Thursday 28 June 2012


Last week I mentioned Spittal and it occurred to me afterwards that most of my readers will never have heard of Spittal, so I thought that this week I would write a bit more about the place. The beach on the southern side of the Tweed estuary belongs to the village of Spittal while the beach on the north belongs to Berwick (as I described last week, any piece of litter chucked into the Tweed anywhere along its length eventually ends up on one or the other of them).  Spittal and Tweedmouth, the village slightly further to the west on the south bank of the estuary, have an uneasy relationship with the town of Berwick which dates back to the days when the river was the English-Scottish border. The south bank has never been in Scotland; Spittal and Tweedmouth used in fact to belong to the Bishops of Durham. Now that Berwick is in Northumberland they have been incorporated within the borough of Berwick, but they preserve a distinct identity and a reluctance to 'cross the bridge' is often heard on both sides of the river.

Spittal beach is one of the most attractive and most suitable for having fun on that I've ever seen in Britain, and accordingly it developed a reputation as a seaside resort. A very small seaside resort, a kind of bonsai version of Scarborough. The oldest inhabitants remember the annual excitement of the Kelso Trip, when hordes of children from the Scottish town of that name would descend on Spittal for their one day at the seaside, travelling by train to Tweedmouth station (long since closed down) and then walking the mile or so to the beach. Above is a photo of the 1930 shelter on the promenade, such a cute example of the period when seaside holidays and art deco flourished together that it makes me smile every time I see it. 

The picture on the right was taken on Boxing Day last year during the annual frolic of plunging into the sea for an icy dip to wash away that Christmas sluggishness. 2011 wasn't so bad, but in 2010 the participants had to run through the snow covering the sand even to get to the water. Nobody seems to have dropped dead from the shock to the system, but I noticed that the inshore lifeboat and a couple of its crew, who have some paramedic training, were standing by just in case.

If the weather had been better I could have brought you some photos of the Spittal Gala, which was held last week.The Kelso Trip used to be arranged to coincide with this. Every town in the Borders has some version of an annual gala or festival and the traditions go back a long time. Unfortunately the rain has been so unrelenting this year that the photographer from the local paper just had time to snap the contestants in the children's fancy dress contest before everyone was obliged to run for shelter from a torrential downpour and all of the other events were comprehensively washed out.

Of course Spittal was a centre of the fishing industry long before it was a holiday resort, but sadly the company that processed salmon there has now closed down. All that is left is this building in Sandstell Road, a fishing shiel dating back to at least 1735. A shiel is the name given to a small building used by fishermen to store their gear and to shelter and sleep while they wait for the salmon to arrive in the nets. They were once common along the Tweed but this is the only one to survive in its original form. An interesting feature of it is that the gable ends protrude higher than the present roof because it was originally thatched. It was finally abandoned less than thirty years ago and still contains some newspapers, mugs and odd items of clothing left behind by the last men to use it. A local group is working hard to gain the funds and recognition necessary to convert it into an information centre where visitors could learn more about the history of the fishing industry. More power to their elbow. Buildings like this which preserve the lives of ordinary working people must not be forever pushed to the bottom of the heritage conservation list in favour of yet another aristocratic mansion.

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