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News just in: I’m a community fundraiser!

I am absolutely delighted to be taking up the job of Community Fundraiser for our local nurse-led hospice care charity in Berwick: HospiceCare North Northumberland. Delighted, excited and a little bit daunted.

Jackie - Community Fundraiser, Berwick. HospiceCare North Northumberland

Day 2 in the office!

HospiceCare North Northumberland is a truly local charity and provides a superb range of free support and care to adults with life-limiting conditions at any stage of their illness – and to their families and carers too. From hospice at home to end-of-life care and from drop-ins to bereavement counselling, this work is an essential part of caring for the lives of everyone in our community.

HospiceCare has been around for 20 years and is the main palliative care provider in North Northumberland. You don’t need a referral to use the services of the Hospice, you can simply get in touch and speak to one of our nurses (check the link to the website above for contact details). This year we need to generate around £660,000 to bolster the contribution of about £40,000 we receive from the NHS.

I can’t wait to work with volunteers, community groups, individuals and local businesses to raise much needed funds to support the vital and life-enhancing work of this fabulous local charity. You’ll find me in Berwick in the office above HospiceCare’s Wear & Care shop on Violet Terrace. Whether you want to volunteer, make a donation, share a fundraising idea or just want to say ‘hello’, I’d love to meet you.

HospiceCare logo

From South to North – Berwick five years on

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.

All parking in Berwick is currently free - but you'll need to pick up a clock to indicate how long you've been in your space. Available at a range of outlets, incuding the Tourist INformation Centre on Marygate

All parking in Berwick is currently free – but you’ll need to pick up a clock to indicate how long you’ve been in your space. Available at a range of outlets, incuding the Tourist Information Centre on Marygate

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.

The Free Trade public house on Castlegate - benefited from Berwick

The Free Trade public house on Castlegate – benefited from the Berwick Historic Area Improvement Scheme

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.

The sad swings at Flagstaff Park have dwindled to two - although there are great plans afoot for a spanking new playground.

The sad swings at Flagstaff Park have dwindled to two – although there are great plans afoot for a spanking new playground.

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.

Berwick Guildhall. Not the House of Commons.

A fabulous feisty town.

A version of this article was published in the Berwick Advertiser on 13th August 2015

Bring Back Borstal: nostalgia and a liberal blast of the airbrush

I am mourning the loss of the Co-op here in Berwick. It was our shop. We lived so close, I could leave a pan on the stove and run over for the missing ingredient. Now it’s gone, it feels as if a magic season has passed.  The other evening the Husband and I sat in front of the TV with a bowl of crisps and a glass of wine (we know how to live!). I whispered, ‘That’s the last bag of Co-op crisps’. Sad days indeed! And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Seven am and the 13-year-old fancied a fresh-baked croissant before heading to school? Over to the Co-op. Eight-thirty pm, no milk? Co-op it is. Bag of cut-price greens for the guinea pigs? You guessed it. I’m already nostalgic for the Co-op. I’ve air-brushed out anything that irritated me about it, I just long for the sign to go back up and for things to be returned to the good old days.

Vegetarian supper for one (perhaps with a glass of wine?)

The last bowl of Co-op crisps. Sad times.

Has anybody else been watching ITV’s “Bring Back Borstal”? A self-styled “social experiment” that certainly has its roots in nostalgia (apparently seven out of 10 lads sent to Borstal in the 30s did not reoffend, today nearly three quarters of young offenders end up back in prison), and our appetite for fly-on-the-wall shows. Served with a hearty helping of moral high ground, a dollop of character building by proxy, and period costumes, the series ignores the fact that, I suspect, for many boys, Borstal was neither formative nor transformative. The bad boys’ institution of the 30s was recreated in Ford Castle – so there are plenty of familiar places and local faces (scenes between Matthew Rawlings of Great Northumberland Bread and cheeky wide-boy Burniston are particularly touching) to spot alongside the nice-guy/nasty-guy act of Governor (criminologist Prof. David Williams) and Chief (ex-soldier Darren Dugan).

