Building up and filling in, town has bucked the trend

Some five years ago, the Earl of March, a keen conservationist and protector of the English countryside, set up a commission to look at the state of planning in our cathedral cities.

Saturday, 1st July 2017, 2:02 pm
Aerial views of Berwick-Upon-Tweed from the Town Hall spire 
Tha Maltings
Aerial views of Berwick-Upon-Tweed from the Town Hall spire Tha Maltings

As a member of the Cathedrals’ Fabric Commission for England at that time, I was fortunate enough to be caught up in this process.

The Cathedrals’ Fabric Commission’s role is to protect our cathedrals, enhance their beauty, and to keep an eye on their wider context or environment.

The refurbished building off West Street. Picture by Jane Coltman

The study was eventually broadened out to look to the fate of not only cathedral cities, but also key country towns.

If Berwick was not on the list it should have been.

The results of the consultation were interesting, even surprising.

Comparing and contrasting our towns with those of mainland continental Europe was not encouraging.

The refurbished building off West Street. Picture by Jane Coltman

So many of the North West European countries have been imaginative in the development of their towns, especially as they recovered from the damage inflicted during the Second World War.

One of the contrasts is that where we have, in this country, apparently been content to append one nondescript housing estate upon another, allowing towns to lose character in the process, the continental European towns have imaginatively re-used buildings in their old town centres and filled in wherever possible, providing both housing and wider amenities.

Happily, Berwick-upon-Tweed has bucked the English trend here.

Only a brief and fairly superficial survey tells an encouraging story.

So for example, following the destruction by fire of the 19th century Maltings to the East of West Street, the excellent Maltings Art Centre arose, phoenix-like, out of the ruins.

It remains the largest theatre and arts venue between Newcastle and Edinburgh.

With its excellent restaurant and adaptable auditorium, set within an interesting modern building, it is a classic example of such redevelopment.

Peter Palumbo, then chairman of the Arts Council England, opened the centre in 1990.

Moving just a tiny bit to the South, we alight upon Dewars Lane Granary.

Again, having been afflicted by a severe fire earlier in the 19th century, the building further deteriorated through disuse, threatening its very survival.

Here, the Berwick Preservation Trust, which has been responsible for other imaginative developments, took the initiative.

The redeveloped building includes a Youth Hostel, restaurant and an art gallery.

More recently still came the rescue of Joe’s store, that is the former Youngman’s shop.

Here, an earlier 20th century garage had been built onto the frontage of some substantial 19th century houses. The move of Youngman’s to new premises presaged the further demise of a building already in dire need of renovation.

Now it offers a mixed development of housing, with space for a shop and, indeed, for a restaurant.

Just around the corner, along Bridge Street, we have seen the refurbishment and transformation of Cowes’ two historic premises – ‘the Home of Berwick Cockles’ – into housing, heritage and retail space.

Then nearby, tucked into an alley, is The Curfew, a splendid micro-pub with its own micro-brewery.

And this is by no means everything.

The Berwick Preservation Trust has been instrumental in saving both the Lion House and the Lowry Shelter (beyond the end of Pier Road).

And most recently, it has helped to rescue The Louvre, where a former late 19th century lavatory on Bankhill has been converted into an ice-cream parlour.

Elsewhere, rather different initiatives have benefited the built environment.

The former bus station was a serious scar on the face of Marygate.

However, with the bus station demolished, period style buildings were inserted, all of which are slightly varying in style, restoring the building-line and offering a unity of streetscape, which is a model of its kind.

Still more recently, the conversion of Pier Maltings offered more town centre housing in a stunning location.

This, again, has saved an historic, early 19th century industrial building.

The Governors’ Gardens development offers a still more powerful sign.

At one point, a far denser development was planned, rising to a height that would have mutilated Berwick’s stunning townscape.

However, the final development offers some stylish town architecture, with the gardens pointing to the existence of the former Carmelite friary on this site.

We await with enthusiasm the refurbishment of the Barracks.

Unfortunately, as with most towns in the country, not every piece of news has been good.

I believe that the former Co-operative building in Marygate is, in its southern aspect, a carbuncle on the skyline.

Most recently, the block-like building at the southern end of the Royal Tweed Bridge, with its lurid signs, is an opportunity missed, having replaced the worthy, if not outstanding, former Co-op building from the inter-war period.

Finishing with a flourish, might someone even design a building for the northern end of the bridge, completing once again the streetscape of Marygate, which was destroyed by the bridge-builders in the 1920s?

A fine arched entrance into the town, topped with a period elevation, is surely not a ‘bridge too far’ for an imaginative architect?

It could form a stunning gateway to the town of Berwick, which, of course, is itself the gateway to both Scotland and England.