Wednesday 17 December 2014

The Kilted Magi

A very Happy Christmas to all my readers!

For my Christmas post this year I have something a bit different for you. This is a photo of a sculpture in the parish church of Kirknewton, a small village in North Northumberland. (I should confess that it was taken by my late father and not by myself.) You can see that the modern plaster on the wall has been carefully shaped around the figures to preserve this very old relief carving of the Adoration of the Magi.

It is recognisably a depiction of the Three Wise Men bringing gifts to the Baby Jesus, who sits in his mother's lap. The detail that makes it so interesting is that the Wise Men are wearing, not trousers, nor anything known to have been worn in first century Persia where they reportedly came from, but the type of garments that the local congregation here in the English-Scottish Borders were apparently familiar with, now usually referred to as kilts. Every serious book on the history of Scotland that I've read says that our modern idea of a kilt is mostly a Victorian invention and that the Scottish Highlanders in centuries past simply wore a piece of plaid cloth loosely wrapped around themselves. This sculpture seems to provide evidence that similar styles of dress were adopted by men further south as well.

The work probably dates from the 12th century, according to the great Nikolaus Pevsner. The Northumberland volume of the 1950s 'Queen's England' series refers to it vaguely as 'Norman'. Both of them describe it as artistically very crude, which may be true but is kind of missing the point about why it's so appealing. It is a powerful image from the history of Christianity in Northern Europe.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Noah's Flood: Once Again Topical

It has been raining a lot recently. I mean, a lot. On days when the rain never stops living on a river estuary loses some of its appeal. All I can see is water in every direction – water in the river, water on the ground, water in the sky. Water dripping off my sleeves in the library and making the books soggy. Water making the garden path so slippy that I skidded when fetching the wheely-bin back in and would have fallen if the bin hadn’t acted as a handy zimmer-frame.

I have started taking climate change more seriously recently, partly because there seems to be no doubt that the winters are warmer and wetter than they were when I was a child. There is something to be said for having less snow, but constant rain is not much fun either. It is a commonplace on days like this to joke that perhaps we should be building an ark. So when I came across this picture while sorting out my old photos, I thought, Hmm ... Maybe there is some useful knowledge to be gleaned from this.

The photo shows a performance of the Benjamin Britten opera Noah’s Flood, or rather, Noye’s Fludde, staged in St Michael’s church, Alnwick, in the late 1960s, starring the great bass-baritone Owen Brannigan as Noah and your correspondent as a mouse. That’s me at the far right of the front row, with the plaits. All the other mice have kept their masks in the correct position and are behaving in a suitably mouse-like fashion, while I seem to have tilted mine back, the better to stare at the audience. I remember that I was sulking about not being cast as one of the cool animals. Everybody wanted to be a giraffe or an elephant, who had impressive papier-mache heads and not just a rubbish mask. You may also have noticed that there are more than two mice. Basically, any member of the Sunday School who hadn’t succeeded in being cast as a decent two-by-two animal was pacified by being allowed to be a mouse. This was justified on the grounds that any bodged-up wooden ship would have been full of mice anyway without needing to march them aboard in pairs. We had to scurry up the aisle of the church at the back end of the procession into the ark, squeaking 'Eek eek!'  Darling, the indignity of it all.

Apart from my papier-mache envy, the only thing I can now recall about this performance is how much my arms ached. The conclusion of the first half of the show was a stirring rendition by the entire cast, mice included, of Eternal Father, Strong to Save, a hymn traditionally sung by seafarers and those who love them that implores God to protect ‘those in peril on the sea’. To add to the dramatic effect we all had to hold out our hands in an attitude of supplication for the entire hymn. Mr Brannigan was naturally a consummate professional and stood rock steady throughout, but some of the animals were distinctly wobbly well before the end.

In addition to his career in classical music, Owen Brannigan became well known for his recordings of traditional folk songs from Northumberland and Tyneside. We used to have one of them in the house when I was a child. I really must try to track them down in digital form. I only discovered recently that Owen Brannigan was born in Annitsford, then a small village in the south of Northumberland but now incorporated into Cramlington New Town, and sang in the church choir there as a boy.  A dear friend of mine who died much too young is buried in the churchyard at Annitsford. It always makes me happy to find such connections in my life.

Sunday 26 October 2014

Halloween Grumbles

I am not ashamed to admit that I am one of those shoppers who like to have a good rummage in the ‘reduced to clear’ section of the supermarket every time I go there. You never know what you may find. Yesterday evening I found a toffee apple for 6p and happily regressed to my sticky childhood. There was a whole pile of them in the clearance. And yesterday was the 25th October. Toffee coated apples are traditionally consumed at Halloween, which is still nearly a week away. Why are the supermarkets stocking festival goodies so far in advance of the relevant festival that they end up being reduced to clear a week before the date anybody would be expected to buy them?  For years now it has been possible to buy a Christmas cake with a ‘best before’ date well in advance of Christmas. What on earth is the point of this?

I have something of a bee in my bonnet about the modern Americanised celebration of Halloween. Not because I have a knee-jerk antagonism to anything American, but because it has obliterated the indigenous ways of marking the festival in the British Isles. Some Brits don’t believe we ever celebrated Halloween before we were introduced to pumpkins by Hollywood. (Most British shops sell pumpkins only in October and I am convinced that many Brits haven’t realised that they can be eaten as food and not just used for making lanterns.)

I used to be a loyal viewer of the Late Review show on BBC 2. A few years back, it unexpectedly hosted an argument on this subject between Tom Paulin, Irish poet, and Tony Parsons, London novelist. Tony insisted that nobody in these islands had ever heard of Halloween until the American version arrived here. Tom told him forcefully that he was wrong, he had celebrated it in Ireland as a child. Tony said this was nonsense. Tom went red in the face with rage and looked as if he might be about to stand up and throw a punch. The presenter sitting between them hastily moved the discussion along. I was sitting on the sofa in just as great a rage as Tom Paulin.

When I was a child in the 1960s we made Halloween lanterns out of turnips. Yes, turnips. I have been greeted with such incredulity by Southern Brits and Americans when I tell them this that I had almost started to doubt my own memory. So I was delighted to come across this confirmation, in the book Northumbrian Heritage by Nancy Ridley. Writing in 1968, Nancy describes it as an old custom that lingers on in remote areas.

“Not only does tradition survive but old customs have in many cases managed to withstand the realistic attitudes of the youth of today.  In some rural areas of Northumberland Hallow E’en is still celebrated.  ‘Dooking’ (ducking) for apples is one, and some children make lanterns out of a hollow turnip; two holes representing the eyes, a mouth and a nose are carved and the lighted candle placed inside the turnip shell, a handle of string is attached and these turnip lanterns have a terrifying appearance when carried swinging through the dark.”

