you pictures of the Scottish Parliament. It's a beautiful building but then for what it cost (£414.4 million according to the official statement on the Parliament's website) it really ought to be. It is magnificently located with a splendid view of the hills which frame Edinburgh so dramatically. I went on the guided tour last year and can report that the view from the committee room we were shown is good enough to make many tedious discussions more bearable.

I felt that this week I should comment on the agreement signed on Monday by Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, and David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, setting out the legal framework for the referendum on Scottish independence which will take place in about two years time. The agreement allows it to be held any time before the end of 2014. If it hasn't happened by then the agreement will expire under what they call a sunset clause. Both the Scottish and UK governments have agreed to respect the result.

The next day I made a point of buying a copy of The Scotsman so I could swot up on the details. The Scotsman is the leading serious newspaper of Scotland - yes, they are aware that the name is sexist by modern standards but it seemed okay in 1816 when it was founded and it's too late to change it now. If you've been following me this far you won't be surprised to hear that Scottish newspapers are on sale here in Berwick. The front cover had the headline 'an historic day' and a large photo of Mr Salmond and Mr Cameron shaking hands in a statesmanlike fashion, though it was noticeable that neither of them were smiling with their eyes.

The most significant outcome of the long negotiations between Holyrood and Westminster that led up to this agreement is that Mr Salmond has not got his way about the inclusion of a second question on the ballot paper offering the option of endorsing the so-called 'devolution max' position rather than outright independence. Under devo-max the powers possessed by the Scottish government would be extended so that it could set taxation independently of Westminster but it would remain part of the United Kingdom and could not pursue a separate foreign policy. Mr Cameron has succeeded in limiting the ballot to one Yes or No question on whether Scotland should become independent. All the polls suggest a majority in favour of devo-max but only a minority for full independence, so by removing this fallback option the stakes for which Mr Salmond and his nationalist party are playing have been considerably raised.

For the purposes of this blog I try to maintain a policy of neutrality on Scottish independence. I was once rather keen on calling the blog The Middle Shires, which was the name King James VI and I urged his newly united subjects to use instead of the Borders, but I rejected this because it would have implied that I have a Unionist agenda. My personal position is that I am broadly sympathetic to Scottish independence in principle but can see an awful lot of problems with it in practice and worry about the effect it would have on Northumberland, which is where my heart lies. My personal prediction about the outcome of the referendum is that it will fail to get a majority for independence and that the SNP will then start all over again to campaign for devo-max, which will be achieved eventually after a few more years of negotiations and another referendum. But truly, almost anything could happen in the next two years.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Great Fishing Disaster of 1881

I'm staying in Eyemouth this week because we are approaching the anniversary of the terrible tragedy which hit the local community in 1881. This seems to be little known outside the area, at least I had never heard of it myself until I visited the town's museum, even though all the keen photographers I grew up with used to go to Eyemouth regularly to get their quota of shots of 'boats and ropes'.

As you can see on the memorial, the total death toll in 'the great east coast fishing disaster' was 189 and the great majority of those lost, 129 men, came from Eyemouth. This was about one in three of the entire adult male population of the town. Many women lost both a husband and a son, sometimes two sons. Those men who survived the disaster never recovered from the trauma of seeing so many comrades drown. The population of the town took a hundred years to get back to the level it was at before that day.

Soon after the fishing fleet sailed out of Eyemouth on 14th October 1881 a violent storm blew up. The wind seems to have been almost hurricane strength. The boats were battered to destruction. Attempts to return to harbour were hopeless in the face of such a wind, and all those boats which did try to return were driven onto the rocks known as the Hurkurs which surround the bay (shown in last week's post). Desperate relatives and friends of the fishermen tried to reach them but failed. In some cases women on shore watched their husbands and sons drown and were close enough to hear their cries for help. The only boats which returned safely were those which did not attempt to re-enter Eyemouth harbour during the storm. Some continued down the coast and were able to land at ports on Tyneside. One crew rode out the storm far out at sea  and finally returned home two days later when all hope for them had been given up. The skipper of that boat was so exhausted he had to be carried ashore. The next day he attended the funeral of his son who had been lost overboard from another boat.

