Although it’s ‘party season’, this time of year’s probably the toughest for most residents and businesses – the tourists have, like migrating swifts, scarpered (Robson Green inspired trippers probably won’t arrive ‘til next spring); the chill in the air’s inescapable, as is the need to dust off the heating switch (cursing corporate greed as you do so); it’s time to wear fingerless mittens for everything (hygiene advice: remove for the loo), and to don your thermals night and day.
On the upside, the autumn light is zingy as lemon zest. Low-slung sunrises cast phosphorescent crystals on the river and sea, and the sunsets are as vibrant as the colours beneath the black wax of those children’s scratch art projects.
It’s also time for the town to deck itself in seasonal sparkles. There’s something about the Christmas lights in Berwick that warm your heart – yes, they’re to encourage and attract shoppers, but they’re also akin to a little hot toddy to cheer us town dwellers in the bleakest months. I love to glimpse the starry light across the street as I close the shutters, or to walk up Meg’s Mount and enjoy the twinkly panorama of the town. Of course, as Berwick lights up, it’s lights down a bit further south in the county with the Kielder Observatory becoming Northumberland’s first ‘Dark Sky Park’ – more of that in my next post.
Now, it’s not like me to be out at the crack of a nose-nipping Sunday dawn. However, the 12-year-old (where does time go?), along with other young Berwick sporty types, has been taking part in the county hockey junior development coaching scheme. The grand finale of the scheme? Tournaments on two consecutive Sundays in North Shields. On Sunday number one we witnessed the lights going up on the Royal Tweed Bridge. And on the second, the Golden Square tree being coaxed and cajoled into position. After dropping off my child, I faced a choice: a warming cup of coffee and browse of the paper in front of the fire; or back out into the chill. And so it was that I joined 12 good men and true – and their hydraulic platform, forklift trucks, trailers, chainsaws, and mega ropes of Christmas lights laid out on the pavement like giant strands of candy.
Town lights are provided by, cared for and put up by a cocktail of support and endeavour from the Town Council, Rotary Club, Freemen, and Bridge Street Traders’ Association. But the Golden Square tree is the brainchild (bearing in mind the palaver to source, erect and light it up, perhaps lovechild would be more apt) of current town Sheriff, Michael Richardson, supported and funded by the Rotary. The tree has been a fixture in the Square for the last seven or eight years (no one seems quite sure). This year’s model came from just outside Belford – it’s a precision business finding a tree the right size, shape and branch distribution. And even more of one to fell and extract it without inflicting too much damage to it.
I arrive as The Lads – familiar faces from various Berwick businesses – receive mugs of coffee and bacon butties from one of their number. The tree is edged and wedged into position – one year its girth was such that balancing wedges were simply sawn off its trunk. I comment that it’s a smooth operation. They laugh saying it’s less bumpy without a high wind. Sandbags are piled, brooms wielded, Michael Richardson leaps around the hydraulic platform like Jack Sparrow atop the Black Pearl, the white teddy strapped to the pinnacle (another tradition) waggles in his wake. And then it’s done.
When you read this, the Mayor will have held her mince pie and tea party in the Guild Hall and formally turned on the town lights. So, merry Christmas & New Year to all – oh, and Lads, thanks for letting me gatecrash the tree party. Next year the bacon butties are on me.
A version of this article was first published in The Berwick Advertiser, December 2013