Thursday 29 March 2012

From Russia With Loyalty Cards

This is the most interesting arrival in Tweed Dock over the last few weeks: the Alexander Tvardovsky, registered at St Petersburg and flying the Russian flag. Since in these security conscious times the harbour gates are covered in notices warning of Restricted Access to Unauthorised Persons, I had to get the best photo I could manage by poking my camera between the dock railings. A number of other locals were doing the same thing, to the amusement of the solitary crew member who had been left on deck while the dock crane did its work.

Tweed Dock is located on the south bank of the estuary, which strictly speaking is Tweedmouth, not Berwick. Just as a matter of interest, Tweedmouth, unlike Berwick, has never been part of Scotland. Many centuries ago Berwick was the most prosperous port in Scotland (which is one reason why England wanted to get its hands on it) and early photography recorded the quayside there still thronged with ships in the 19th century, but no commercial vessels sail from the north bank today.

Business in the south side dock has picked up over the last couple of years and is now relatively brisk. At the moment a new ship seems to appear every few days. Some of them are regular callers on their route up and down the east coast with mundane cargoes of fertiliser and cement, but some of them are relatively exotic and trying to identify the flag is always fun.

Tweedmouth has been a seafaring community for a long time. In the graveyard of the parish church, just across the road from the dock, are many headstones commemorating maritime connections.  A number of them describe those buried there, men who survived the sea long enough to be interred at home, as ‘master mariner’. Some graves though preserve only the names of those buried far away. One of them is sacred to the memory of a man who ‘died at Petersburgh’ in 1829 and another to one who ‘died at Dantzic’ (now Gdansk) in 1866. It is as if the 20th century interlude when free travel between Britain and Eastern Europe was impossible was a mere blip, and now the ageless imperatives of trade have once again brought Russians and Poles to Northumberland and sent Britons off travelling east.

During the severe winter weather in late 2010 I saw three young men shouting cheerfully at each other in Russian as they pushed the most heavily laden shopping trolley I have ever seen from a nearby supermarket to a ship moored in the dock. The nonchalant ease with which they manoeuvred it down a snow-covered hill was a clue to their national origins. The trolley looked as though the addition of so much as an extra packet of crisps might cause the wheels to buckle. It disappeared inside the No Unauthorised Access area, bearing enough food to sustain the crew all the way back to the Baltic.

Thursday 22 March 2012

'Bought and Sold for English Gold'

This week’s photo is not as pretty as previous ones, but there is a good laugh concealed in it. This is the inscription above the door of the Kelso branch of Royal Bank of Scotland. Kelso is a market town on the north bank of the Tweed about half an hour’s drive west of Berwick. A spot of googling reveals that the Latin motto ‘ditat servata fides’ translates as ‘faithful conduct enriches’. If only RBS had borne this in mind more recently than 1934! As the whole world now knows, it has spent the last few years discovering to its cost that irresponsible conduct impoverishes. So much so that, instead of the Royal Bank being poised to take its place as the financial flagship of an independent Scotland, one of the biggest issues to be hammered out in the event of a Yes vote in the referendum will be how its huge debts will be divvied up between Scotland and England.

Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, used to be a banker before he became a full-time politician, and so is presumably well aware that it was a financial crisis which forced Scotland into union with England in the first place, back in the 18th century.  It was this event which prompted Robert Burns to write the line I’ve used as the title of this post.  The independent Scottish currency of that time continually lost value against the English pound sterling. Whether the same would happen again, I could not possibly presume to speculate.

The Royal Bank of Scotland, the Bank of Scotland and the Clydesdale Bank issue their own banknotes. Cash machines north of the border dispense notes issued by one of these three banks. At the moment the difference between English and Scottish banknotes is purely in their design. There is no question of their actually being separate currencies. Whether this will change if Scotland becomes independent is still unknown. At one time the SNP hankered after joining the euro, but in light of the current crisis in the eurozone that option looks a great deal less attractive.

Naturally, both English and Scottish notes circulate indiscriminately around the Borders. Any shopkeeper in Berwick will take a Scottish note without a second glance, and  the self-checkout machines in the supermarkets here accept them without so much as a beep. The further south you go, the more likely you are to find them treated with suspicion, and, even though Scottish notes are officially legal tender throughout the UK, I usually try to avoid having any on me when travelling south of Newcastle. I was once standing in the queue in a Berwick supermarket when a visitor from Down South received a Scottish tenner in her change. She inspected both sides of it closely and held it up to the light. She enquired of the cashier if this was a Scottish note. The cashier confirmed that it was. The customer asked if it could be exchanged for an English note, as she might have trouble spending it back home. The cashier obliged. After the anxious southerner had taken her shopping and left, some dry remarks were passed among the queue.

If Scottish banks break free of sterling, those of us who regularly shop cross-border may be obliged to give up cash altogether and stick to the international currency of plastic.

