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.