In 1968 I was seven and at the peak of my own turnip carving endeavours. Not really being trusted with a sharp knife at that age, I only made a few token scoop-outs after my parents had done the hard graft. This probably explains why the pumpkins came into it. The emigrants to North America from Britain and Ireland presumably took both the custom and the turnips with them, but finding that the New World offered them a vegetable so much softer and easier to carve, took the easy option. 

The other thing I regret is the loss of any real sense that Halloween is frightening because it is a festival of the dead and a time when the ‘veil between the worlds’ is more permeable than usual.  I take this seriously because of the year when Halloween fell in between my father's death and his funeral, and consequently all those children roaming around dressed as skeletons seriously creeped me out. But apart from me, the Wiccans and neo-pagans are now the only people who observe it as a solemn event.

However, here in the UK the change of the clocks onto winter time takes place only a few days before 31st October - this year, it was today. At latitude 56 o N that heralds three months of having to travel home from work in the dark, and the primal sense of dread with which we face this prospect, especially in rural areas with no artificial street lighting, is something that links us with our pagan ancestors. 

Thursday 9 October 2014

Some Interesting Northumberland Place Names

Here are the covers of two books about the origins of the place names of Northumberland. The first one, with the title that you might be wary of searching for online these days, was published in 1970 by Oriel press, a Newcastle based publisher who produced a number of very good books on local history. The second is by Stan Beckensall, a Northumberland scholar and writer best known for his work on the prehistoric rock carvings of the area (possible subject of a future blog post). It has been revised and reprinted since, but I like having the 1975 original, no. 63 in the series of Northern History booklets produced by the Frank Graham press.  Here are a few examples of the contents.

 GOODWIFE HOT  Of course you now want to know the origin of this remarkable name. Watson relates that it is one of a group of Celtic camps or hill forts in an area of Redesdale, another being called Garret Hot, and says the modern name is likely to be a corruption of an original Celtic name, now lost. He also speculates though that it may be an anglicised reference to a fertility goddess, of whom he also reckons to have found traces in the folkloric figure of the Old Wife.  Beckensall does not include this name at all. Any readers who know if this matter has been cleared up since 1970, please get in touch.

BERWICK  The home territory of this blog. Every book I have ever looked at gives the derivation of the name as bere-wich, a barley farm. An especially scholarly one I looked at in the reference room of the National Library of Scotland offered the additional fact that wick or wich often referred to a smaller farm outlying from a large farm. That sounds likely in our case, and is more satisfactory than the often seen shorthand version that tells us a wick was any kind of settlement.  A local amateur historian once bent my ear at length with his theory that in the case of Berwick the wick comes from the Scandinavian for ‘bay’. It is true that the Icelandic vik means ‘bay’ (the name Reykavik apparently means ‘smoky bay’, thus incidentally explaining why the Scots say that a chimney ‘reeks’), but this cannot be the derivation of any of the inland –wicks in this area, and in any case, the most striking geographical fact about Berwick is that it stands on an estuary, not a bay. I also possess a Directory of Northumberland from 1855, and that offers the theory that the name was originally Aberwick, from the Celtic aber meaning the mouth of  a river. When I toured the local Masonic Hall last month as part of the Heritage Open Doors weekend, I noticed that they use the name Aberwicke on one of their mysterious commemorative boards. (‘I’m not allowed to explain everything to you, but we like old versions of names’.) This derivation seems to have entirely gone out of favour, but it does have some plausibility.

CAMBOIS  A village in the south-east corner of the county, best known for the amusement afforded to Northumbrians when visitors pronounce its name as if it were French.  It is actually pronounced as if the b were not there, which originally it wasn’t. Both of these books say it is derived from the Old Celtic kambo, meaning crooked, cf. Irish camus and Welsh cemmaes, and that the most likely feature in the vicinity to be described as crooked is the bay on which it stands. The name is seen in the form Cammes in the year 1050, according to Beckensall. Watson says that the modern spelling is probably due to the French speaking clerks who arrived after the Norman conquest, and comments that the name is a fine illustration of the importance of taking local pronunciation as the primary source for place names, since they have been handed down entirely by oral transmission.

CRASTER  A fishing village in the northern part of the county, where we often went for the day when I was little.  Beckensall says the name is derived from the Old English crawe-ceastre, a fort inhabited by crows. It is found in the form Craucestre in the year 1242. There is a seabird called the chough which is a member of the crow family. There was a long established cafe in the village called The Choughs, but as far as I know they never exploited this fascinating piece of etymology for the benefit of their business.

HEBRON   In the days when I regularly took the bus between Alnwick and Newcastle I used to pass a signpost to this hamlet, and wearing my other hat as someone who has studied the Middle East, it always intrigued me. It seems that the name has no connection to the West Bank town called Hebron by the Israelis. Beckensall says that it comes from hea-byrgen, a high barrow or burial mound, and is the same name as Hepburn and Hebburn.  This last is an area of Tyneside, and during the period in the 1980s when Belinda Carlisle had a record in the charts called ‘Heaven is a place on earth’, Geordies liked to sing, ‘Hebburn is a place on earth’. Can’t really argue with that.

I hope you have found the above interesting. Perhaps in the future I will publish a few more examples.

Monday 29 September 2014

Orkney: Debatable Islands

This is the cover of a guidebook to the Orkney islands published in the 1930s. My uncle bought it while serving in the Orkneys during WWII.  He sent it to his parents as a present, writing in the front “from your loving son serving with the RAF in these lonely islands, June 1944”.  I have screwed up my eyes many times trying to decide whether that word is ‘lonely’ or ‘lovely’, and am still not certain. Either would be appropriate, but the former seems more likely to be the adjective of choice of a young conscript missing his home. 

That was the only contact any of my family have ever had with Orkney – I am ashamed to confess that I have never been there. One of my relatives in New Zealand is convinced that the original bearers of the surname Housby came from Denmark via Orkney and that there is some sort of ancestral estate of ours in the islands, but more reliable scholarship tells us that most –by Danish surnames entered Britain via Yorkshire, and in any case, my uncle had plenty of time to look around in 1944, and I think he would have mentioned it if he had stumbled across a swathe of acreage bearing his own name.

This blog is, of course, about the area on either side of the Scottish-English border, but now that I have had time to digest the results of the indyref in more detail, I have realised that the Orkneys have something in common with the Scottish Borders. Both local authority areas returned a No vote of 67% in the referendum, a much more decisive No Thanks to independence than in the rest of Scotland. 

The result overall, when votes from the whole of Scotland were combined, was 55%  for No, but that disguises some sizeable local variations. The now much criticised opinion poll that showed 51% for Yes was actually an under-estimate of the vote in Glasgow, which voted  nearly 54% for Yes. Glasgow itself and the two adjacent authorities, plus Dundee on the opposite coast, were the only areas to return a majority Yes vote, which is a pretty clear indication that it is the former heartlands of the labour movement, now struggling with de-industrialisation, that have given up on the Labour party and sought salvation in independence.