Borstal at Ford Castle last summer – Bring Back Borstal was screened by ITV in January 2015.

It makes compelling – and slightly depressing viewing – the 14 are like toddlers trapped in the strapping bodies of young men. They are entertaining but they are also scary. They have short fuses and lash out instinctively and without control at the slightest perceived injustice or snub. Their collective string of offences is sobering. They are, of course, a product of their childhood experiences. And it isn’t fair and it isn’t right and we as a society should be doing more to ensure young men such as these are not simply recycled by the system into ever more extreme criminals. Perhaps the lads’ most appealing custodian is Matron Jenny Molloy. Now a social worker, she talks about being taken into care at the age of nine as an opportunity “to rebuild my fractured self”. There was  an extraordinary attrition rate – three lads departed in the first week – but I hope the experience, albeit a quasi-experimental one, will help them towards making positive choices. It won’t be easy.

Institutions are always a bit prone to hypocrisy and our 13-year-old was horrified that the Chief in “Borstal” broke both the no-swearing and no-shouting rules. She commented that “it’s just like adults expecting you to say please and thank you and then not doing it themselves”. Since then I’ve kept my ears open. She has a point. This turned my mind to other things I’d “bring back” for adults. In no particular order, here are my top-five:

Bring back plate-licking. Way more polite than belching.

1. Gloves on strings. This would save so much heartache – and money.

2. Early nights and a good bedtime routine. You know how tired you are? Well then.

3. Asking “Why?” and “How?” this should never ever stop.

4. Plate-licking – way better sign of meal-appreciation than belching.

5. Tidying up one thing before starting another. Hiding mess under a sheet or in a cupboard/garage doesn’t count.

And now I’m thinking about the Co-op again. Sniff.

“Why, oh why?”

(a version of this article was published in the Berwick Advertiser on 5th February 2015)

Home – the place where doing life isn’t always easy

As I wrote this piece, we were about to head off on a road trip to catch up with all the relatives who, since we moved up north four and a half years ago, we don’t see often enough. For me this involved ‘going home’ to visit my nearest and dearest – although I’ve not lived in Suffolk for some 30 years. The concept of home is a funny old thing. Youngsters ‘fly the nest’ but are still expected to return on high days and holidays – with bonus visits when their smalls need washing. Elderly folk are often ‘put in a home’ – as if by giving the name we can conjure up the concrete reality of something that is in a sense a concept. But home is more than a name or a concept. And, for many of us we have several places that call out to us and, when we visit, feel like a sort of homecoming. Home is bricks and mortar, people, a particular place, or a particular way of doing things. And perhaps ‘doing’ is, rather surprisingly, the keyword. Home tends to be where we do life – or have done life at any given time – with all that entails.

Home: more than bricks and mortar, more than a feeling - and always a work in progress.

Home: more than bricks and mortar, more than a feeling – and always a work in progress.

We feel lucky to call Berwick home. But, in some ways, our fourth year here was the toughest. I guess there’s a transition that takes place when you uproot to somewhere new. And part of that is accepting normality over novelty. Which includes the realisation that it is us who must visit elderly (and not so elderly) relatives and friends rather than awaiting the influx of delighted and delightful visitors who, after that first year, tend to get on with their lives where they are (of course!). Which is exactly what we are doing here – and that is not always easy.

So. 2014. The Husband – despite my better judgement – became a town councillor. He had a desire to work with the many groups doing exciting things around Berwick. However, in amongst crusades for transparency (of course everyone wants it) and endless (and what seems to me pointless) mudslinging this has been nigh-on impossible. There is something deeply depressing about on-going disputes. You just have to cast your eye around the world to catch sight of what happens when people become ever more entrenched in their positions and views – often the original dispute or idea is lost in the mists of time. The most important thing becomes that their ‘right’ (whatever it happens to be at the time) is acknowledged and adopted as the correct right, whatever that takes and whatever the collateral damage. “Ah!” you may say, “that’s politics. Your husband was naïve”. Fair point. But Berwick Guildhall is not the House of Commons – it is a local council peopled by local volunteers who thought they might be able to contribute something locally. So, yes, it has been grim to experience the blast of politics at its worst and extremely sad to see the personal impact it’s had on many councillors. I can only imagine how it must feel to be a member of staff. I urge those who have an axe to grind, or feel that they have been let down by the town council, to stand for the council and make a difference when the opportunity arises.

