Saturday 31 October 2015

A Symbol of the End of Empire Moored at the End of the Debatable Land

Having finally succeeded in divesting myself of my decaying flat in Berwick, I am a newly footloose traveller. Halloween finds me in the Premier Inn on Leith Waterfront, with the reception staff barely visible behind swathes of fake cobwebs. Leith Waterfront is one of those rebranding exercises whereby docks and industries are replaced with soulless blocks of over-priced apartments and a shopping mall. The harbour that my hotel room overlooks is actually that of Newhaven, originally a fishing village just outside Edinburgh.

The last few days have been what the Scots call 'dreich' and all this photo has to recommend it is that it captures the grey, damp, chilly atmosphere of the east coast in late autumn. The distinctive shape of the Forth Bridge in the background marks the northern limit of the area covered by this blog. Beyond the Firth of Forth, there is no more historically disputed territory, there is only unequivocal Scotland. The Romans surveyed the tribes beyond the Forth and decided they weren't worth the effort of conquering. The Kingdom of Northumbria once stretched as far as the Forth, but its kings never tried to push it any further. I look at the Forth Bridge and it seems to be saying to me: don't come any further, Englishwoman.

Today I decided on impulse to go round the Royal Yacht Britannia,  now permanently moored in Leith dock. It was decommissioned in 1997 in a controversial money-saving exercise and after touring the ports of the UK for a while (I remember it coming to Newcastle) it was sold to a maritime conservation charity and settled down as a stationary visitor attraction.

The blurb in the exhibition says that Leith beat off the competition from other ports just because it demonstrated the best plans for preserving the ship and making it accessible to the public. At the time though there was some feeling that giving Britannia to a Scottish port was a calculated act of political prudence, at a time when Scots were showing worrying signs of losing enthusiasm for the United Kingdom. It might have been even more canny to send it back to Clydeside where it was built, since Glasgow has proved the least keen on the continuance of the UK of any region of Scotland.

Today there seemed to be plenty of Scots just as keen on looking round Britannia as visitors from overseas, or from England. Things to do with the royal family are never top of my must-see list, but this was one of the best organised visitor attractions I've been to. See, it even has its own free wifi, presumably for all those people who feel the need to tweet their whereabouts continually to the world.

Everyone of my generation remembers those photos of newly-weds Charles and Diana waving to their adoring public from the ship's bridge. Today I got to see that very bridge, specially designed for royals to show themselves to the public, complete with teak windbreak to reduce instances of royal ladies' skirts blowing up. We all gazed intently at the bed in the honeymoon room, the only double bed on board, specially installed for Charles and Diana, and tried not to look too prurient even as we all reflected that a cramped cabin with a crew of 150 sailors watching your every move can't have been the best start to married life. The almost unbelievably basic sleeping quarters of the ordinary sailors were part of the tour, a sobering contrast to the luxurious royal rooms. As the sailors lay hunched up in their tiny bunks they must have speculated on what was going on in that double bed two decks above them. They simply must have done.

I found the experience of touring HMY Britannia more moving than I expected. I remember the scenes when Hong Kong was returned to China and its last British governor sailed away in Britannia in the pouring rain, in what seemed at the time to be the final instance of the flag coming down on a former imperial possession. In its after-life in Leith, Britannia could yet be a immobile witness of the Union Jack descending the flagpole for the last time in Scottish waters.

Saturday 24 October 2015

The Most Scenic Rubbish Dump in the Country

Everyone who visits Berwick is impressed by its beautiful coastal location, but it may not always occur to those who only associate the seaside with holidays that when you live on the coast the sea view is always there, as a background to the most mundane activities. This is Berwick's rubbish tip. Sorry, 'household waste recovery centre', with an emphasis on the recovery part. I am happy to report that our recycling rates have recently shown marked improvement.

As you cudgel your brains to work out which skip your items should be tossed into, you can relax for a moment by enjoying the beautiful blue sea in the background. The view is particularly fine from the top of the ramp that leads up to the Rigid Plastics skip. Immediately behind Rigid Plastics is the area devoted to old mattresses, but if you lift your eyes just a little higher, the North Sea stretches out in all its glory.

It would be nice to think that the view helps to remind struggling recyclers of why it's worth making the effort to stop all that plastic getting into the sea, killing marine wildlife and then ending up back in our own food chain. Carrier bags are a particular menace to any kind of animal or bird that eats fish, because they have evolved to identify a white thing floating in the water as a fish and swallow it forthwith. They then either choke or starve to death as the plastic blocks their digestive tract.

On 5th October new legislation came into force in England obliging shops to stop giving out free carrier bags and start charging 5p for them. Similar rules have been in force in Scotland for quite some time now and Scots shopping in Berwick have been acting rather superior as the English folk next to them in the queue look confused about it all.  It is really remarkable though how quickly we have all got used to it. The number of plastic bags used has dropped like a stone since the legislation came into force. You wouldn't think that 5p would make that much difference, but as someone said to me, they all add up. Personally I think that the real difference it has made is that it is now socially acceptable to put my shopping in my backpack, whereas before it was regarded as a bit weird and hippy-ish.

A fantastic feature of Berwick for anybody moving house is that the rubbish tip, the new self storage facility and the Salvation Army's shop selling second-hand furniture and household goods are all located within a few minutes walk of each other on the development on the outskirts of the town formerly known as North Road Industrial Estate and now as Ramparts Business Park. The former name was less confusing, as the real ramparts are about two miles away. The Scottish border is a matter of a few hundred yards up the main road from the entrance to the estate, so ours is not only the most scenic but the most northerly rubbish tip in England.

I have whiled away the months that the English system of property sale takes to grind its weary way to completion (in Berwick you are always aware that it's all different, though not necessarily better, selling a property in Scotland) by disposing of as many of my surplus possessions as possible, and that means I have been spending a lot of time up here. Tip? Donate to Sally Army? Or store it?  The fact that the storage unit is immediately past the entrance at the top of a hill and the tip is at the far end of the estate at the bottom of the hill tends to incline me to just chuck it all into storage. I have a feeling that in a year or so's time when I've realised I don't need any of it I may end up just transferring the whole lot down the hill and into those recycling skips.