Thursday 15 March 2012

The Seal Folk

This seal has been attracting attention recently in Berwick. It has taken to lying on this sandbank beside the old bridge at low tide. From its size it seems to be one of last autumn’s babies. Some observers have seen an adult seal, probably its mother, swimming near it, and there has been speculation on whether its mum lets it out to play for a while and then comes to fetch it home for its tea. Once comfortably installed on the sandbank it is reluctant to move, and a friend reports that she watched the tide rise right up to its nose before it finally started swimming.

Seals are a frequent sight in the estuary of the Tweed over the winter months. They congregate to breed in the autumn on the Farne Islands, a group of small islands a few miles off the coast of North Northumberland. As they hunt for food they follow the fish which are brought into the estuary by the rising tide, and so they are most often seen at high water. I was once lucky enough to see a seal lying on its back holding a fish between its flippers and apparently tossing it up and down just for fun.

There have probably been seals off the coast of North Northumberland and South East Scotland for as long as there have been people on the land. There are many stories describing Saint Cuthbert’s relationships with wildlife during his time living as a hermit on Inner Farne (where he died in the year 687). It is said that the power of his preaching was so great that even the seals came to listen to his sermons. This story may have arisen from the typically inquisitive behaviour of these intelligent mammals. It is common to see one or two seals near the quayside holding position with their heads above water and staring intently at people on the shore. On several occasions I have been the object of their interest, and it has always given me a privileged feeling of encountering another species in a relationship of equality, each of us in our natural habitat, wondering in a friendly way about the other. It is easy to imagine the seals on the Farnes bobbing along to listen to St Cuthbert’s spiritual advice. 

Thursday 8 March 2012

The Edge of Europe?

Here is a picture of another bridge over the Tweed. This one spans the water between Cornhill and Coldstream, and at this point the river forms the English-Scottish border. On the left side of the picture: Scotland. On the right: England.

There is an old building at the north end of the bridge known as the Toll House or Marriage House, which until the mid nineteenth century was one of a number of venues for marriages of runaway English couples taking advantage of Scotland’s more flexible arrangements for marriages without parental consent and without prior notice. The best known of these is of course Gretna Green, at the western end of the Borders, and, because the border slopes down from east to west, conveniently further south and thus a shorter journey for English lovers. Minor differences between the marriage laws of England and Scotland still exist, but now that most young couples are happy to set up home together with or without parental consent, the Marriage House has not seen an elopement for a long time. It seems possible though that if Scotland votes for full independence it could find a new use as a passport and customs post.

The Vote No campaign is already warning that independence would mean full passport controls between Scotland and England. This seems implausible. A very few hours of driving around the Borders will make it obvious that, as generations of monarchs before the Act of Union were well aware, this frontier will never be fully defensible. Even if the powers-that-be set up checkpoints on every road and bridge, there are an awful lot of fields and woods through which any reasonably able-bodied illegal migrant could easily stroll. Not to mention the possibility of splashing their way across the Tweed a few hundred yards upstream from this photo, where the guards wouldn’t be able to see around the bend.

Such scenarios become even more startling if we take seriously the argument that an independent Scotland would lose its membership of the European Union as part of the United Kingdom and have to re-apply for membership in its own right. Could the bridge in this picture become the boundary of the European Union? It is difficult to imagine, but history teaches us that the unimaginable sometimes happens. 

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Welcome to the Borders

This is a picture of the old bridge at Berwick-upon-Tweed. Where I live. You can just see the modern road bridge in the background, and beyond that is the railway bridge. But contrary to what you might expect, the river Tweed at this point is not the border between England and Scotland. Cross to the north bank via any of these three bridges, and you’re still in England. That’s what makes us a grey area. Travel west a bit to Coldstream and there the bridge across the Tweed is logically and sensibly the border between the two nations. But Berwick is a historical anomaly. It has been separated from the county of Berwickshire, which lies across the border, and is now part of Northumberland. The letters page of the Berwick Advertiser is still from time to time taken over by claim and counter claim about why the town is quite definitely and indisputably the rightful property of either Scotland or England, according to the treaty of something-or-other, but I’m not going to get into that. The reason I’m writing this blog is that life on the English-Scottish border has become increasingly interesting since Scotland obtained devolution and elected a Nationalist government which has now announced a referendum on independence.  Many aspects of daily life in the Borders have become uncertain in light of the possibility of Scottish independence, and I plan to keep reporting on them. Historically the area covered by the term ‘debatable land’ is broadly that between the cities of  Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Edinburgh. The area that neither the English or Scottish governments really thought about much, except to curse it as a damn nuisance. Arguably government still doesn’t think about it much - ask anyone in Berwick what they think about Northumberland County Council, then stand well back. We may be debatable but we’re real and we’re here, and this blog is about us.