Border Lines

Berwick, North Northumberland: Food-Travel-Culture-Community

Archive for the tag “Community”

Berwick: a town of festivals?

A couple of weeks ago The Husband and I trotted along to a meeting at the William Elder Building.  The aim was to discuss ideas for a bid for £100,000 from a government grant scheme launched after the Mary Portas Review to boost ailing town centres such as Berwick.

In recent years, exhausting amounts of expensive research has examined the challenges Berwick faces. A baffling array of ideas, projects and events from various groups of dynamic people have followed. Some of these have run their course, others struggle to keep going. Separately, independent stand–alone events, like the Film Festival, attract international attention. But few projects seem to capture the collective imagination and support of all Berwickers.

Some 40 of us gathered – individuals, representatives from organisations and businesses and interested parties, all of whom would like to see Berwick booming and blooming. A place of cultural and historical stimulation: a vibrant, fun and happening town – on the map of places to go.

The meeting was ably led by Peter Watts (Trustee, Berwick Community Trust) who’d gathered valuable input from a range of Berwick people and stakeholders, including The Maltings Theatre & Cinema and Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival. We watched a great amateur film (which has accompanied the bid) produced by the Youth Project. It offered a thoughtful perspective from young people on how and why Berwick could and should be improved.

Facelift type projects were discussed at some length. But do they sustain a town centre? What we’d all love is a regular influx of interested and interesting people (with money to spend!) drawn to Berwick by ‘something’. But what? Of course we want pretty shops, lovely cafés, a flourishing market, acceptable parking, a decent children’s playground etc – but what’s the big draw?

The sheer breadth and depth of marvellous Berwick events was aired and admired…the Film Festival, Food Festival, the much mourned Tattoo, the Riding of the Bounds, the Minden Parade, the Dickensian Market. Great cultural venues such as the Granary, the Barracks, Gymnasium Gallery and the Maltings; natural delights like the river and coast, and historic landmarks from the walls to the Royal Border Bridge were dusted down and appreciated. But, let’s face it, regeneration for Berwick isn’t happening – even with all this.

In our little discussion group it quickly became clear that we were done with reports. We wanted action. But there are as many ideas of what action looks like as people in a room. Many of us were involved in different events. All beavering away, valiantly endeavouring to create ‘the’ event. Endlessly reinventing the wheel of licences, permissions, permits and local involvement with varying degrees of aggro and success.

So, how to move forward?

Well, as one person at the meeting said, “Can we agree that whether or not we are successful in this bid, we will get a working party together and, despite the barriers – insurance, absentee landlords etc – we will clean and tidy and decorate the town centre?”

And, as someone else pointed out:  there’s no deep historical reason that Hay–on–Wye is now ‘the town of books’. Richard Booth decided to pull a publicity stunt in 1977, it caught people’s imaginations, and the rest is very lucrative history.

I’d say that surely the ‘something’ to attract people is Berwick itself. Berwick with its glorious potential, amazing calendar of events and attractions. And the unifying factor is people acting together. A co–ordinated, independent town team, planning and making things happen, with a mission to promote ownership of Berwick by its people for its people.

So let’s hope the bid’s successful – but let’s hope even harder that we, as a town, get the momentum to work together effectively to make Berwick the place we want it to be – and that others want to come to. A town of festivals, perhaps?

A version of this article was published in The Berwick Advertiser on 5th April

In praise of civic pride – and a pioneering spirit

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I blooming love Berwick. I really do. No, I haven’t knocked back too much egg nog. And, no, the shorter days have not made me take leave of my senses.

So what has caused this surge of civic pride? Well, there’s something about Christmas in Berwick – and something about this winter in particular. Last winter was marked by the great snow–in – and an almost biblical rush of neighbourliness, good deeds, and bonhomie in the face of icy adversity.

This winter the Christmas trees around Berwick town centre have stood proud and glorious – albeit slightly askew after a battering by the 100mph winds. In fact, the 10–Year–Old asked in awe, “How many Christmas trees does Berwick need?” I felt a shiver of delight that our town can impress her with its largesse. The festive lights have looked gorgeous, merry and welcoming on the Royal Tweed Bridge, along Castlegate, Bridge Street and on the high street itself – not to mention the glorious sky carpet on West Street. And, unlike London’s West End, not a sell–out sponsorship deal in sight – just an appreciative doff of the hat to the Rotary Club and the town council.