The decisive rejection of independence in the Borders is in accordance with the anecdotal impression I had formed, and is what you would expect from the region whose daily life would have been most seriously disrupted by the appearance of an international frontier on its doorstep. It may in fact be more noteworthy that 33% of voters still thought it was worth risking this inconvenience. But why should the Orcadians have shown themselves equally averse to the prospect of an independent Scotland? 

In their case, it seems to be because they do not consider themselves to be really part of Scotland at all and do not wish to become even more dependent on it.  The Orkney islands used to belong to Norway but were ceded to Scotland in 1468 as part of the dowry when the daughter of King Christian 1, who ruled both Norway and Denmark, married King James III of Scotland.  Princess Margaret’s royal dad was short of ready cash so pledged both the Orkney and Shetland (64% for No) islands in lieu. According to this 1930s book, the islands are still technically ‘pawned’ and may be redeemed by Norway at any time, but "Orkney folk know which side their bread is buttered and so prefer to stay with Scotland". Hmm. That was before Norway accumulated a whopping sovereign wealth fund from oil revenues. 

The Orkney and Shetland islands are still even more strongly Scandinavian in language and culture than the northern mainland of Scotland and quite a lot of their inhabitants would apparently like Norway to redeem its pledge. There are also reports that some Orcadians are now demanding a referendum of their own on becoming completely independent. Berwick upon Tweed, of course, used to belong to Scotland but was conquered by England. A lot of its residents think it would be better off going back to Scotland or even becoming independent. The population of the Borough of Berwick is only slightly smaller than that of the Orkney islands. Maybe we could work out some sort of deal whereby Berwick is returned to Scotland while Orkney is returned to Norway?

Monday 22 September 2014

After the Referendum, What Now?

So now we all know the result. The Scots voted by 55.3% to 44.7% to stay in union with the rest of the United Kingdom. I stayed up most of the night from Thursday to Friday, such was my anxiety to know what the future held. The first time I started to relax a bit was at midnight when the news headlines reported an exit poll that gave the No side 54%. By 4 am it was clear that No Thanks had carried the day, and I felt it was safe to go to sleep for a while. But I was awake and online again by 7.30 am, in plenty of time to hear the Chief Counting Officer ‘certify and declare’ that ‘the majority of valid votes cast in answer to the question “should Scotland be an independent country?” was in favour of – No’.

I was surprised by just how relieved I felt that the Borders are not facing any dramatic upheaval or disruption in the foreseeable future. The Tweed can flow peacefully on without any danger of anybody building a barrier across it. This feeling is shared by most Berwickers I have spoken to, though they are being muted in their response to the result, just as they were muted beforehand in their anxiety about it, because Borderers have developed ‘keeping calm and carrying on’ to a fine art.  On Friday, in my sleep-deprived state, I went back to re-view some of the video installations in the Berwick Film Festival on the theme of Border Crossing, described in my last post, and saw them quite differently from the way they had struck me the day before.

Although my gut reaction was one of intense relief, I would not want to give the impression that I am a devoted Unionist. I have always been able to see strong arguments on both sides of the independence argument, and I am not looking forward to having to face the committed Yes activists from just over the other side of the border that I know socially here in Berwick. The most poignant figure to me in this whole intensely emotional debate is an older man I have met a couple of times in the art gallery, proudly wearing his Yes badge. He told us how ‘passionate’ he was about the issue, and the depth of his longing for his country to be independent was clear for all to see. Now he has to face up to the knowledge that he will not live to see independence. Maybe a future generation will finally bring about a stand-alone Scotland, but he will not be there to rejoice over it. His situation is repeated thousands of times all over Scotland.

The media, the Westminster politicians and the English Establishment generally were so badly shaken by that one poll that showed a majority Yes vote that they are now talking as if a majority of just over 55% is not very close at all. They have conveniently forgotten that when the date of the referendum was first fixed, over two years ago, all the polls showed the No side with a comfortable majority of well over 60%. So one way of looking at the final result is that Better Together lost votes steadily over the course of the campaign. 45% of the voters is a lot of Scots who continued to find their arguments unconvincing. It should also be borne in mind that there were four local authority districts that returned a majority Yes vote.

Personally I believe that Alex Salmond, who shocked everyone by resigning as leader of the SNP and First Minister in the aftermath of defeat, can take credit for an immense achievement. He took Scottish nationalism from a fringe movement regarded by most English people as a joke to an organised campaign that has challenged the whole constitutional settlement of the United Kingdom. Latest reports are that thousands of Scots have joined the SNP in the three days since the referendum. Go figure, Westminster.

I am now wondering what I should do with this blog. There will always be plenty of interesting things to write about in the Debatable Land. And it is not the case that nothing will change for the Borders – the commitment to granting Scots more devolved fiscal powers means that some things will change. One scenario is that Berwick will fill up with Scots practising tax avoidance by using a cheaply purchased English property as their main address for income tax purposes. That could be very beneficial for the increased prosperity of this place, but I am not entirely sure that it would be a town I would wish to continue living in. 

Thursday 18 September 2014

Border Crossing: the 2014 Berwick upon Tweed Film Festival

The Berwick upon Tweed Film and Media Arts Festival, of which I am a huge fan and about which I have written in previous years, is taking place from 17th to 21st September this year. And isn't something happening just over the border during that period? Oh yeah - the Scottish independence referendum takes place today. The Scots are voting (reportedly queuing up to vote at a turnout rate of over 80%) even as I type. So to fit in with this the Festival has this year adopted the theme of Border Crossing. All of the films and installations are about the borders between countries and the people who live and work next to them and across them.

The thing that makes the Berwick festival really special is the video installations in unusual locations. The town has a number of ice houses, where ice was stored in the days before mechanical refrigeration to be used in packing fish for market. These are amazing spaces and are sadly under-used now, so it is fantastic to see them opened up as artistic venues.

These photos show the entrance to Bankhill ice house, inside and out. Sadly it is not possible to take pictures of the pitch black interior without professional equipment. This year it is the venue for an eight screen installation by John Wallace and Professor Pete Smith showing the rivers Tweed and Sark, on the east and west respectively of the Scottish-English border, and the life of people who live and work around them. I had a quick look in this morning and it nearly made me cry. It is such a beautiful evocation of the community cross-border life that we now feel to be threatened. I am fairly sympathetic in principle to independence for Scotland (much more sympathetic than most people in Berwick) but I really dread anything happening at national political level that would result in the building of some kind of frontier control that would make the continuation of this cross-border life impossible. Everybody I have spoken to, from both sides of the border, shares this sense of dread. The Yes campaigners I know hate the idea as much as anybody else but insist it will never happen.