Berwick Guildhall. Not the House of Commons.

Berwick Guildhall. Not the House of Commons.

There were, of course, many jolly and uplifting happenings in 2014. One was my first and last foray into musical theatre. I thought: how hard can it be to sing a solo on stage? Turns out, very. The great thing is that, in a town like Berwick, there are loads of people who are happy to help you out. I am extremely grateful to them and look forward to Berwick Operatic’s 2015 show in March: Wizard of Oz. After all, and despite it all, there really is no place like home. Happy New Year.

How hard can it be to sing live on stage?

How hard can it be to sing live on stage?

(A version of this article was first published in The Berwick Advertiser)

One week in = fun. But surely there aren’t enough vegetables for 51 more weeks?

Rather unexpectedly, the most difficult of my aims for 2015 during this first week, proved to be number two below. The residual exhaustion of the festive season and the fact that school term only started today may have something to do with my inability to rise early (oh and the fact that I set the alarm for the wrong day!). However, the morning I did manage to rise at 6am, I was rewarded by a glorious nearly full moon lighting up our still night-cloaked garden, the pleasure of making myself a warming fire, a cup of fresh coffee and the relief of ticking off two hours of Open University coursework. All before even a mouse so much as sneezed in the house. Result. I hope I can do it a few times more before the year’s out!

1. Eat at least two meat/fish free meals a week

2. Rise earlier (aim 6am) two days a week

3. Take exercise on at least five days a week

4. Drink no alcohol on at least two days a week

Both the Husband and the 13-year-old have announced they are joining me in my folly (the veggie eating for both, plus the exercise and booze-free days for him). Though delightful to have company, it is perhaps a tad more challenging. Whilst I might choose a bowl of Tyrrells cheese crisps as my vegetarian supper, this just won’t wash as a healthy or sustaining repast for the family. Post-supper bolt-on, yes. But full-blown meal? No way. Plus, cooking vegetarian for a teenager who’s not totally over-the-moon about vegetables may prove tricky – although she was surprisingly positive about my veg crumble this evening (the Husband declared it ‘virtuous’ with it’s wholemeal & chopped almond topping and 10 different veg). There’s also the on-going debate about how pedantic to be about the vegetarian thing – is it so very wrong to have chicken stock in parsnip soup? According to some Twitterers it most certainly is, others are a wee bit more laid back…and, yes, we did have the chicken stock. But 52 weeks of being inventive with pulses and veg? I think I’m going to need substantially more recipes!

Vegetarian supper for one (perhaps with a glass of wine?)

Vegetarian supper for one (perhaps with a glass of wine?)

Another area of on-going debate is what constitutes exercise. Does walking to the shop for instance? Or is that just part of daily life? What about sex (just kidding – of course it’s exercise!). The Husband was resistant to going out in the rain for a morning constitutional – but if we’re going to fit in five days of exercise…well, I’m going to have to be strict. Plus on that wet day we were rewarded by the most amazing rainbow spanning Berwick not dissimilar to the one here that I captured late last year. It’s great to reconnect with walks round Berwick and along the river and coast that were such highlights when we first moved here and that we have perhaps neglected more recently. This morning we even saw an otter eating a fishy breakfast on the lip of the river Tweed – it’s our first otter sighting in four and half years of living here. Brilliant. And it’s lovely to be enjoying some of the recently revamped park spaces.

The refurbed lily pond and shelter near Berwick Station

The refurbed lily pond and shelter near Berwick Station – no time for a rest for us on our punishing exercise regimen!