The sky carpet

But it’s more than just lights, isn’t it? It’s the healthy optimistic glow that illuminates the positive: that shines out despite the lack of money, the unpredictable weather, the potential for things to go wrong, and the not always helpful hand of the Morpeth Moguls – and proclaims that we won’t be doom mongers; we can and will make something special of our town.

It’s the campaign to bring the colours of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers home to the Barracks  – and the wider issue of keeping the Barracks functioning as a museum implicit in that campaign. It’s Miles Gregory standing up at his farewell bash at the Maltings and acknowledging that a vibrant centre for the arts is not just a success story for him and his team – it’s another notch on the belt of civic pride for Berwick, something we can all be proud of. It’s the marvellous Dickensian Market attracting more people to the town than ever – and encouraging people to dress up in mad costumes, have fun, and spend money at the same time.

It’s the Berwick Male Voice Choir singing proudly and loudly at St Andrew’s Church accompanied by a choir from a local school – and successfully pulling off a repertoire that included Bridge over Troubled Water, Pirate songs, and Morte Criste.  It’s the slightly barmy Santa and his Reindeer parade in Spittal – with the mellifluous Norham Village Band playing carols bravely in amongst the stalls of local festive produce. And, while we’re at it, it’s having a local newspaper which gets along to all these events, writes supportively about them and takes pride in being part of the local colour and culture. It’s even the still only part–functioning lights on the Royal Border Bridge.

Because all these things – and the many other amazing events and functions during this season and throughout the year are often testament to the vision of one or two people and the hard labour of a good team – and none of them is perfect. We can all look at them and see how they could be better organised, better publicised, more dynamic, more textbook. But in this season of good cheer, and at the beginning of a brand new year, let’s not knock – let’s celebrate and remember how much duller Berwick would be without them. Personally I am thrilled to be part of a community that’s brave enough to try things out – to campaign, to work together and to love its town enough to want others to see it at its best and to love it too.

A version of this article first appeared in The Berwick Advertiser on 5 January 2012

Facebook fancy or real life?

“My name is Jackie and I’m a social network addict”. A few days ago I found myself aimlessly Facebook–stalking London Daughter’s ex–boyfriend. So, it’s a fair cop, and I need to get a grip or get to Social Networks Anonymous.

When we left London and moved to Berwick just over a year ago, I signed up to Facebook as a way of staying in touch with London Friends. In fact many London Friends have washed up on the shores of the Tweed at some point or other during the past year which has been brilliant. But that hasn’t stopped my daily need to check out what’s going on in everybody’s parallel cyber world. That’s the world of status posts, photos, YouTube clips of ‘Charlie bit my finger’, homemade videos of family members doing voiceovers to Justin Bieber songs, and discovering that Niece Number One’s ex–boyfriend is off to Zambia…

Previously I’d avoided Facebook like the plague. I felt I saw enough of scantily dressed young people using interesting language constructions without having to look at them on my computer. But now I’ve started, I just can’t stop. And I’ve been surprised at how many people around my age are as active as I am in letting the world know what they’re up to, where they’re doing it, and who they’re doing it with.

On Facebook you gather friends and frivolous information like children pick up nits. In fact, on a recent flying visit to London for a friend’s 50th, my tireless social networking had pretty much negated the need for smalltalk.

And there’s the rub. Relationships are built on spending time together and having meaningful conversations as well as playful ones. I notice that I’m beginning to know more about the real lives of Berwick Friends than I am about those of London Friends. We may exchange flippant comments on Facebook but we also grab a coffee at Café Curio or a glass of wine at The Maltings Bar. We discuss our parents, our children, our anxieties and frustrations. It’s the chunky real deal of life as well as the bite–sized snippets.

The 10–Year–Old longs a little less for her best friend in London as her daily ups and downs with Berwick friends preoccupy her more. Even The Husband has found time to hook up with a few northern Silvery Haired Old Gentlemen and mumble about property prices and shooting pheasants over a pint at The Barrels.

Of course, the more we relinquish London commitments, the more we engage in Berwick projects. The Husband’s now on the board of the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival, The 10–Year–Old looks set to appear in Berwick Operatic Society’s Annie next March. And, rather startlingly, I seem to be in a play at The Maltings in December – We Happy Few – see you in the bar afterwards?

