Since my family is cruising towards the end of our fifth year in Berwick, a little stocktake seems in order. What, I wonder, have I moaned about over the years? And what, if anything, has changed?
I didn’t see a parking problem when we first moved to Berwick. In London parking was way more expensive, exclusive (parking permit holders only) and elusive. Why can’t people walk a little? I asked. Of course, free parking at out-of-town supermarkets and retail parks versus fee-paying parking in Berwick was a challenge. Since then pop-to-the-shops parking has been reinstated in the town centre, and there’s free parking throughout town. Is everyone happy? Certainly not! The bollards on Marygate have yet to be removed, making parking a tad chaotic and, of course, pull-up parking is not very pedestrian friendly. Got the magic parking solution? Wave your wand now.
Back in 2011 I described the high street as not totally alluring. An Edinburgh family I’d met planned to explore Berwick but, on a dreich day, were so unallured by it that they drove straight on to Holy Island. This lack of pavement pizazz in Berwick was largely due to the one-two of the economic downturn and the trend towards internet shopping – and consolidated by the below-the-belt blow of high retail rents maintained by distant and uninterested investment fund landlords. Castlegate and Marygate – the gateways to the town – sported many flaking-paint and missing-letter shopfronts. Slam-on-the-brakes boutique shops and cafés tended to be tucked away in West Street and Bridge Street. So, what’s changed? As ever, we’ve seen shops come and go. But Castlegate is transformed, with many buildings and shopfronts benefiting from the Berwick Historic Area Improvement Scheme and private investment. Marygate still feels a mite vulnerable, but has reaped some rewards from the Portas monies, such as the craft collective shop Serendipity. Additionally, the tenacity of people such as John Haswell of the Chamber of Trade has ensured that several empty windows now display art and/or heritage information rather than curling carpets and dusty shelving.
In 2010 our nine-year-old longed for a playground in which to dangle and climb. I dubbed the facilities at Flagstaff the ‘sad swings’. In the intervening years the four swings there have dwindled to two. I know that these things take time. I also know that some people are working hard to ensure that a new generation has tip-top play facilities. But it has been a long wait and my now nearly 14-year-old has maybe passed that moment.
Perhaps regeneration is most evident across some of the once eyesore-sites. Remember City Electrical Factors on Chapel Street? Hello spanking new flats. How about the mouldering loo on Bank Hill? Take a bow The Louvre ice cream parlour. And the ramshackle remains of the Elizabethan pub, North Road? Enter affordable housing. Recall the shards of Lindisfarne Pottery, Governors Garden? A snug residential square is emerging. Yes, St Aidan’s House crumbles on, and the Premier Inn guessing game continues at the old cinema site. And graffiti glitz from Berwick Youth Project and other artists puts a brave face on the former Youngman’s building on Hide Hill, but it still awaits regeneration – as do many other well-known sites.
Nevertheless, there is movement across the town – not least at the former Kwik Save building. Get those seagull chicks in the air and it can come down. Yes, opinion’s split on plans and usage – what’s new? It’s easy to forget that the peace that descends on Berwick post-October marks famine for many businesses. Investing in a town where all-year-round life and facilities must balance with seasonal footfall and a trembly economy is complex and risky. Even so, there are people and organisations wanting to invest in Berwick. All in all, taking stock suggests there’s plenty of hope for our fabulous feisty town for the forthcoming five years.
A version of this article was published in the Berwick Advertiser on 13th August 2015