This account is taken from a very good book about Eyemouth by Peter Aitchison,  a native of the town who had a successful career as a journalist. It was originally called Children of the Sea, but since tragedies have more sales power it has now been re-published under the title Black Friday, the term which came to be used to refer to the day of the disaster. Peter's chapter about the storm and its aftermath is one of the most harrowing historical narratives I have ever read. He sets out to answer the question of why the loss of life at Eyemouth was so much worse than in other places. The fishermen of most ports on the east coast stayed at home that day when they could see a storm brewing, but those at Eyemouth felt obliged to go to work. Some ports had better harbours which gave returning boats more shelter, but Eyemouth had no protection against the rocks, and was notorious for the shallowness of the water near shore which made it difficult for ships to return home on an ebb tide. Peter concludes that the answer lies in the archaic requirement to pay a proportion of the income from fishing to the church as a 'tithe', money which would otherwise have been paid as harbour fees and funded improvements to the port.

So the Church of Scotland seems to have been little loved by the locals, but there are other Christian organisations which have made a more positive contribution to the lives of fisherfolk. This is the building of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen located right on the harbour in Eyemouth. It provides practical help and emotional support to fishermen and their families. Read more about its work here. So many landlubbers have no idea how hard the life of a seafarer is.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Smugglers of Eyemouth

This is Gunsgreen House in Eyemouth. I've mentioned Eyemouth before in connection with the study which compared the accent of its residents with that of Berwickers, so I thought it was time to provide some visuals. It's the closest Scottish town to Berwick, about fifteen minutes drive straight up the coast. Walking between the two along the coastal path is popular with the sort of keen hikers who visit this area in large numbers, but count me out, thanks, I'll stick to the bus. Two routes run by Perrymans, who won an industry award last year for being the best small bus operator in the country, shuttle back and forth across the border all day, every day. Many people travel in both directions between Berwick and Eyemouth to work or shop.

Gunsgreen House has been developed as a popular visitor attraction by emphasising its historical connection with smuggling. The Nisbet family, whose fortune was built on smuggling, apparently built it with this in mind, creating large cellars which could be reached quickly and easily from a boat moored at the harbour wall, and even secret hidey-holes in the walls. Eyemouth was a notorious centre for smuggling in the 18th century, during the period when the duties charged on luxury goods such as brandy, tobacco and tea still differed between Scotland and England, even after the Acts of Union. The local customs officers mostly ended up as ineffectual alcoholics after being bribed to keep quiet with free supplies of the goods, while those in Berwick had no jurisdiction over the border.

Of course the smuggling of cigarettes is once again a thriving trade, not necessarily in Eyemouth (my lawyers have advised me to add) but in many places down the east coast, because of the amount of tax piled on to the legitimate kind by successive governments who claim that they are only doing it to discourage smoking but would actually find the budget deficit even worse than it is if the whole population really did quit.  Economists of the laissez-faire persuasion would say this just proves that you can't buck the market, not in the 18th century and not now.

It is fascinating to speculate on whether we would see a resurgence of smuggling in the event that Scotland acquired the power to set taxes independently of the Westminster government, under either full independence or the so-called 'devolution max' option. A few weeks ago I wrote about the controversy surrounding the decision by the Scottish parliament to introduce minimum pricing for alcoholic drinks and the resulting incentive for Scots to travel south of the border to buy their booze. At the present time there are no restrictions on how much drink you can transport from England to Scotland other than the breaking strain of your car axle. In the event of Scotland's being able to set its own taxes across the board, for example to vary or even abolish Value Added Tax, we could well see incentives to transport a range of goods in large quantities across the border. I am not making any assumptions yet about which direction they would be travelling in, but eventually the government of whichever country was losing out would probably decide that enough was enough and impose legal limits on the quantities of goods from the other country which could be transported or sold. In that case we could well see the resurgence of Eyemouth and/or Berwick as centres of significant smuggling operations. Particularly since times are hard in the fishing industry and boat operators need to diversify. Once again parents could be bidding their children, Watch the wall, my darling, when the gentlemen go by!