We Happy Few

Oh, but it’s scary! The truth is that for the last year we have kept our house in London. London Daughter has been living there with three other Twenty Somethings (seemed like a good idea at the time!) – it’s been our boarding house on London visits. Once it’s sold, we will be at the mercy of London Friends. Soon my Facebook status will read, ‘Can anyone put The Husband, 10–Year–Old and Little Old Me up for a few days?’ Will a stony cyber silence greet my plea?

And, without the London security blanket, will we still love Berwick as much? Will that mad impulse that made us buy a house here on a post–holiday whim still seem like the product of adventurous spirits or the outworking of borderline insanity?

It’s one thing pontificating about all the issues and ideas that strike one when one is a newcomer to a place; but quite another really living with them and really engaging with them. So here’s to Berwick – more than just a Facebook Friend…I hope.

A version of this article was first published in the Berwick Advertiser on 1st December 2011

A playground and somewhere to hang out

The 10–Year–Old wants a playground where she can climb, swing, slide and spin. She says there’s nowhere in Berwick and that in London there were great playgrounds. I don’t always bow to the wants or will of my offspring, but I think she has a point.

When we first moved to Finsbury Park, North London the children’s playground was a desultory affair. A couple of battered swings creaked limply when not being mistreated by spotty youths, a crooked tin slide kept them company. The nearby peace garden was popular. Encircled by trees, it had brilliant rocks for climbing. And offered perfect shelter for junkies and drinkers. A battered café which opened sporadically looked reproachfully over the whole sorry affair.

This amenity served a catchment of some 34,500 people.

In 2003 the park was transformed with Heritage Lottery Funds, strong leadership and joined–up vision. It’s now a hub for the local community – a safe oasis despite the massive issues of gang culture and social deprivation. The boating pond was dredged and prettied, new play equipment – climbing frames, swings, roundabouts, and a sand pit with pulleys and levers – was installed. Overall, it met children’s need for danger and entertainment and parents’ desire for safety and a sit down. Perhaps the weakest area (and I’m going to whisper this) is the splash bit. It’s prone to breakdowns and is so seasonal that it’s not really open long enough to say, ‘wet T–shirt’.

The rebuilt café is lovely to behold, with tables outside, reasonable menu, and the all–important ice cream window – and it’s open all day. The adjoining loos are no longer frequented by cottagers. The whole place is constantly heaving with families and school parties. Children want to go there to catch up with their friends and, quite simply, because it’s fun. There’s easy parking nearby and those who drive, willingly pay to enjoy the facilities. Parents chat over tea and coffee while their offspring frolic, argue and make up. Also, there’s space and facilities alongside for older children to kick ball, skateboard and hang out. Older children will always seek and create entertainment, much of it good – take the mountain bike track under the Walls by the tennis courts – but guiding them to positive outlets has to be win–win.

The bike track by the tennis courts is an example of older children creating their own entertainment - of course it's probably wearing for those living over the Walls

Personally I think there are loads of fun open spaces in Berwick and when I was a gal in Suffolk, Mum opened the back door after breakfast bidding me not to return until tea time. I’d roam fields, climb trees and do dangerous things with airguns. But that was then and this is now. Times have changed and good play areas should be available to children. And they can and should be safe and fun rather than havens for antisocial behaviour that make neighbour’s lives a misery. So regular security checks by community police officers or somesuch may be needed.

But more importantly – and probably most off–putting for those looking to get up to no good – such amenities have to be heavily used by the people they are intended for. Which means getting location, equipment and facilities right – including parking. The Spittal playground ticks most boxes.

The playground at Spittal ticks most boxes

So, in the interests of promoting The 10–Year–Old’s fantasy, I’ve identified potential sites in Berwick. The playground above Greenses Beach could be revamped but isn’t great if you’re just passing through. Accessibility is an issue for the sad swing site by the rose garden. What about that paddock over the railway bridge on North Road? Again, parking’s not easy.

Sad swings

Here’s the masterplan: the end of the long stay car park by the Co–op. There’s space and parking. We could even pop in a basketball court for older kids. Surely English Heritage might allow a café in the gun emplacement? Such an amenity could well draw more visitors into town and do something to address the pull of out–of–town free parking and shops. Let me know what you think.