Finally, I haven’t really nailed down the keeping track of it all. Do I have specific days for each aim – you know: No wine Mondays and Tuesdays; no meat or fish Wednesdays and Thursdays; exercise Monday through Friday; up early Tuesday and Thursdays? Or do I leave it to chance and risk the end of the week arriving before I’ve managed to squeeze in my free-from, early rise, active days?

One week in it’s all quite entertaining. I have a sneaking suspicion it won’t last. Only time will tell.


Somewhere under a rainbow

A treat to pop out this afternoon after the torrential rain and find that Berwick truly is a place under a rainbow. Snapped with my mobile phone.

In Lord Beveridge’s Footsteps

One man’s journey to piece together the story of the man whose report formed the backbone of the Welfare State but whose own political ambitions were thwarted. 

Berwick Civic Society is laying on a fabulous free exhibition – Beveridge, Berwick and Welfare – at Berwick Main Guard, Palace Green from June to September 2014. Open every afternoon except Wednesdays.

Toddle into the Berwick Record Office and you don’t expect the visit to culminate in an invitation to a memorial service led by The Archbishop of York. But that’s what happened to Mike Fraser.

Mike, a twinkly-eyed Scot from Inverness, with a self-deprecating chuckle, retired to Belford some 10 years ago with “extremely patient” wife, Margaret. He’s spent the intervening years being a self-styled “Scottish layabout in Northumberland”. Mike’s version of slobbishness includes two book groups, a philosophy club, the Ramblers, and eye-watering numbers of Twitterers following his tweets on national and local news. These pastimes have been interspersed with what Margaret calls ‘Things’. One ‘Thing’ was an MPhil in Social Policy. Another is the reason we are discussing Lord William Beveridge, architect of the Welfare State.

“After his 1942 report, people chased Beveridge for his autograph”

Mike responded to a lottery-funded project inviting people to identify national and local political stories. “After Beveridge’s 1942 report on social reform he was almost a superstar. People chased him for his autograph. In 1945 he was elected Berwick’s MP. But he was ousted after just 10 months. I was intrigued.”

Mike passes me his 104-page monograph. A grainy photo of a trilby-hatted Sir William Beveridge in Berwick with some grumpy-looking women in the background adorns the front cover. The result of two years’ research, the document will reside in the House of Commons. Mike says, “I’ve been incredibly lucky.” A lot of Mike’s luck is self-authored. He’s pursued Beveridge like a ferret after a rabbit. He’s read, tweeted, written, interviewed, chatted, travelled.

Twinkly eyed Mike Fraser with a copy of his paper on Sir William Beveridge – the Man, the Report and the Berwick Division (image Berwick Advertiser)

Of Berwick Record Office’s Linda Bankier, Mike says, “She’s a total star. Berwick is so lucky to have her.”  Sir Alan Beith, current MP for Berwick, contributed too. As the longest standing Liberal Democrat MP since Lloyd George, Beith is a fitting counterpoint to Beveridge’s short-lived tenancy. At the London School of Economics (Beveridge was Director, 1919 to 1937), Mike photocopied some 600 documents.

“People shared anecdotes and led me to the places he’d lived”

He’s pieced together the story of a man whose public ambitions were largely frustrated but who achieved personal contentment – eventually. Beveridge’s long-standing professional relationship with his second cousin David Mair’s wife began at the start of the First World War. Nearly 30 years later they married when, on the evening of Mair’s funeral, according to Mair’s son, Beveridge “showed momentary surprise when one of my sisters suggested that our mother’s best future lay in his hands” and then “instantly” agreed. The marriage was successful. Even when separated during a stint in a nursing home in 1956, the pair sent letters to one another which staff ferried along the corridors.

Sir William Beveridge in the Berwick Division  – maybe the women are cold and bemused rather than bit grumpy…(Photograph: HansWild/Time&Life Pictures/GettyImages via The Guardian)

“I didn’t expect to walk in Beveridge’s footsteps,” says Mike.” But people shared anecdotes and led me to places he’d lived. For example, Jane Hall’s aunt drove Beveridge during his election campaign. Apparently he walked the fields talking to farm labourers through a megaphone. This, and his rather squeaky voice, caused some amusement. Jane put me in touch with Naomi Barrett, owner of Tuggal Hall where the Beveridges lived from 1945-1951. I found myself sitting in the kitchen where he drank tea after his disastrous election defeat in 1946.”