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Berwick Prison Cells

These are the 18th century prison cells on the top floor of Berwick Town Hall - that's the building with the bell tower that looks like it ought to be a church. Obviously the cells are not used any more for their original purpose. They could be a major visitor attraction if only there was anyone in Berwick who could manage to co-ordinate a decent tourism promotion campaign, but there isn't, so they aren't. Intermittent tours of the cells take place but the dates can never be predicted with certainty. The only times you are guaranteed to be able to see them are two weekends in September: the national Open Doors weekend when  many historic buildings are opened to the public, and the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival when they are used as a venue for video installations. Last week I wrote about how it is the use of unusual venues which makes this Festival so special. Seeing the films running inside the cells always makes a great impact on visitors, and the programmers try hard to choose appropriate ones. This year's included a Polish film documenting the long distance romance of two imprisoned murderers.

Observe this notice asking visitors not to close the doors. This is necessary because the doors of prison cells are of course designed to be impossible to open from the inside, so if your family go off and leave you there as a joke you will be stuck there until one of the stewards comes and rescues you, and frankly we have better things to do so we may decide to leave you there for a bit. The Festival organisers take health and safety very seriously, as all events have to these days, and armfuls of laminated notices must be patiently blu-tacked to walls and doors by the volunteer stewards. Mostly these concern things like 'uneven floor' and 'low level lighting' where you can expect visitors to co-operate out of a natural desire not to fall over in the dark. The only warning that is persistently ignored is this one, asking visitors to please not close the doors and shut themselves in a cell. Honestly, it's not big, it's not clever and nobody else thinks it's funny.  Children are of course the worst offenders but plenty of adults who should know better do it too. They all just love the idea of being locked in a cell. Apparently the popularity of this kind of experience of the brutalities of the past is recognised in the visitor attraction business and referred to as 'dark tourism'. Presumably these people wouldn't be so keen if they'd ever spent time in prison for real.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Berwick Film Festival

Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival started yesterday. It's on until Sunday 23rd so if you live within travelling distance you still have time to come and see it. Look at for details. We don't claim to rival Sundance or Cannes but we do aspire to be the best small film festival in the world. It's been running for several years now in precarious financial circumstances and has now finally attracted secure funding. As a result, after a couple of years of telling volunteers to preserve their festival tee-shirts carefully for next time, because they don't grow on trees, you know, this year we all have brand new tee-shirts in a different colour! And I'm proud to wear it.

The Festival is centred on the Maltings theatre and cinema building, shown above. This is a purpose built arts complex which attracts bitter envy from other towns in Northumberland, who suspect that the Arts Council of England funds it particularly generously just to make a point to the Scots who form a large percentage of its audiences. Last night the Film Festival opened there with Chasing Ice, a documentary about American photographer James Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey, a remarkable project which recorded glaciers over several years and generated time lapse film whch starkly ilustrates the speed at which the Arctic ice is receding. It made a great impression on everyone who saw it and it was perfect for the theme of this year's festival, which is the relationship between still and moving images. Balog's still photography of the ice is extraordinarily beautiful, while the documentary maker Jeff Orlowski has captured the tension between aesthetic thrill and scientific fear. Orlowski recorded a special message for the Berwick audience. Thanks Jeff, we really appreciated it. Tonight as part of the Festival the Maltings is hosting the UK premiere of Resident Evil: Retribution, because it was directed by Paul Anderson who is the son of Chris Anderson who was one of the founders of the Berwick Film Festival. Resident Evil is not my sort of thing but it's great for Berwick to have the UK premiere of anything at all, and seeing a long line of eager young people in fancy dress as zombies was something to remember.