By the Co-op - loads of town-centre space with playground and cafe potential as well as areas to create somewhere for older children to hang out and not lose their cool

A version of this article was first published on November 3rd 2011 in The Berwick Advertiser

Camps, riots and someone to look up to

Summer holidays. My childhood memories of them are a hazy blend of aimlessness and adventure. Of more freedom and more boredom. Now, I see the challenge my parents faced to ensure those long days groomed me for independence with responsibility. And, I guess that’s what we’d like to recreate for our children. But boy, oh, boy it’s tough to get it right!

Excitement built in our household as The Nine–Year–Old prepared to go ‘on camp’ for the first time. She was nervous, so were we – was she too young; what about safety; what if she didn’t get on with anyone? Minor worries – but normal. In the event, she left on the morning after the incredibly abnormal and terrible massacre at the Labour youth camp in Norway.

The Husband and I did not think a similar atrocity would take place at The Nine–Year–Old’s camp but it was a stark reminder that nothing can mitigate for random acts of badness or madness. Fortunately, during her week at away, our girl didn’t spot her anxious parents periodically peering down at camp from a secret hilltop vantage point!

Of course, she came home five inches taller, three years wiser and with even more to talk about than usual. The canoeing was ‘fantastic!’, the trip to Lindisfarne ‘brilliant!’, the shopping trip to Berwick (I know, I know!) ‘cool!’.  Her real heroes were the leaders. They led outings, songs, allotted the children tasks (peeling the spuds, cleaning, washing up etc), and made sure they were ‘mothered’ – although I’m not convinced they made them brush their teeth for the requisite three minutes twice daily.

Crank the clock forward and we were heading for some rays of Portuguese sunshine. On a trip to load up with Vinho Verde and sardines news of London riots caught my eye. Cue massive texting frenzy with London Daughter. She was safe and our particular corner of North London minimally affected. Nearby Tottenham and Wood Green were not so settled. London generally was, ‘tense’, ‘eerie’ and ‘weird’.

We were relieved to read that Berwick and the North East was calm. Considering the lack of work and deprivation in the area that seemed cause for celebration.

The events around the country got us talking about the pros and cons of youth work and youth clubs. We remembered our own childhood experiences – not all good – and agreed that youth work for youth work’s sake was no solution. Such work needs a clear focus and sound leadership and values. We explored the much debated cuts in youth work and the implications it might have for children whose parents don’t know where their children hang out of an evening – and, in some cases, don’t care.  Some kids rampaging through shops to nick trainers and other must–have items were not much older than The Nine–Year–Old. Who was supposed to be looking after them?

How lucky we were not to be living in a big city now. How lucky we are to live somewhere with cheap (or free) recreation and adventure on the doorstep – including The Nine–Year–Old’s camp. But for many young people it doesn’t matter that it’s on the doorstep, it’s still inaccessible because they don’t have adults to structure an adventure or even an outing. That’s just one reason why the Berwick Youth Project (and other local clubs) is such a fantastic thing.

Wouldn’t it be brilliant, I thought, if Northumberland with its history, opportunities for water sports and outdoor pursuits became the most sought after place for children and young adults to visit for adventure, team–building and new experiences? And, most of all, to be inspired by leaders who look after them and offer them a snapshot of an adult way of being that many young people miss out on.

Wouldn’t it be brilliant if funding for such society–shaping enterprise were not cut but doubled, quadrupled…whatever it takes to give children the opportunity to break the almost inevitable cycle laid down for them by circumstance of birth – despite the odds against them?

Meanwhile, it’s time to go and make sure that the Nine–Year–Old’s construction project has not turned into a destruction project…

A version of this article was first published on 1 September 2011 in The Berwick Advertiser

Town centre trials

Parking – don’t get me started! London parking is a drag. A few weeks ago, as I scratched away the umpteenth silver patch to reveal the umpteenth date, year and time (hours and minutes) on a visitor’s parking permit, I yearned for the simplicity and ease of Berwick parking.
Now, I’ve heard a lot about the lack of parking in Berwick, how hard it is to park, how expensive some parking is…yet to me there seems to be loads of parking – apart from, perhaps, at the station.

