An exciting and noble town with interest at every turn

Berwick-upon-Tweed. Picture by Jane Coltman

Berwick-upon-Tweed. Picture by Jane Coltman

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Sir Nicholas Pevsner’s career was remarkable by any standards.

Born in Germany, over a period of more than 30 years he researched, wrote and edited a complete set of guides to the architecture of the English counties.

Berwick Barracks parade square, home to the KOSB regimental musuem, and Berwick Museum and Art Gallery

Berwick Barracks parade square, home to the KOSB regimental musuem, and Berwick Museum and Art Gallery

About Berwick-upon-Tweed he writes: “Berwick is one of the most exciting towns in England, a real town, with the strongest sense of enclosure, a town of red roofs on grey houses with hardly any irritating buildings anywhere.”

What a marvellous introduction for all lovers of our town.

Enter from the south by rail or by road and the entire townscape is set out before you – the magnificent bridges, the estuary, the pier, the red roofs – hardly anything breaks a perfect horizon.

Beginning with such confidence, could there be reasons for uncertainty?

As the borders became more tranquil and less insecure so Berwick became a key centre.

Where else in England, apart perhaps from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, were the railway engineers as Philistine as to drive their iron road through a mediaeval castle?

Where else were 14th century bastions allowed to wither and die?

Where else in the 20th century would a road pierce the unity of a fine high street?

Yet every one of these, with the possible exception of the brutal cutting through Marygate, seems somehow to add interest to the landscape.

Let’s begin, then, at the northern end of Stephenson’s Royal Border Bridge, which delivered the North Eastern Railway directly into the castle’s great hall.

The castle stood magnificently, like a sentry on the top of a cliff. Still considerable remains of the fortress, remodelled by Edward I when he recaptured Berwick in 1296, survive.

Now in the hands of English Heritage, there are plans for opening up these ruins for tourists, with extended parking on the west side of the railway line.

It was Edward I also who first fortified the town with its unique encircling walls. To the north of the town, along Northumberland Avenue, can be seen the tumbled ruins of the 14th century bastions erected by the ‘hammer of the Scots’.

For much of their course, to the south, east and west, the later Elizabethan walls were built upon the earlier Edwardian footings.

Indeed, the Quay Walls contain 14th century work below the surface, combed by tunnels – the stuff from which great smugglers’ tales are made.

The battle of Flodden in 1513, just up the Tweed, was fresh in the memory of England’s monarchs. French soldiers were still stationed across the border.

The Bell Tower, also in Northumberland Avenue, issued from a slightly earlier attempt to rebuild the 14th century Edwardian walls.

As the borders became more tranquil and less insecure so Berwick became a key centre.

The old bridge became a key link at the beginning of the 17th century.

Berwick grew as a port. Now the Quay Walls became an essential focus.

The growth of trade in imports and exports, alongside fishing, strengthened the town’s prosperity in its key position between Newcastle and the Scottish capital.

Some of the houses towards the end of the Quay Walls date from the early 18th century. These houses were the residences – and perhaps sometimes also the offices – of merchants based in the port.

Behind these, the Governor’s House was also an early 18th century mansion. It emphasised the status of the ‘Governors’ of this important port and border town.

The 19th century saw further development, with attractive houses in Ravensdowne. Between Ravensdowne and the sea, the Lion House, high on its redoubt, comes from the same period.

The significance of the town and its growth is clear from two further impressive buildings – the mid-18th century Town Hall and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s magnificent barracks, just across the parade from the unusual austere parish church, built during Cromwell’s Commonwealth period.

The 19th century saw more growth with the coming of the railways and the Royal Border Bridge.

The station, rebuilt in a homely classical style in the 1920s, brings us into the 20th century.

The year 1928 saw the Prince of Wales opening the Royal Tweed Bridge, bursting its way into Marygate at Golden Square.

Even in recent years there has been imaginative building – new shops replaced the ugly entrance to the bus station in Marygate; older buildings were neatly converted into the Maltings Arts Centre; Dewars Lane Granary was transformed into a Youth Hostel, café and art gallery; the Chandlery on the Quay completes this quartet.

South of the river, too, there is elegance.

Tweedmouth High Street and Spittal’s broad, tree-lined Main Street both indicate how Berwick grew in stature and importance.

Berwick’s origins stretch further back to Roman times, and atop the surrounding hills are still earlier Iron Age forts.

Berwick is, indeed, one of the most exciting towns in England, as Pevsner said.

How can we attract more business and tourism to our town? Berwick is a noble town – its future deserves to be nobler still.

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