What makes the Berwick Film and Media Arts festival so special is that it does not just consist of feature films shown in a cinema, it includes a series of video installations set up in unusual locations all over town. You can follow the whole trail with the help of a leaflet but many people just stumble across an installation by accident and so have an artistic experience which they might never have deliberately sought out. The whole town is turned into one big celebration of the cinematic arts and this gives the festival an immersive quality which I have never come across anywhere else. The picture on the left is the venue I was stewarding this morning - it's the magazine or arsenal next to the old barracks, where the gunpowder was stored. These barrels are modern reproductions. One of the visitors asked me if they had gunpowder in. Since there was no mention of this in the otherwise exhaustive health and safety assessment, I thought not. Setting up cabling for three video projectors - the installation in there is a triptych - in a building hundreds of yards from an electricity supply is a real technical challenge. The photo above shows the Gymnasium Gallery, formerly the gym for soldiers in the barracks but now an art gallery. It is hosting an installation which combines 24 separate screens to give the effect of a 19th century zoetrope. The programme describes it as 'ambitious'. Unfortunately it's so ambitious that at the time of writing the technicians haven't been able to get it to work. Never mind, it'll probably be fixed before Sunday and meanwhile there's plenty of other wonderful things to see.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Debatable Land on Tour 2012

This is not a photo of any part of the Debatable Land. It was taken in the city of Wells. I've been visiting friends for a few days in The Land of Far, Far Away, otherwise known as the South of England. Yes, I do have friends Down South. I don't have anything against Southerners in any racist, xenophobic kind of way. I just can't help feeling that they're not like us. And the South is not like the North. I've been thinking about the differences that struck me, and this idyllic scene seemed like a good visual shorthand.

For a start, it seemed very quiet without the seagulls, but of course that's not a north-south difference. It always seems quiet when I go inland. I live with the screeching of gulls 24/7 and I only notice it when it stops.  Second, the weather was glorious. Very warm, blue skies, no wind. The media were calling it an Indian summer. On my first day back in Berwick it rained heavily all day and now it's blowing a gale. To be fair, I hear that the weather down south isn't so good now either. But it did remind me that nobody is ever going to visit the Borders for the climate. And then there seemed to be an awful lot of trees in Hampshire and Somerset. Acres of sun-dappled leaves rippled prettily on every side. Of course we have trees in Northumberland too. Honest we do. But we do also have a lot of bare moorland. For those of us who grew up here the distinctive beauty of this moorland is imprinted on our hearts. But it is not the landscape that is celebrated as England in the canon of English literature. It's the softer southern landscape of low hills and something called 'water meadows' which is evoked in, for example, Alice Through the Looking Glass, where the chessboard effect is created by the small streams criss-crossing the small fields. My friends live beside a water meadow. It seems to be what we call a pasture - a field beside a river that you stick cows in.

I went on the tour of Winchester Cathedral. It has 13th century floor tiles. This is truly amazing. I've never seen anything that old on a floor. The kind of society that existed in the 1200s in the Borders was not conducive to anything that was put on a floor surviving for very long. There were too many people tramping about to fight with each other and too many animals that needed stabling in any handy old building. In fact all of Winchester and Wells have the look of somewhere that's had a fairly untroubled existence most of the time. The most famous historical character in Winchester is King Alfred and his great achievement was paying off the Danes who conquered the rest of England. I don't think anybody in Hampshire ever had to take refuge on the upper floors of a pele tower after locking their livestock in on the ground floor, while the thieving gangs known as reivers roamed about looking for anything not nailed down to take away with them. And even though Winchester has seen its fair share of political turbulence as the monarchy and government of England took shape there, I don't think it ever had armies of thousands fighting on its territory. The book Historic Architecture of Northumberland explains that the distinctive character of the old buildings of the Borders comes from the fact that even domestic buildings had to function as defensive structures in a lawless and violent society. Function and fortification had to take precedence over prettiness for hundreds of years.