We have been the subjects of a media frenzy over the last couple of weeks, with many Berwickers finding themselves starring in foreign newspaper reports. My friend Simon Heald is quoted in his usual pithy style in a New York Times piece that is one of the better and more balanced articles I have seen. When I congratulated him yesterday he continued in the same style, saying that the Better Together campaign 'could not have been any more badly handled if they had just sent a troop of trained chimps to throw bananas at the Scots'. The comedy antics of Team Westminster have indeed sometimes seemed to descend to the level of 'vote No and we'll give you extra bananas'. I heard somebody on the radio say that the Yes activists have had all the romance and passion while the No Thanks campaign has just droned on about the Barnett Formula (a system of allocating public expenditure). If only Better Together could have borrowed some of the romance of Tweed-Sark Cinema.

After two years of writing about the subject on this blog, thinking and wondering and worrying about it, I now just want the indyref to be over. So that I can get some work done again and maybe get a good night's sleep.

Saturday 13 September 2014

"When the Seagulls Follow the Trawler ..."

The footballer Eric Cantona famously compared scandal-seeking journalists to seagulls following a trawler to scavenge for tasty morsels of discarded fish. Here in Berwick we have a permanent problem with seagulls, leading to notices like this one being put up all over town to discourage sentimental visitors from feeding them. The gulls are not suitably grateful for being fed, they will just grab your own lunch as well and then dump the remains of their last meal all over you and your family.  In the last few days before the Scottish independence referendum, we now have a problem with metaphorical seagulls as well. Journalists and researchers of all kinds are circling Berwick in search of tasty soundbites, scavenging wherever they can, digesting whatever they are given quickly and badly and then dumping the messy end product all over the world’s media.

I have myself been guilty of feeding these seagulls. So far I have talked to two reporters and one doctoral researcher in addition to attending a local debate that was filmed for global distribution. Blame my fellow blogger Jim Herbert, who for some reason – probably because, unlike mine, his history blog both has a bit of scholarly gravitas and has the name Berwick in the title – seems always to be the first port of call for these enquirers. He has now decided that I am a reliable ‘rent a gob’ and put me on his list of opinionated locals towards whom to point anybody who emails him in search of  ‘some interesting people to talk to about what Berwick thinks of the possibility of Scottish independence’.

I have now started to get quite angry with these enquirers. None of them seem to have bothered to do any research on the history of Berwick or the Borders in advance. The man from German radio was the least annoying of the lot, because as a foreigner he was prepared to listen and did not assume he knew it all already. My main gripe with that interview was that he asked us whether we thought Scottish independence would be good or bad, without distinguishing between ‘good for Scotland’ and ‘good for Berwick’, which are two very different things.

The PhD student particularly irritated me, because I’ve done academic research myself, and if I were her supervisor I would have been telling her to re-examine her starting assumptions. She told Jim that she only wanted to talk to English people, because her paper is about what English people think of Scottish independence. This forced him to try to remember which of his friends and contacts in Berwick are Scottish and which English, because in daily life in the Borders we often do not consciously notice who is which. Some of the people who did turn up said that, for example, they were born in Scotland but educated in England and now live in Berwick, and were not quite sure whether they were English or Scottish. We tried to explain that the whole idea that Berwickers feel English and define themselves in opposition to the Scots is fundamentally mistaken, but I had a feeling that this won’t make it into the final paper.

A couple of days ago Jim obliged a chap from the Wall Street Journal, no less, with his ‘rent a gob’ list. I was really looking forward to talking to him. At last, I thought, a serious and prestigious newspaper, whose staff will be well briefed!  No, this chap’s ignorance of the history of the Borders was just as great as anyone else’s. He asked if anybody here wants Berwick to be independent of both England and Scotland. Oh yes, I said, you hear that quite often. He then asked if I thought that could ever come true, or if it was just a fantasy. I pointed out that historically Berwick WAS an independent political entity, for hundreds of years. This appeared to surprise him. Surely he is being well paid to google this kind of thing?

All of these soundbite-scavengers start from an assumption that we in Berwick and North Northumberland feel just as English as they do in London or Surrey. Or if not, that we must have a permanent identity crisis. They don’t understand that we do not live our lives in an agony of confusion over whether we are English or Scottish – our identity is being Borderers and we are not in the least confused about that. They are surprised when we say that we interact with Scots all the time and feel closer to them than to the Southern English. They don’t understand that the shared history and culture of the Borders goes back to way before the Acts of Union and that whatever national politicians do we will deal with it, because that’s what Borderers have done for a thousand years. And most of all they don't realise how much we would like them to take some notice of us the rest of the time and not just in this once in a lifetime event of the referendum.

P.S.  After I had posted the above, I was stopped in the street at 6 pm by a reporter from the Newcastle Journal desperate for some quotable Berwickers to meet her deadline. I appeared on their website the next morning, with all my more considered remarks ignored in favour of the angle that 'Berwick estate agents are cockahoop as Scots seek English address to avoid higher Scottish taxes'. I would never use the word 'cockahoop' and the estate agent to whom I have most recently spoken is a very strong Better Together man who opposes increased powers for Scotland even though it might be good for his business. One of the lasting legacies of this referendum experience for me will be an increased dislike and distrust of journalists.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

The Less Attractive Side of Unionism

Greetings to readers old and new from Berwick-upon-Tweed, located about a mile south of the Scottish-English border, and thus on the front line of the consequences of the referendum on whether or not Scotland should become independent, which is now not much more than a week away. Some of us have been thinking about these consequences for years now, but the London based media and most of the English population seem to have only just noticed anything is happening. The level of panic engendered in Westminster by one solitary opinion poll showing a very small lead for the Yes side has genuinely surprised me, which I suppose just shows how differently we think up here.

 I had thought that the leaders of the Westminster parliament could not get any stupider in their handling of the unionist campaign, but I was wrong. The three leaders of the main Westminster parties have, far too late, buried their differences and announced that they will visit Edinburgh tomorrow to campaign for Better Together. The sight of Cameron, Clegg and Milband advancing on the Scottish capital in a posse is guaranteed to terrify any Scot into voting Yes, to make sure it never happens again. And as for flying the Scottish flag over Downing Street ..... if I were a Scot I would feel insulted. Actually, even though I'm English I feel a bit insulted. NOW you care? For the two years since the referendum was announced you've just assumed you didn't need to do anything, and now after one opinion poll that worried the financial markets and weakened sterling a bit you have rummaged in the attic and blown the dust off a Scottish flag? And you wonder why they don't want to be governed by you any more?