There is plenty of parking in and around Berwick - but it can be expensive if you just want to 'pop' to the shops - so out of town shops with free parking are a big draw

I have to be careful because we’re lucky enough to have off-street parking. However, the town is encircled by car parks and streets without parking restrictions. We’ve found it straightforward to get reasonably priced permits for friends when they’ve turned up. Yes, from a newcomer’s perspective there seems to be adequate – even ample – parking for Berwick’s current situation.

Admittedly, our arrival in Berwick is post town-centre and on-the-bridge parking, and it must be wearing not to park outside your front door. But relative walking distances are small. I have heard it mooted that some would rather have a coffee out at the retail park in Tweedmouth at M&S than come into Berwick because of the parking. I just don’t get it. Are we going to be campaigning for Park & Ride next? Controlled Parking Zones? Please, no! I’ve experienced the latter and, trust me, it’s just an additional road tax – in London it cost £100 to park outside our own house for the year, add £130 for a second car (up to £200 for larger cars).

Parking enforcement in Berwick is positively friendly. In London I was slammed with a £60 fine for having one wheel very slightly on the edge of the pavement. It would have been £120 if I’d missed the half-price payment deadline. £120! In Berwick your car can kick around on a double yellow for an hour or so without having some jobsworth swoop; and you don’t get a gratuitous ticket if you run four minutes over time on pay and display.

Stooging around on a double yellow – although more wardens seem to be invading Berwick from county central Morpeth and since I wrote this article many elderly churchgoers found themselves ticketed in the empty car park outside the Parish Church on a Sunday morning. That would be considered harsh – even in London!

Do parking issues stop people coming to Berwick? Well, out-of-town facilities are still being built despite the well-documented ‘doughnut effect’ – the lifeblood being sucked from town centres by outskirt developments. I guess the easy parking at such areas must reduce footfall and spending in the town. But are there other reasons?

In Berwick, there are some lovely cafes, great butchers and a variety of appealing galleries and niche shops tucked around. The Catch 22 is that the centre itself is not totally appealing. There, I’ve said it. It’s brilliant to have stores where we can make our pennies go further. But we also need more shops that stop – outlets that are different and exclusive to Berwick and its area. The ‘let’s find somewhere to park’ shops.

There are secret streets and alluring shops in Berwick….

…and buildings that make you want to shut your eyes

Recently we met an Edinburgh family who, after a day in the country, planned to explore Berwick. We later heard that Berwick looked so unalluring they’d driven on to Lindisfarne. Given that it’s difficult for anywhere to look charming on a grey, wet afternoon – even with welcoming bunting and festive flowers – a more mixed and vibrant high street would potentially attract more passing trade and lure people in from outlying areas. And that’s a bigger challenge. Berwick is not the only northern town to be suffering from the impact of financial downturn – and slightly lacklustre town centres is sadly a common feature. But we do have the intrinsic advantage of great historic features and a brilliant location. So whilst talk of facelifts for car parks is positive, perhaps we should take a long, hard look at how we give the high street a facelift and attract some more buzzy boutique shops and cafes to jostle companionably alongside what we already have.

Then maybe we will have a serious parking problem – and maybe we’ll be delighted to wrestle with ways of solving it.

(This article was first published on 7th July 2011 in The Berwick Advertiser

The thrills and terrors of limitless possibilities

Early days – the garden before I realised how much work it takes to keep it trim and pretty

I am frightened of my garden. The snow has melted and revealed a dishevelled, unmaintained thing. It looks unwieldy and scary.

My London garden was paved and sported jauntily arranged pots packed with geraniums. I could rush round with a broom and scoop fallen leaves into the compost in half an hour. It was predictable and safe. This garden, with its lawn, beds, trimmed bushes and borders is unfamiliar and demanding.

What I anticipated would be a fun challenge has become a source of anxiety. Getting out there, and deciding what to do first, feels overwhelming – let alone the grandiose ideas I harboured of fruit trees and chickens.

This got me wondering whether my malaise is symptomatic of the feelings experienced when familiar structures are removed and replaced with seemingly limitless possibilities. Those ‘limitless’ possibilities are so easily turned into impossibilities by one’s mind – and by circumstances.