“He talked to farm labourers through a megaphone. This and his rather squeaky voice caused some amusement”

Beveridge’s life-long passion for social reform did not translate into an empathetic public persona. A story from one election meeting is salutary. A woman, so offended by Beveridge’s rudeness, changed her vote from Liberal to Labour. And so, the man whose report shaped the Welfare State, and who worked tirelessly in Northumberland even after his defeat, is barely acknowledged here.

Mike says, “He seems to have been warmer on a personal level – Jean Mann’s father did some building work for Beveridge and mentioned some difficulty over a trip to Australia. Beveridge arranged a sea passage for Jean’s parents – he and his wife even went to wave them off at Chathill Station.”

The final connection was an email address found in a book from Tuggal Hall. It led Mike to David and Eileen Burn at Carrycoats Hall near Hexham in April this year. “It was a privilege to meet Lady Beveridge’s grandson. And to be invited to the Memorial Service at Thockrington Church for Lord Beveridge led by John Sentamu.”

Mike was also asked to prepare the biographical notes handed to the congregation. The family said he knew more about their much loved step-grandfather than they did.

The service sheet biography at Beveridge’s memorial in 2013, compiled by Mike Fraser.


The free exhibition, Beveridge, Berwick and Welfare, will be at the Main Guard, Palace Green in Berwick open every afternoon from  June to September  except Wednesday

“Sir William Beveridge – the Man, the Report and the Berwick Division” by Mike Fraser BA, MSc, MPhil can be found at Berwick Library

Find Mike on Twitter @MIkef45

(A version of this article was first published by The Berwick Advertiser and is available on-line  here)

Berwick’s Mayoral Vote: my account

Here in Berwick there’s quite a furore over the re-election of Isobel Hunter as Mayor rather than last year’s Deputy Mayor, Georgina Hill. It is unusual for the Deputy Mayor not to succeed the Mayor. I was at the town council meeting on Monday night. It was not a pleasant meeting.

Before the vote, Councillor Lang, my husband, suggested the council stick with the Mayor they have for a year as Ms Hill is currently involved in a dispute with a council employee involving serious allegations on both sides and currently under independent investigation. Hopefully in a year’s time this will be settled. Councillor Lang suggested that, should Ms Hill be elected, she would be the employee’s line manager. This, Councillor Lang said according to legal advice he had taken, could be seen as constructive dismissal of the employee and potentially lead to a costly claim against the council. Understandably, this led to a heated response from Ms Hill, including claims that several Councillors had complaints lodged against them by the same employee. Mayor Isobel Hunter said that she had received advice from NALC (The National Association of Local Councils) which suggested it would be unwise to support Ms Hill under the current circumstances.

The vote took place and Isobel Hunter was voted in as Mayor by 8 votes to Ms Hill’s 7. Councillor John Stephenson was voted in as Deputy Mayor over Councillor Ivor Dixon. I was surprised that no one nominated Ms Hill to remain as Deputy Mayor as it seemed to me Councillors may have been happy to keep the status quo for a year had they been given the opportunity. A number of vocal supporters of Ms Hill made their presence felt shouting and calling out throughout proceedings. Others spoke when invited to do so and were eloquent in their support and praise of Ms Hill. Many (12 to 16) followed Ms Hill out when she left after the vote and subsequent discussion, and before the rest of the council business took place.

Pushing aside rhetoric and posturing, the question the council faced was: Would it be wise to appoint someone who is currently in the midst of an independent employment investigation with an employee as that employee’s line manager? Unusual, uncomfortable, embarrassing and difficult as this was for all parties, it was a question that feels as if it had to be aired. In the event, the council erred on the side of caution. By a hair’s breadth.