I have been saying for some time, when asked, that my personal prediction is that the result will be so close that it will be considered inconclusive. A few weeks ago I said it on tape for the benefit of a German journalist who wanted to know what Berwickers think on the subject. Of course, a 51% lead for No, which would undoubtedly be greeted by Westminster with a firm 'that's the end of that then', would be a lot more conclusive than a 51% lead for Yes, which would probably be greeted both by Westminster and by No-voting Scots with 'that's not nearly a clear enough mandate for such a radical step'. And since the bumbling oafs in Downing Street have now in desperation promised the Scots almost anything they want so long as they stop short of full independence, even a No result would only signal the start of further negotiations.

You are probably wondering what the photo above has to do with any of this. It is a cropped view of the back of a sweatshirt worn by one of the marchers on a demo held in Berwick a few weeks ago by the Scottish Defence League, the populist-right political group. The North East Infidels are a similar group in north-east England who have chosen their name to emphasise the anti-Muslim aspect of their views ('infidel' being an insulting term sometimes applied to non-Muslims by extreme Islamists, here embraced proudly by the insulted). I have hesitated for some time over the appropriateness of using it on this blog, but now that the debate over the referendum has become so intense and so bitter I thought I might as well chuck it into the mix. It's an interesting take on the unionist argument that we are 'better together'.  The supporters of the continued existence of the United Kingdom have done a good job of presenting themselves as the polite and genteel side, regretting all this unnecessary rumpus being caused by a few troublemakers in North Britain, but actually, you know, there is a dark side to unionism just as much as there is a dark side to nationalism.

Saturday 23 August 2014

The Calm Before the Storm

This is Bank Holiday Weekend in England, that is, Monday is a public holiday. In Scotland they will be at their desks as usual on Monday, having had their summer public holiday on 4th August.  The Scots are more sensible than the English in this matter, because late August is in fact pretty much autumn and the sight of cagoule clad families trudging glumly along a rain-swept beach trying hard to pretend that they are enjoying a wonderful summer seaside break becomes a little saddening after a few decades.

This picture of the bridges of Berwick upon Tweed is the same one I used in my very first post on this blog, over two years ago now. At that time the referendum on independence for Scotland seemed far in the future and not many people outside Scotland were taking much interest in the subject. It is now less than a month until the ‘indyref’ and nerves are wound increasingly taut. In Scotland lifelong friendships have been strained by differing voting intentions for the indyref and even here in Berwick where we don’t have a vote, we approach the subject very cautiously when talking to our Scottish friends. As September 18th hurtles towards us, thoughts of what the future might hold for us here on the border loom ever larger. So while we still can and it is still officially summer, please let us all just chillax for a bit.

The Tweed has been described as a great Scottish river that enters the sea in England.  It is comforting to watch every day the ceaseless flow of its waters and know that they answer to no politician and care not whether they are classified as being in England or in Scotland or as forming the border between the two. Every day the tides rise and fall exactly at the times printed in the handy booklet supplied by the local angling shop, according to the dictates of the moon and not of any human agency. Today, for example, high water was at 14.39 and low water will be at 20.38 and no latter-day King Knut can change that. 

 The herons stalk stoically up and down the mudbanks of the estuary at low tide, gazing fixedly into the water for a passing fish. The impudently mobile fish themselves create many bureaucratic headaches for the officers of the fisheries protection patrols who, even without full Scottish independence, have to follow rules about how far into the neighbouring authority’s waters they are allowed to pursue fishing malefactors. (They have the right of ‘hot pursuit’ but not to just hang around on the off-chance of spotting known villains with their illegal crab-pots down.) 

The swans swim serenely to and fro across the border and the good people at the Berwick Swan and Wildlife Trust care for them when they are injured on either side of it, as their motto says.

As we worry over the prospect of border controls becoming necessary in the future, and fret about the possibility of needing a different currency to go shopping in the next town up the road,  it makes me envy their freedom. In the words of the song, “birds fly over the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?” 

Saturday 2 August 2014

Memories of World War One

Monday is the centenary of the start of the Great War for Civilisation, as it was known at the time. I have very mixed feelings about the unstoppable tide of reminiscences of war that is engulfing us this year, but it does give me a reason to show you a photo I’ve been wanting to share for a while now. 

This is a picture of my grandfather, Jack Rowsell, and two of his mates at a Northumberland Fusiliers training facility (possibly Fenham barracks in Newcastle), dated 1910. It is difficult to be certain which one is him under those hats, but my best guess is the one in the  middle. He sent it to the young lady who would later become my grandmother and wrote on the back, ‘Please don’t laugh too much or woe betide you when I come on furlough’. You can see what he was worried about. That rig-out does indeed seem more likely to make his girlfriend giggle than swoon with admiration of his manly physique.  
Jack and Amy married in 1914, probably at least partly because of a desire to secure the entitlements of a soldier’s wife as Europe moved towards war. They and their three daughters then spent the next thirty years living the life of an army family in various colonies and troublespots before retiring back home in Alnwick.

Both of my grandfathers were fortunate enough to survive the Great War and to be laid to rest in Alnwick cemetery only after achieving their three-score-years-and-ten. This is a photo of the cemetery. It has a rather fine avenue of trees down the centre, though that has never made me feel any better about having to attend an interment there.

On my last visit there I noticed the gravestone of a man with the given name of Verdun. Sure enough, he was born in 1916 soon after the Battle of Verdun. It seems that his parents got carried away on a surge of patriotism and sympathy for France. Their unfortunate son then had to live out the rest of the twentieth century burdened with that moniker. I strongly suspect that he was always known as Dun.

It reminded me that Amy, my grandmother, had a close friend who was always known as Effie but who had actually been christened Euphrates. I have seen the name on her gravestone and so know that this is not just a family legend. The inscription gives her middle initial as T, which irresistibly suggests that her second name might have been Tigris, though I don’t recall anyone ever saying it was. The story went that the vicar who conducted her christening was so outraged that he initially refused to baptise her unless the parents came up with a more suitable name, but he was for some reason eventually won over. In relation to the theme of war, this is a rather melancholy reminder that there was once a time when the region now called Iraq meant nothing to people in Northumberland except that its rivers had rather pretty names.

Saturday 12 July 2014

The Clay Pipe Makers of Tweedmouth

When I was living in Alnwick I had a phase of poking about the area in between the wall of Hulne Park and the modern housing estate of Barresdale which a century or more ago used to be the town rubbish tip. It was not necessary to take a spade to find something interesting, all kinds of intriguing oddments were lying about on the surface or only partly covered.

Among other things I found loads of old clay pipes. Hardly any complete ones, because - duh!  - nobody would throw away an unbroken one, would they, but lots of bowls and stems. Here is a selection. Note that the one back right says Tweedside Cutty and the stem of the more-or-less complete one is stamped Berwick. I did not think anything much of this at the time as I also found examples stamped Newcastle. But since I have been living in Berwick I have thought that I should really find out more about the Tweedside stamp. Enquiries in the local vintage shops met with blank looks.