Is this why, historically, many men who retire after vigorous working lives die quite soon after they’ve hung up their nine-to-five coats? Why so many chaps leaving the army end up in trouble? Why some women struggle to regain the confidence to take on a job of similar standing after a career break for children?

My current garden phobia does not equate in any way, shape or form to the magnitude of the above – but maybe the sense of feeling lost and without structure since our family upped our London sticks is similar.

Of course, negative thoughts and feelings are often heightened in winter. SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is well documented. As grey clouds roll in so, for many people, do the dark mists of depression. Recommendations to combat SAD such as, ‘go on holiday, buy a sun lamp, soak up vitamin D when the sun does shine, and find activities that give you joy…’ are not always practical.

My mother advocates, ‘putting a smile on your face.’ Much as it annoys me to acknowledge it, she has a point – smiling does, apparently, release mood-enhancing endorphins and generally make you more attractive and approachable to others.

Before the snow melted to reveal the dishevelled, demanding Berwick garden

As I pine for my London and the huge, noisy, cluttered, faceless anonymity of it all, I have to remind myself that I am also mourning my small but close community of friends who noticed when I got crabby and knew how best to cheer me up and wrap me in a security blanket.

Since I moved to Berwick I’ve been fortunate enough to meet an enormous amount of people – all of whom have been incredibly open, friendly and supportive. Initially I had to stop myself clinging to people’s ankles and begging them to be my friends – I guess I wanted to build my little protective structures as quickly as possible. But, as I am fond of pointing out to The Nine-Year-Old, making friends and settling into a new place is a funny old business and takes time. You only have to glance back through your own catalogue of friends loved and lost through the years to realise that some friendships you believed would be for life turn out to be just for a season and vice versa.

Which brings us back to my garden. Gardening is a pastime which embraces the seasons and is supposed to enhance mental wellbeing… the sky is blue, the sun is shining and the frost sparkling. Limitless possibilities await my budding green fingers. I’d better get my sorry butt out there before I have second thoughts. Or maybe I’ll just take stock with a cup of tea and a gardening magazine. After all, it’s best to take these things a day at a time…

(A version of this article was first published on March 17th 2011 in The Berwick Advertiser

There’s no business like snow business

Snowy Berwick

Berwick struggled with the huge snowfalls in November 2010

“It’s snowing! Fantastic! Sooooooo beautiful!”

That was me at the beginning of the ‘unprecedented early cold spell’… “When will it end? I hate this weather!” That was me after a week of relentless snow and arctic temperatures. And still the weather continued.

Everything takes ten times as long in the snow: putting on the layers of clothes necessary to face sub zero conditions; slipping along ice-rutted pavements to browse the empty shelves in the supermarket; even getting out of bed demands twice the energy and willpower.

So what would it be like in London? Do Londoners handle adverse weather conditions differently to more rural folk? We-ell, there’s something about a high concentration of buildings that just makes things easier. The roads are gritted reasonably quickly – but, to be honest, not noticeably faster or more effectively than in and around Berwick.

The combination of personal endeavour and council strategy here seemed to me to make the pavements, on the whole, clearer and safer in Berwick than my recollection of North London pavements in inclement weather. There’s a noticeable difference between the roads in Scotland and England (with Scotland streets ahead in gritting and clearing – literally!) – but that’s another story. In London, buses grind to a halt pretty quickly. Last year I remember a line of red double deckers perched like pantomime sausages up Muswell Hill: they just couldn’t get up!

Nevertheless, distances seem less when your constant companions are houses not fields. My impression is that more people take on the challenge of a treacherous long walk in London than they do here. Maybe that’s because they are driven by the City money machine, or perhaps the fear of being the one wimpy empty desk in a sea of snow-heroes who made it to the office. Or maybe heavy snow is rarer in London and so more of a novelty to be conquered.

The mechanisms of a big city do make it easier to keep things going. Here, even in urban Berwick, the weather has caused havoc for businesses and seasonal events alike. How many small businesses have been forced to put up the sign: ‘closed due to weather’ at some point? Or, having struggled to open, have seen barely a customer. It’s devastating at a time when you’d hope the town would be bustling.

It’s truly sad to think of how many Christmas fairs, school activities and local events have not happened. And it’s not just the organisers and punters who miss out – many good and needy causes will fail to reap the benefits from these lost occasions.