When my train from London drew into Newcastle my heart did a little leap of happiness. This happens every time I approach Newcastle from the south and see that view of the bridges. It also did a little leap when I boarded the train at Kings Cross and the woman in charge of the coffee trolley spoke to me in a Geordie accent. And I'd only been away five days. 

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Booze Cruise Berwick

This is the 18th century guardhouse in Berwick known as the Main Guard. Originally it was located in the town centre and was, well, the main guard point. After the end of the Napoleonic wars the authorities stopped worrying about anyone invading and scaled down the garrison in Berwick. The locals complained a lot that having a guardhouse in the middle of the high street was obstructing the traffic. The authorities were looking around for job creation schemes for unemployed former soldiers, and shifting the guardhouse seemed to fit the bill. So it was dismantled and rebuilt just off the Walls, out of everybody's way. They made a good job of it and you would never think to look at it that it had ever been anywhere else. The building was restored and cleaned up a while back and is now rented from English Heritage, who own it, by Berwick Civic Society, who put on an exhibition about local history in there every summer.

What visitors really like however is not the interesting historical information or the attractive exterior architecture, but a small, dank, windowless room inside the building known as the Black Hole. It has a flagged floor uneven enough to require a warning notice, bare whitewashed walls and the original heavy wooden door. It is usually full of the Civic Society's junk and looks like a particularly off-putting version of everybody's cupboard under the stairs. What was it for? visitors invariably ask. Well, it was the 18th century version of a drunk tank. People who were picked up for being drunk and disorderly were locked up in the Black Hole overnight with no fire, light, bedding or, one fears, sanitation, before being hauled before the magistrates in the morning. Every time I've told this 'horrible history' to a visitor they have promptly replied 'they could do with using it again these days!'.

The police in Berwick are still shovelling drunks off the streets and into cells every Friday and Saturday night and often other nights as well. The problem here seems at the moment to be no worse and no better than anywhere else. (I've always thought there are more unpleasant drunks in Alnwick, but that's a controversial view.) The situation could though be about to get completely out of hand. The Scottish government is introducing a legal minimum price for a unit of alcohol which would have the effect of raising prices on many of the most popular drinks, particularly those sold very cheaply by supermarkets. I'm all in favour of this. The problem is that it's not a UK wide policy yet. Holyrood is going ahead with the scheme while Westminster dithers. The result will be that alcoholic drinks in Scotland will suddenly become more expensive than in England. And what do you think that's going to mean for Berwick? Yes - car loads of Scots driving to our local supermarkets to stock up. If they take it home before they drink it that might not be so bad, but my guess is that we'll also see a lot of inebriated Scots staggering along the river paths to join the inebriated English who are already a permanent fixture there.

This issue turned into a party political row when the Labour group on Northumberland County Council called on the council to seize the opportunity to promote the north of the county as a 'booze cruise' destination for Scots. I grieve to see members of the Labour party lose touch so completely with their temperance roots. They were promptly condemned by the Liberal Democrats on the council and by our local MP Alan Beith, who is a LibDem and an active Methodist. I don't think they meant us to take the term 'cruise' literally, they were just using the analogy of those day trips across the Channel to stock up at the Calais hypermarket. My local newsagent though seemed to have taken it that way when we discussed the matter as he sold me my copy of the 'Tiser last week. The only place cruises would be able to sail from would be Leith, he said, and would it be worth the fare? Don't laugh- it all depends how many cans you buy after you dock.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Lifeboat Fete Season