So last week I went to consult the Berwick archivist, the fantastically knowledgeable and always helpful Linda Bankier. She immediately produced two articles about the firm of Tennants (sometimes spelt Tennents), who ran a clay pipe making factory in Tweedmouth from at least 1844, when their purchase of the business is recorded, to 1915, when it burned down. The factory evidently already existed on the site at an earlier date under different ownership. The site in question is the one at the end of this alleyway next to what is now our local convenience store. It is not possible to access it any more as it is now the back yards of several private houses. According to the article in the archives loads of pipes have been dug up in the neighbourhood - mostly faulty batches, which it seems they disposed of by just burying them in the yard.

The factory was literally just over the road from Tweed Dock, and the blocks of clay would arrive by ship and then be trundled down the alley. The street at right angles to the shop frontage shown here is called Kiln Hill, but until I talked to Linda I never knew that this is a reference to the kilns in which the clay pipes were baked. And one house on Kiln Hill now calls itself Pipe House, in homage.

The archives record that Tennants pipes were sold and used over a wide area on both sides of the border, so it is not surprising that I dug some up on the Alnwick tip. But it is surprising that I then ended up walking past the site of the factory where they were made nearly every day, without realising it.

Thursday 3 July 2014

The Berwick Curfew Run

When Berwick was a town under strict military control, a curfew bell rang at 8 pm, for about quarter of an hour. Or to be precise, apparently, for 13 minutes. A fun annual event for local sporty types is to try to run around the town walls before the bell stops ringing. The guide to walking the walls says that it takes an hour at a leisurely pace, so running all the way round in a quarter of that time is a challenge. On a sunny summer evening the walls are a blissful place to be. For this year’s race the glorious weather we have been having recently decided to leave us. But the view is still beautiful. 

The runners assemble outside the front gate of the Barracks, seen here, and then move up onto the grassy ramparts adjacent to it for the start. (You can read my post about the Barracks here.)

The curfew bell could not actually be heard from where I was standing, which was disappointing, since I can hear bells from my home further round the walls. Next year I think I'll just watch from  my front steps.

Club shirts were seen being worn by the Tweed Striders, the Chirnside Chasers and the Runduns, who I’m guessing come from Duns. The last two are towns on the Scottish side of the border, so this event is yet another example of the cross-border community life we value so much and hope to be able to preserve.

On top of the steady drizzle there was a stiff breeze blowing (there usually is here) and I am sad to report that my hat blew off and landed just over the lip of the embankment in this photo, perched on the very edge of the sheer wall below, in a spot completely inaccessible from either the top or the bottom except at imminent risk of breaking my neck. 

As I gazed at it longingly, a boy of about eight came alongside me and said, ‘that’s a steep drop’. Well done that child for paying attention during the health and safety briefing. There are notices at intervals around the walls warning of the Dangers of Steep Drops, for the benefit of walkers who are either completely lacking in common sense or under the influence of an unwise combination of alcohol and bravado. Last year a woman was pulled over the edge by her dog, but reading the notices probably wouldn’t have helped in that case.

I decided that on the whole it was better to have no hat than to have no functioning head to put it on, and went home without it, wet. In any case, I originally acquired it free as a perk of my stewarding duties when a visitor to the Civic Society exhibition left it behind. It’s somebody else’s turn now.

P.S. I have just been to watch the 2015 curfew run, and got the chance to ask one of the organisers whether the bell actually rings. The answer, sadly, is No, because the curfew bell is now so fragile that it would probably not withstand fifteen minutes of vigorous ringing. They promised me that this year the ordinary bells of the Town Hall would be rung for the run instead, but they never were.

Friday 20 June 2014

The World Cup: 'Anyone But England'

The football World Cup is once more upon us, and my local pub, the Barrels, known for real ale and live music, has replaced the live music with televised football for the duration. Here on the border, supporting England is a delicate business. There are certainly some England flags to be seen flying proudly on houses and cars round here, but not nearly as many as I used to see when I was working down south. Shops in Berwick are wary of putting large red-and-white ‘come on England’ type displays in their windows. According to the figures produced by the local regeneration activists, 65% of shoppers in Berwick are resident north of the border, and no trader wants to alienate 65% of their customers. Some of the Barrels’ regular clientele will only have gone along last night to cheer if England lost, and the English team obligingly gave them an enjoyable evening.

Several World Cups ago, back in 2002, I attended a conference in Belfast while it was on. As I drank my coffee in the local McDonalds, a radio commentary on an England match was playing in the background for the benefit of the customers. So far, so typical of anywhere back home. Then an outburst of cheering by the young staff behind the counter indicated that a goal had been scored, and it took me a few moments to realise that it was England’s opponents who had got the ball in the net. Having grown up close to Scots who behave the same way, I took this in my stride. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that the Scots will confine themselves to gloating over the football and not follow the Irish example into any more direct physical manifestations of their dislike of the English.

Of course this sort of antagonism between near neighbours is not confined to the UK. When I was travelling in New Zealand I saw a tee-shirt that said ‘I support two teams – New Zealand and whoever is playing Australia’. I can confirm from personal observation that when Australia is playing England in a cricket test match the Kiwis will cheer for England. The attitude of Kiwis to Australia is not dissimilar to that of the Scots to England. They know it’s bigger and richer and a lot of them are obliged to go and work there and it doesn’t really feel like a foreign country, but OMG they want the world to know that their loyalty will always be with the smaller place they call home.

The real problems come when the England and Scotland football teams play each other. People in Berwick stay indoors and close the shutters then.  Joke!  I think.

Monday 9 June 2014

At Last, a Serious Political Debate in Berwick

I live very close to Berwick youth hostel and go to its excellent cafe quite a lot. The manager, Sion Gates, is an able and energetic young man and has now pulled off something of a coup by organising the only public debate on the implications of the Scottish independence referendum for Berwick, in the said cafe. Many thanks and congratulations to him for swimming against the tide of political apathy engulfing Berwickers, many of whom seem like they won’t notice there’s anything out of the ordinary going on until the day they find their shopping trip interrupted by a police checkpoint.

I took this photo last summer in the hostel’s courtyard. At the time I just thought it was cute but now it kind of looks like a metaphor for different political institutions growing out of different ideological old shoes .... or something

At 6.40 last night I crossed the courtyard, showed my numbered ticket (no. 5 out of 110, I am very proud to report) and was in plenty of time to get a seat near the front.  My dominant impression of the evening is of the sheer pleasure of being in a room full of people who were all serious about and engaged with current events. The tone of the debate was heated but good-humoured.