Lethal pavements

Roads were cleared quickly – the pavements became lethal as snow turned to rutted ice

What of camaraderie and good neighbourliness? In London during snowy weather grim-faced tube travellers become positively garrulous in the face of a shared get-to-work challenge. People in shops talk to each other – even when they don’t have to! If your car’s stuck on ice you virtually have to fight off eager offers of help. But there’s an unspoken understanding that it’s a one-off. Normal service is only suspended: the minute the first drippy signs of a thaw appear, people will return to their frigid and self-protective relations.

By contrast, my experience is that Berwick people are generally warm and friendly whatever the weather. But in inclement conditions is that generous spirit heightened? Do you hurry by the tell-tale whistle of a slipping wheel, or stop and help? The fact is that with snow up to our eyebrows we could all spend eight hours a day digging or pushing or supporting others in various ways: so maybe we subconsciously ration our good deeds?

Just as my townie’s delight at the ‘prettiness of it all’ rapidly subsided during the daily battle with the blooming white stuff, perhaps it’s hard to remain enthusiastic towards the umpteenth person who needs a lift, a shove, or a helping hand – and with more freezing weather on the way it may become more of a challenge to offer some cheery assistance…

(A version of this article was first published on January 6th 2011 in The Berwick Advertiser

Berwick: lovely place but what does the future hold?

Berwick: A tale of two towns – historically important; opportunity light

Hands up if you’re a born and bred Berwicker. So the rest of you are interlopers like me. Either way, what’s your take on living in Berwick?

During my scant months living here (the depth of my meticulously conducted survey is reflected by the word ‘scant’) I have been surprised at how often I’ve heard variations on the following statement – expressed by natives and incomers alike: “Berwick’s a lovely place to live but the people who’ve grown up here don’t appreciate it.”

Is this one of those things people say out of habit? Or is there something to it?

Berwick is a place where wild nature collides with tempestuous history. The result is a fascinating town: a ramshackle history book of a place tucked inside beautifully maintained walls wedged between river and sea. It seems to harbour a taster of all Northumberland’s coastal and historic delights and make them accessible in one place.

I’ve been uplifted by the pride in natural and historic heritage here – local schools take pleasure in teaching children about it; the library has relevant and attractive books and regular displays highlighting the town’s hidden jewels and gritty past. The Maltings hosts drama workshops, the archives are accessible and active. I’ve not met a child who couldn’t tell me who LS Lowry is. I doubt the same would be true of the primary school we’ve just left in London.

If children are steeped in the joys of the place, what – if anything – changes and when does it change? How does appreciation of life in Berwick turn into the grind of living just anywhere?

As a Suffolk girl I identify with home-dissatisfaction syndrome. Suffolk has its share of history and beauty – what with Wolsey being an Ipswich lad and the county officially designated ‘Constable Country’. But at 18 I couldn’t wait to kick the green and rolling dust off my heels. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate Suffolk. I just don’t want to live there.

Choice is probably a strong defining factor in how we relate to a place. Incomers arrive for a reason – maybe work or a slower pace of life. Ours is a decision rather than a happenstance.

It’s a different thing entirely to turn a life into a living and vice versa. In my short time here I see how hard it is to get by. There aren’t many jobs around and the minimum wage is king. Even if you’re lucky enough to be employed, you’ve got to be incredibly resourceful to pull in a wage that enables you to stop working long enough to enjoy what’s around and about. The tourist season is short-lived and anyhow I suspect that tea shops, Elizabethan walls, ice houses, wild beaches, barracks, fascinating bird life, salmon fishing don’t currently put pounds into the pockets of many – or enable many school leavers to step into regular employment.

Young people need to see – and be excited by – what lies ahead of them. Familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, and lack of money does not necessarily translate into lack of appreciation of surroundings. But I suspect that lack of opportunity may begin to chip away at children sooner than we’d like to think.

Perhaps the native/incomer perspective of Berwick is a perpetuated myth. Maybe ‘lack of appreciation’ is an expression of frustrated ambition, lost hope and disenfranchisement. And maybe the issue that Berwickers – old and new – should consider exploring and addressing is how to ensure a sense of ownership, engagement and, most vital of all, opportunity for a future generation of Berwickers.

(This article was first published Thursday 7 April 2011 in The Berwick Advertiser

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