This is the Berwick lifeboat Joy and Charles Beeby being launched last Sunday. Not for an emergency thankfully, purely for exhibition purposes at the annual fundraising fete held on Carr Rock, Spittal, where the lifeboat station is situated. I love lifeboat fetes. All of the RNLI stations down my stretch of the coast, and presumably everywhere else as well, hold one over the summer. The dates are co-operatively chosen so that no two fetes within travelling distance of each other are held on the same day. Should you so desire you can support the lifeboat fetes at (from north to south) St Abbs, Eyemouth, Berwick, Seahouses, Amble and Cullercoats in any one summer. The most fun bit is watching the crews demonstrate their rescue techniques. One of them will cheerfully jump into the water, light a coloured flare and wait for the boat to zoom flashily around the harbour before homing in on him and hauling him aboard. A couple of years ago in Amble the display was based on a vessel bearing the somewhat non-p.c. name of Chav Boat whose occupants were enthusiastically demonstrating the dire consequences of heavy drinking and rowdiness on the water. So long as it's not needed anywhere for real the RAF search and rescue helicopter will also take part, winching a man up from one boat and depositing him gently on another one in a way that is really quite impressive.

The modern Facebook-friendly mascot of the RNLI is Stormy Stan, seen here obligingly posing for me. He works along the same lines as Santa Claus, embracing small children while their parents take a picture and then with a bit of luck put a donation in the bucket. The crew member behind him is wearing the indoor uniform of the service. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is a remarkable phenomenon - a vital emergency service operated entirely by volunteers. You wouldn't set it up that way if you were starting from scratch, but it's developed gradually over nearly 200 years into a service that works perfectly, and if it ain't broke don't fix it. The RNLI attracts enormous public affection and loyalty and never has any difficulty in raising enough money for its running costs. Having grown up on the coast I had always assumed that people inland did not know or care about it, so I was taken aback the first time I saw someone rattling a tin for the lifeboats in the centre of Birmingham, which is as far from the sea as you can get in the British Isles. I spoke to the tin-rattler and learned that she was a native Brummie who barely knew the coast, yet shared the general admiration for 'the charity which saves lives at sea'.

Remember the Tweedmouth Salmon Queen? This is her again. One of the more challenging duties of the role is the requirement to arrive at Carr Rock on a lifeboat and pick her way gingerly up the launching ramp, wearing a lifejacket over her gauzy gown. Her young attendants have to do likewise. The mayor is standing at the top of the ramp to welcome them. Eagle-eyed viewers may notice that this is a different lifeboat, called Barclaycard Crusader. It's based at Eyemouth, the next station up the coast, and accordingly was displaying a Bonnie Scotland banner. The name always makes me giggle,but I suppose that sponsoring lifeboats is one way for Barclaycard to fullfil the Corporate Social Responsibility Mission Statement which it no doubt has filed away somewhere. This ceremonial landing is solemnly announced over the loudspeaker as 'the arrival of the civic party', and the really clever part is that the tide has to be at just the right height to facilitate it. The organisers have to pore over tide tables before they fix the date as well as liaising with half a dozen other fete committees. So make it worthwhile for them by buying an RNLI torch or teatowel, and please, I beg you, don't be one of the idiots who force the volunteers to risk their own lives in a rescue attempt that would never have been necessary if the rescue-ees had shown some basic maritime common sense. There are too many of them nowadays.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Alnwick Music Festival

This week I bring you some pictures from a little further south than usual but still well within the territory historically disputed between England and Scotland, the town of Alnwick. This town is best known for its large and showy castle and the recent development of part of the castle grounds into a horticultural theme park known as the Alnwick Garden, but since that's had quite enough publicity already I don't propose to add to it here. Alnwick International Music Festival has been, as some of its banners proclaim, 'welcoming the world to Northumberland since 1976', without any help from the Castle, solely through the hard work and dedication of a small band of volunteers. A stage is set up in the marketplace and visiting groups perform traditional dances and songs from many countries all day, every day for a week, weather permitting. When weather does not permit, which is often, the whole operation moves into the hall seen here behind the stage.

