BORDERLANDS: Bridging the centuries

At the very end of the recent feature film The Railway Man, telling the harrowing, but finally reconciling life of former Berwick resident Eric Lomax, we '¨see Colin Firth standing '¨high up on Meg's Mount viewing the panorama of the Tweed Estuary.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 14 February, 2016, 14:44
Aerial views of Berwick-Upon-Tweed from the Town Hall spire East Coast Train crossing the Royal Border Bridge

It’s a restorative cameo. The sufferings, tensions and privations of Lomax’s life, and his life-changing encounter with Patti, issue finally in an extraordinary experience of reconciliation with his former Japanese captor.

This concluding pan across the estuary catches Berwick-upon-Tweed in a most captivating and exciting way. It somehow breathes the hope and encouragement that Lomax’s powerful story tells us.

In so many ways Berwick’s landscape, seascape and riverscape says much about the town historically and points positively to the future too.

Central to the picture are the three bridges. Low down is the attractive medieval bridge; the present structure is some 400 years old. Then there’s Robert Stephenson’s magnificent Royal Border Bridge, now 150 years old and carrying the East Coast mainline across the Tweed. Finally, there’s Mouchet’s 1928 Royal Tweed Bridge, which formed part of the improved A1 Great North Road and opened in the same year as the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle.

These three bridges point to the significance of the border crossing and the sheer scale of the Tweed estuary. Each of them also hints at the key strategic place of Berwick in every possible sense of that word. They are indicative too of its prosperity and flourishing, century after century.

Of course, the other key function of a bridge is to allow traffic to flow beneath. Even Berwick’s medieval bridge has a heightened arch, close to the north bank, to allow the passage of larger craft. Traffic beneath the bridges points to the life and industry of the river itself.

In early medieval times Berwick acted as the chief port for Scotland, bringing cargoes from across the country. In later centuries salmon fishing on the Tweed, the export and internal transfer of grain and other outgoing commodities was matched by the port’s usefulness in bringing bulk cargoes into the Borders, to Berwickshire and to Northumberland. Even now, the jetty and harbour in Tweedmouth is host to a limited amount of shipping.

Similarly, on the north bank, close to the modern Chandlery was the Quay. Indeed ‘Quay Walls’ was simply the thoroughfare where Edward I’s and then later Elizabeth I’s defensive walls coincided with the river, alongside the ancient quay.

Both banks of the estuary were also host to a variety of industries; the tall chimney on Spittal Point is clear surviving evidence of this. The beaches on either side of the river’s mouth were holiday destinations – witness the popular ‘retro’ railway posters of Berwick sporting jolly holiday-makers.

So, if all this is evidence of a prosperous and busy port, what of the future? How can the noble Tweed and its estuary contribute to our future prosperity?

Just a glance around the extensive coastline of England and Scotland offers so many encouraging answers to that question.

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Just 30 miles down the coast, the tiny former port and coal staithe at Amble has been transformed. An attractive and bustling marina now sits alongside a revived main street and all the other commercial activity that goes with that.

Further afield, the tiny port of Scrabster near Thurso, and the outer Western Isles town of Stornaway have both begun to benefit from the regular docking of cruise ships, either in the harbour itself or just offshore.

The close proximity of Alnwick Castle and Garden, of Cragside, Wallington, Floors Castle and Holy Island make Berwick a prime stopping place for an ever burgeoning cruise industry.

Then, on countless rivers across the land, boating has become part of a thriving tourist industry. The Tweed is one of our most beautiful rivers, but relatively unexplored by riverboat in its most seaward stretches.

Maybe then, too, the embarkation quay for the boating could sport some retail shops – Gloucester Quays, Portsmouth’s Gunwharf Quays and many others offer larger scale models.

Finally, of course, there’s the harbour in Tweedmouth. Investment in the jetty there could transform its commercial importance.

Brought up as a Londoner, I’m amazed at the transformation of our capital since my childhood. Almost every aspect of its life looks outward – it is a world city. Tourism has been at the heart of this.

The derelict docks and docklands now offer housing, commerce and leisure for tourism. Even the once proud, then later moribund, King George V dock lives again as London City Airport. Countless examples could be added, and not just in London.

In Berwick we have the most amazing resource, the most stunning potential in our river alone. How, then, can we, through business, commerce, leisure, tourism and, of course, the warm and beckoning heart of our community transform our waterside as a dynamo for the rebirth of Berwick’s local economy?

-The Rt Rev Dr Stephen Platten is a Berwick resident, semi-retired and looking after a church in the City of London. He is an Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Newcastle, London and Southwark. Previously he was successively the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Foreign Secretary, 
then Dean of Norwich, and finally, Bishop of Wakefield, looking after a Church of England diocese in South and West Yorkshire.