The speakers were, on the No side, our Conservative candidate for the next Westminster election and a LibDem former MSP for the area just north of the border, and on the Yes side, an SNP minister in the Scottish government and some bloke from the Radical Independence Campaign. For full details see this photo of the poster. 

I have to say that I was not impressed by the RIC guy, who delivered the same sort of Left-Green speeches he has probably given a hundred times before with no real concession to the fact he was now on the other side of the border. The SNP minister, though, impressed me – he was personable and well briefed and managed to sound like he really cared about the English borderlands. The two No speakers both came across as very committed to the entirety of the Borders and they emphasised the sheer uncertainty of most of the variables involved and the impossibility of knowing exactly how Berwick would be affected by independence.

Unfortunately for Mrs Trevelyan, however, her position was undermined by her own party leader just last week, when David Cameron promised to give the Scots powers to set their own taxes even if they vote No. Since he worked hard to keep this option off the ballot paper, conceding it now makes it look as if he has been out-manoeuvred by the nationalists, and the SNP speaker last night correctly pointed out that it is simply ‘dishonest’ for any unionist to claim that the status quo is an option any more. I think myself that if Scotland raises income tax we would see a welcome flight of working people into Berwick, but most questioners last night were more concerned about the negative implications of Scotland reducing corporation tax to attract more investment.

The debate was chaired by Jim Herbert, a local historian whose blog Berwick Time Lines is linked to in my side-bar. It took me a while to recognise him because it was the first time I’ve seen him wearing a suit. (Sorry Jim.) He gave an introductory sketch of the historical background to Berwick’s unique situation, which included the suggestion that we may now be seeing a return to the position between 1603 and 1707, when the monarchies of England and Scotland were united but their parliaments and legal systems were not. I have never heard it put like this before and there is something reassuring about having Scottish independence presented as a return to a past situation rather than something radically new.

Except of course that in 1603 there was no European Union .... The Yes campaign believes that the idea that an independent Scotland would not be allowed to join the EU in its own right is mere posturing and bluff, and that the EU is desperate to keep countries in it at all cost and won’t let them leave if they try. I agree with this myself. However, I felt that the Yes speakers ducked the question of what will happen if a re-admitted Scotland is forced to join the Schengen common travel area while RUK stays out. That’s when the police checkpoints would pop up just north of Berwick’s largest supermarket.

The  most reassuring thing I gained from the debate was the panel-wide assurance that Berwickers will still be able to use Scottish health facilities. Since our nearest general hospital is north of the border, this has been a big worry locally. The SNP  minister stated unequivocally that the plans for an independent Scotland include a commitment to the maintenance of cross border health services, free at point of use, just like now.  So, as one questioner forcefully explained, we now only need to persuade the two national ambulance services to transport patients across the border, which they usually refuse to do even at present.

At the end Jim asked for a show of hands for and against independence for Scotland. The vote was pretty much evenly split, but since I know for a fact that there were some committed Yes supporters from north of the border in the audience, it was not an entirely fair vote. He also asked whether anyone would support independence for Berwick and a number of hands went up, including mine. I do seriously believe that the best option for Berwick would be to become a tax haven in the manner of the Cayman Islands  Pity we don’t have their climate

Saturday 31 May 2014

Jokers and Thieves

This fine piece of calligraphy was created by local artist Arthur Wood for the Watchtower art gallery here in Berwick. The picture loosely evokes the building housing the gallery (originally a church) and the text is of course the lyrics of the classic song All Along the Watchtower. As I gazed at it during my most recent visit to the gallery, it occurred to me that the lyrics describe the current political situation in Berwick with an almost uncanny accuracy.

There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s just too much confusion
I can’t get no relief.

There is an awful lot of politics going on here just now, and all of it is confusing. The impending referendum on independence for our friends on the other side of the Scottish border would be quite enough on its own.  Indeed, it was reported this week that cinemas in Scotland have decided to stop accepting advertisements by either side in the independence debate, because movie-goers at the end of their tether have complained that they go to the cinema to get away from the saturation coverage of the wretched referendum.

Then, on 22nd May we had elections for the European parliament. As usual only about a third of the electorate turned out to vote in these, but the ones who did seem to have been motivated by an extreme level of fed-up-ness with the present government and all its local associates.  The UK Independence Party (whose only real policy is leaving the European Union) gained the most votes of any party nationally and came second after Labour in this area.  Under the peculiar voting system used for the European elections whereby MEPs are parcelled out in job-lots of three per large region, North East England now has two Labour and one UKIP members of the European parliament. Both Conservative and Liberal Democrats, who historically have behaved as if North Northumberland were a football to be passed between the two of them and all other parties were playing in some lower league, sank to ignominious third and fourth places.

The way that the debate over EU membership relates to the debate over the future of the UK is brain-torturingly hard to follow, especially for Scots. Basically: if you are a Scot who wants to stay in the UK but leave the EU, you vote UKIP; if you want to leave the UK but stay in the EU, you vote SNP; if you want to stay in both the UK and the EU you can vote for any of the three older parties; and if you want to leave both the UK and the EU, you currently have no major party to vote for. Meanwhile, those of us just over the English side of the border put our heads in our hands and just hope that none of the possible permutations of outcomes involve building a big wall across the motorway.

With all this going on you might think that members of Berwick Town Council would be gravely concentrating on the bigger picture and putting aside individual differences in a manner befitting the local government of a community on the front line of the most important political questions of our time. Instead, they have just plunged themselves into an extraordinary piece of in-fighting that to an outsider displays a combination of viciousness and pettiness that only very small towns can manage. I don’t wish to get into the details and personalities, merely to reflect that the town council appears to do almost nothing of any importance but to take itself with a seriousness inversely related to its usefulness. Some of its members are now calling loudly for the council to be dissolved pending new elections. This would seem to be a rather risky strategy - they might find that nobody missed it.

And just to round it all off, someone has written to the local paper suggesting tongue-in-cheek that, given recent unfortunate events in that country, the question of whether Berwick is still at war with Russia ought to be clarified as a matter of urgency. This hoary old story dates to when Berwick was a separate legal entity; the declaration of the Crimean War  listed 'England, Scotland and Berwick upon Tweed' as belligerents but the peace treaty concluding the war allegedly mentioned only England and Scotland.

I wouldn’t want to suggest (honest, m’lud, I wouldn’t) that any politicians - locally, regionally, nationally or internationally - are ‘thieves’, but a right pack of jokers they most certainly are. 

Saturday 10 May 2014

The Alnwick Column

This is the Column in Alnwick, located in the nearest thing the town has to a public park. (The Alnwick Garden is not a public park.) It is never, but never, referred to by locals as anything other than The Column, in the same way as hardly anybody in Newcastle has any idea who The Monument is a monument to. (Earl Grey, since you ask.) The formal name of the Alnwick Column, as found in guidebooks, is the Tenantry Column. It was erected in 1816 by his grateful tenants to their landlord, the Duke of Northumberland of the day, in thanks for his reduction of their rents during a period of economic hardship, and the inscription on the base says so, fulsomely.