This is the Lithuanian group Zemaitukas. The Baltic states are now frequent visitors to the festival, possessing as they do the organisers' preferred combination of an unrestricted right of entry to the UK plus an attractive national costume and lively traditional music. Here they perform on a sort of horizontal harp, the name of which I'm afraid I didn't catch. I was interested to learn that they come from the town of Klaipeda, because that name often features in the reports of activity in Tweed Dock as the next destination of ships calling in there.

A friend of mine regularly volunteers as a 'group host', which means caring for the every need of a particular visiting group throughout the festival. Some of them are more trouble than others. This year she has had to make three trips to hospital with her accident prone charges. A few years back she had to smooth over a nasty spat arising from an unfortunate confusion of the Slovenian and Slovakian flags. (Since the organisers of the London Olympics managed to mix up the flags of North and South Korea, I think that the Alnwick volunteers can be forgiven for that.)

This is a Russian family group who perform under the name of The Family Tradition Ensemble. They have attended the festival several times; the daughter first trod the boards in Alnwick when only just able to toddle on stage. I nicknamed her the Infant Phenomenon, after one of the members of a family group in a Dickens novel.  As you can see she is an infant no longer, but still a phenomenal performer for her age. This is a good opportunity for me to send greetings to all my Russian readers, of whom Blogger Stats tells me I have a surprising number. I hope you like Family Tradition's crowd-pleasing version of the Russian bear.

Apart from the obvious problem of trying to raise enough funds to feed and shelter a hundred or so international performers for a week every year, the main headache for the organisers is visa problems. Every year at least one of the groups listed in the programme is not actually in evidence, after failing to secure the necessary immigration documents. This year the no-show is from India. Perhaps surprisingly, a group of Mexicans have made it past the UK Borders Agency without incident. As restrictions on immigration to this country grow ever tighter, it is sadly becoming difficult to welcome the music and dance of some regions of the world to Northumberland.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

'Isles of Wonder'

At precisely 8.12 am on Friday 27th July the bells in the tower of Berwick town hall, also known as the Guildhall, started ringing. We are used to hearing the ringers practice every Thursday evening but the sound of a joyful peal at such an ungodly hour awoke confused folk memories of V.E. Day in me as I stumbled between bedroom and bathroom. It was, of course, the national celebration of the start of the Olympic Games dreamed up by the artist Martin Creed. He also suggested that individuals should ring their door bells or make a noise on pots and pans, but thankfully nobody round my way took him up on this. Considered as a piece of art, this struck me as requiring not much more thought on his part than his famous lump of blu-tack stuck on a wall, but as an expression of national relief that after seven years of preparation the Olympics were now, for better or worse, amongst us, it was a pretty good idea.

Regular readers of my blog may recall that the parish church of Berwick has no bell tower because it was built under the puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell, and so bells were installed in the Guildhall when it was built in the next century. (For more on the church see the post of  10.5.12.) They may also recall that the seagulls in Berwick are a dratted nuisance, and so will not be surprised to see a gull flying towards the camera at the bottom of the picture. I do have seagull-free photos of the Guildhall, but I quite like this one.

The nearest the Olympics have come to us is Newcastle, which is hosting some of the football matches. The train station and city centre are covered in signposts to the St James Park ground printed in a bright bubblegum pink which comes as a shock in a city where football fans bleed black-and-white. LOCOG have apparently decided that even if nothing else is memorable about these Games the colour scheme will be, so pinks and purples are everywhere. From the train I thought I saw the Olympic rings hanging on the Tyne Bridge, but when I went down to the quayside to get a photo I couldn't see them anywhere. I suspect I was standing too close to the base of the bridge, but in any case, given the ferocious brand protection exercised by the IOC they'd probably get this blog shut down if I posted a photo of their symbol.

