End of era as 'Cockle' Cowe's closes after 200 years

MORE than 200 years of trading in Berwick will come to an end this week when Wm Cowe & Sons closes its doors.

Its retail and confectionery store on Bridge Street, also known as the original Berwick Cockle Shop, has hardly changed since the Cowe family took it on in 1886.

However, it has fallen on hard times in recent years and brothers William and Francis Cowe have decided it is finally time to call it a day.

William, who has worked in the business for 47 years, said: "It's a bit sad after all these years but you have to draw the line somewhere and we couldn't keep putting money into the business to keep it going."

The store, made famous in a sketch by renowned artist L S Lowry, is like stepping into a museum with its old-fashioned till, scales and wooden shelving.

William said: "People come in here and say it looks like Beamish Museum - but we were here first!

"We've never really been tempted to modernise and I think people would have been a bit upset if we had changed it, although it does need restoring."

He admitted: "I don't know if we're the oldest shop in Berwick.

"There are other family businesses, like Skelly's and Grieve's, which have been around a long time and there's the King's Arms too which was probably around before us."

It was his great-grandfather William who set up the business in 1801 in what is now the tourist information centre on Marygate.

His sons, Peter and Henry, decided to buy the Bridge Street shop from the Weatherhead family because it was, at that time, the main thoroughfare in the town.

"When I think back, the best times were probably the 1960s or maybe even earlier, but since the supermarkets came along it's been a lot quieter," explained William

"It was a little different with the wholesale business which started up in 1965.

"It did well until the 1990s but has gradually diminished since then."

The wholesale side of the business on the other side of West Street will close on Friday with the retail and confectionery shop following soon after.

"I don't really know what will happen with the place now, though I hope it doesn't change too much," said William.

The timing is not connected to the major restoration project planned for the Cowe properties and the maze of largely untouched storage, workshop and living spaces they contain.

It is part of the Berwick Townscape Heritage Initiative which last year secured a 625,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to regenerate the cluster of historic buildings on Bridge Street, West Street and Eastern Lane.

English Heritage, the Arts Council, One NorthEast, the Northumberland Strategic Partnership and Northumberland County Council are all involved.

Annette Reeves, conservation officer at Northumberland County Council, said: "The scheme is about much more than the Cowe buildings, although they are a significant part of that area.

"The grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund will enable work to be carried out on repairing these historic buildings and their fabric.

"The funding works in two stages," she explained.

"We have a stage one pass from the Heritage Lottery Fund and are now putting together a stage two bid in which we have to prove our capability of delivering the project.

"If that is approved by the Heritage Lottery Fund we would hope the project could start by the autumn but it's not exactly clear at this stage."

As the first part of the scheme, the Berwick Townscape Heritage Initiative has appointed a photographer and writer to explore and document the fascinating interior of the Cowe buildings.

Working with the Berwick Borough Museum and Archives, this project will contribute to a wider visual and written record which describes the evolution and pattern of building within the historic area, providing a 'before and after' picture for its future regeneration.

Presented as a publication/ exhibition, the images and writing will be used to explain and promote the benefits of sustaining the local heritage of Berwick.

The project will build on existing work of the local recording group and the planning register archive project.

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