Out of Berwick – delightful spots to visit (and escape the Berwick Fury)

It’s the time of year when The Husband and I like to grab a glass of evening wine and meander down the garden, chewing the metaphorical cud as we go. And, there’s been quite a lot of cud to chew lately what with one thing and another.

Sundowner moments are rather precious: time to catch up and wind down, take in our marvellous surroundings and simply to be. However, there are a number of relatively taboo subjects in our household right now. What with The Husband being on the town council. Many of the things we enjoyed mulling over – festivals, being a Portas town, local shops, buildings and gardens, Berwick itself – are, these days, topics laced liberally with anxiety and a desire to skip over the wall to other shores.

Sometimes it's good to get away - now matter how beautiful Berwick is

Sometimes it’s good to get away – no matter how beautiful Berwick is

So, in the interests of health and sanity, I am heading away from politics, from loud and publicly vented spleen, and from those who have the stomach to take the body blows. Although why any sane-minded person would want to be a town councillor, I cannot fathom. Ooops. That sounds a bit like, ‘I told you so!’ and, when The Husband became a councillor, I promised those words would never pass my lips. So, here are some family friendly places a few paces or wheel turns away from our feisty town.

Chain Bridge Honey Farm. Four miles out of Berwick – learn about bees and bee produce. I read on Facebook recently that a cream made from farm honey had triumphed over dermatitis where numerous prescriptions had failed. Tumble down the hill to the historic Union Chain Bridge – in 1820 the longest wrought iron suspension bridge in the world. Today you’re more likely to hear the call of a goosander (or perhaps glimpse an otter) than the thunderous sound of Captain Brown’s carriage crashing across his bridge, proving to the 700 bystanders that the structure would support their weight and save them the slog to Berwick one way and Coldstream the other.

Half a mile along the river is the 18th-century neo-Palladian mansion, Paxton House. The adventure playground (with zip wire) tucked into the woods above the river ticks the kid box. The house contains tales of doomed love and plantations and a fine collection of Chippendale. Plus there’s a café – and people who dress up. And it’s river-trip season (check timetables) – why not take a boat from Berwick Quayside and sloosh along to Paxton – spying out fishing shiels and wildlife along the way?

Boat trips along the Tweed from Berwick Quayside...

Boat trips along the Tweed from Berwick Quayside…

...a great way to see things from a different angle

…a great way to see things from a different angle

Plenty of walks lead you out of Berwick. One of my favourites circles the cliff edge by Berwick Caravan Holiday Park towards Eyemouth.  Although peering in windows is fun, the real views come later. About 30 minutes out of Berwick you’ll find the Needle’s Eye, a spectacular natural rock arch. This time of year cliffs are packed with nesting seabirds (kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills). You might spy puffin but the Farnes, a short sea ride out of Seahouses, is way more reliable for puffin spotters. Extend your walk from Needle’s Eye to Eyemouth and St Abbs for more coastal treats.

The Needle's Eye in the background - a short step north along the coast from Berwick

The Needle’s Eye in the background – a short step north along the coast from Berwick

In Eyemouth is the splendid Gunsgreen House. The hands-on displays and stories of smuggling skulduggery are compelling. Stroll over the estuary for fish and chips on the Bantry, some nosh at Oblo or a Giacopazzi’s ice cream. Yum.

There are many more delightful places just over Berwick’s threshold – hop on a bus to Holy Island, continue to Bamburgh for the castle and tales of sea heroine Grace Darling, mosey to Ford and Etal for steam trains, castle and a functioning corn mill.

Sometimes you need a nudge to get out and admire the exquisite things just beyond your doorstep. As the Berwick fury shows no sign of abating, I may be gone some time.

Plenty of spooky smuggling secrets to uncover at gorgeous Gunsgreen House, Eyemouth

(A version of this post was first published in The Berwick Advertiser on 1 May 2014)

Berwick’s seasonal razzle dazzle

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.

Much heavy plant is required for erecting and decking out a municipal tree.

Much heavy plant is required for erecting and decking out a municipal tree.

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.

The tree – still upright despite high winds. (Photo from Berwick Advertiser)

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

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