It has probably occurred to you at once that if they could afford to put up this fairly impressive chunk of masonry they couldn't have been all that hard up, and indeed, the story preserved in popular memory is that the Duke took the same view and promptly put their rents back up again. I seem to remember reading somewhere that this story is historically unfounded. The most likely interpretation would seem to be that the tenant farmers saw it as a shrewd investment, a calculated piece of schmoozing that would make it hard for the Duke to become more demanding in the future.

The sculpture on the top of the column is the symbol of the Percy family, the straight-tailed lion. There are four more lions around the base of the column. The picture on the right shows the present writer (as they say in posh books) at a tender age beside one of them. The similarity to Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square is very evident, but the local sculptor wasn't in Landseer's league. The lions are kind of cute and cuddly rather than imposing. At least I thought so as a child. I was especially fond of the one whose tongue had been partly broken off, because I felt sorry for him, and I think this is what I'm pointing to in this photo.

Alas, it is no longer possible for children to climb all over the lions, because railings have been erected around the base to keep out the vulgar masses. This was part of the original design, but the original railings were taken away during World War 2 as part of the drive to recycle every possible piece of scrap metal into armaments. Because my grandfather was on the town council at that time, I have inherited a copy of the newspaper report of the council's debate on whether or not to agree to part with this piece of their 'built environment'. Some members were extremely unhappy about sacrificing their elegant railings, but my grandfather argued strongly that this was a very trivial sacrifice compared to what they were asking of their young men at the front, and his side carried the day.

And for sixty years or so the children of Alnwick played happily around the railing-free plinth. It was only a few years ago that new railings were put up, in line with the currently prevailing orthodoxy to Restore and Conserve everything in sight back to its Original and Authentic condition. Why can nobody ever admit that the original form of something is not always the best?

Thursday 1 May 2014

Riding the Bounds 2014

May Day, and here in Berwick the weather is most unsuitable for it. Wet, chilly, breezy, foggy. A typical day in the Borders in other words. I once saw a postcard on sale in a shop in Coldstream that depicted a freezing, windswept tourist with the caption 'I survived the Scottish summer'. Too true.

Because of the weather attendance was well down for the annual Riding the Bounds event, and I had no trouble getting a spot right at the front of the pavement as the riders came back into town in the afternoon. Excellent, I thought, at last some fine photo opportunities with nobody's head in the way. And then this keen type threw himself determinedly into the middle of the road. I think he may have been the official photographer from the Advertiser, because none of the stewards attempted to haul him out of the way with stern health & safety warnings about horses, which is what happened to everybody else who strayed off the pavement.

Two years ago I published a post about Riding the Bounds with more photos, taken in better weather, and more details about the event (here). I am still suspicious that it is far more of an 'invented tradition' than most locals let on.  But the essence of it can't have been invented that recently, because the Berwick Advertiser, in its intermittent 'snippets from 25/50/100 years ago' feature, once printed a report from the early 20th century about a couple of lonely riders turning out on May Day to observe the custom and finding nobody else interested in joining in. Of course that was when Berwick had many sources of income other than tourism. Read a very good post by local historian Jim Herbert about Riding the Bounds in the past here.

My favourite thing about the event is the proud display of the three flags, England and Scotland on the outside and Northumberland sandwiched between them. Thanks to the breezy weather this year they made more of an impression than they sometimes do. In this referendum year this symbolic display of our rather uncomfortable position in between England and Scotland seemed particularly poignant.

Friday 25 April 2014

Yet Another Seal Pic

My latest seal photo, taken as usual from the Old Bridge in Berwick with a zoom that's just not quite zoomy enough. I have posted in the past about young seals apparently being left on this sandbank by their mothers, but this is the first time I have ever seen two seals together there. It is an exciting development. Perhaps we can look forward to ever increasing numbers of seals by the bridge.

And a couple of weeks ago, I saw an otter! I'd heard reports from neighbours of otter sightings near the quayside but this is the first time I've ever seen one in the wild myself. No chance at all of getting a photo, I'm afraid - it moved like greased lightning.

Monday 14 April 2014

Alnwick Has Pants

I said has not is. Stop sniggering at the back. A 'pant' is a term apparently unique to North East England for a public water fountain, of which there are several in Alnwick. This is the best known one, situated just below the entrance to St Michael's Lane and ornamented with a figure of St Michael slaying a dragon.

It still has water running from the spout and filling up the tank. Some people throw coins into it, an apparently conditioned reaction to any ornamental water feature, and every now and then some of the local clubs and societies come along and fish them out and donate them to good causes. In some of my impoverished periods I used to contemplate fishing them out myself, but the water is usually so disgustingly dirty that I couldn't face it.

St Michael, the dragon and the other Gothic curlicues are presumably Victorian flights of fancy, but the basic concept of a public source of water called a pant is evidently a very old one, as there are extant references to examples much earlier than those that have survived until now. What's more I don't recall anybody sniggering about it when I was young - I think the word was still too much in common usage to arouse any associations with underwear.

In 1997 the Alnwick Civic Society held a competition for the most plausible etymology of the word 'pant'. I won the first prize of a bottle of wine. My triumph was based on the rather unexciting suggestion that 'pant' is simply a variant form of 'pond'. Chambers dictionary says that 'pond' derives from the same root as 'pound', an enclosure where stray animals are kept, and that the core concept of a pond is thus a body of water that has been artificially enclosed.

This suggestion was backed up by Adrian Ions, a well known Alnwick history buff, who found an entry in a 19th century dictionary of northern speech confirming that in this region 'a pant is a public fountain of a particular construction, having a reservoir before it for retaining the water' and that  'pond was anciently pronounced pand, which may be derived from the Saxon pyndon, to enclose or shut up'. Adrian should probably have got the bottle of wine but apparently my entry arrived earlier.

Fifteen years after these findings were printed in the Civic Society's newsletter, a glossy new leaflet appeared in the Tourist Information Centre promoting 'a number of activities in 2013 themed around the old pants of Alnwick'. A box on the leaflet explains that 'a pant is a public water fountain, normally attached to a water trough. It is thought to be a form of the word pond'.

Should somebody be paying me royalties for the use of that piece of information? I need the money. If anybody would like to pay me to undertake any more historical research for them, just ask!

P.S. In case you are thinking that the boxes of produce beside the pant have been left there as the survival of some ancient ritual of offerings to the saint - sorry to disappoint you. The shop adjacent is a greengrocer's and regularly lets its displays overflow onto the pavement.