This window display was snapped in a sports shop in Marygate, the main shopping street of Berwick. It is not entirely clear why any visitors to this country would want to buy their souvenirs of London 2012 in Berwick rather than in, say, London, which may be why all Olympic souvenirs now have 20% off. Except the replica torches, which have enjoyed an inexplicable popularity.

I used to be a hard-core Olympic refusenik but I was completely won over by the fantastic opening ceremony. The next day I held my head a little higher as a proud citizen of what Danny Boyle called the Isles of Wonder. Only a few killjoy Tories have dissented from the rapturous reception given to the ceremony. They thought it was 'leftie' - which was exactly why some of us liked it! Considered within the particular remit of this blog, there seemed to be nothing to upset any of the 'nations and regions' of the UK. Danny Boyle scrupulously segued from Jerusalem's celebration of England's green and pleasant land to traditional songs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (alphabetical order, in other words). The uniforms of Team GB look a lot more blue than red, so that should gladden the hearts of Scots. And one of the young athletes who lit the cauldron comes from Westruther in Berwickshire, very much part of the Debatable Land. Take a bow, Callum Airlie.

The Commonwealth Games of 2014 are being held in Glasgow, which Scottish nationalists calculate will generate a surge of national pride that will translate into votes for independence in the referendum to be held in the same year. There is nothing at all 'debatable' about Glasgow, indeed a city with a stronger identity or more clearly defined sense of its place in the world would be hard to find. But it is within day-tripping distance of Berwick, and after enjoying the Olympics so much more than I expected I am seriously thinking of attending some events at the Commonwealths. I'll be the one not waving a saltire. 

Thursday, 26 July 2012

'A Wake for the Salmon'

Following on from last week's Salmon Queen festival, the boats appeared this week on Gardo Stell, next to the Old Bridge on the Tweedmouth side of the river. This is now the only salmon fishing stell in regular annual use. The camouflage effect of the boats' blue paint is not ideal for a photographer. I assumed this traditional colour was designed to hide them from the fish, but I'm told it is chosen as the colour most visible at night. One boat remains on the sandbank where they are based, not visible in this picture but exposed at low tide, while the other end of the net is attached to the second boat and a man rows round in a circle to spread it out. After waiting a while for the fish to swim into it the net is winched back in. Part of the process can be seen in the photo on the right, taken last year in admittedly failing light.

I was once walking across the bridge on my way back from the supermarket when I saw the men despatching a net full of fish on the sandbank by clubbing them. The contrast between my bag full of packaged, processed food and the emotionless killing of the salmon gave me a jolt. It had a primal quality which reminded me of Hemingway's novella, The Old Man and the Sea. It is easy to romanticise fishing, and I was probably guilty of this when I first came to Berwick, but it is a hard, tough trade which has to battle constantly against the vagaries of both nature and the commercial market. The Tweed is one of the great salmon rivers of the world, and the fish from here reportedly sell for astonishing prices in restaurants abroad, but not much of the profit reaches the men who catch them. Nor do the fishermen share my own love of the seals, since they are competitors for their livelihood.

Local photographer Jim Walker made a prolonged study of the salmon fishing industry. For this post I have borrowed the title of his best known book, A Wake for the Salmon. This is now out of print and the main collection of his work available is By Net and Coble. If you have any interest in the subject I advise you to look at this book. Jim's work has an elegiac quality because he was documenting an industry in steep decline, in the years immediately preceding the closure of the Berwick Salmon Fishing Company.

I'll end with an image from the float parade which concluded Tweedmouth Feast. Young Rebekah was chosen to wear the Salmon Queen's crown, according to the committee, because of her obvious pride in coming from Tweedmouth. So the place is far from finished yet.

P.S. The Berwick Advertiser had the cheek to get the chair of the Feast committee to ask us in her opening speech to send it any good photos we took of the event. It seems that nobody did, because the photos in today's edition are rubbish. Dream on 'Tiser, I'm keeping my photos for my own publication.