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.