Border Lines

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

Archive for the tag “north south divide”

Loose connections – train travel off the rails

Trains. Train timetables. Trains stopping and not stopping. Trains that don’t connect with trains they’re supposed to connect with. Train staff that can’t help you because it’s: ‘Not our company.’

One of the joys of moving to Berwick from London was our proximity to the station. London, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Bristol and, via Peterborough, Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich were a maximum two trains away. How clever we were to have chosen a northern idyll so well connected to our work, family and local cultural hotspots. We moaned about our elderly parents’ refusal to do the train journeys. ‘You don’t even have to change when you come from Bristol!’ we cried. Mother dubbed Peterborough ‘a dreadful windy place.’ She was resolute in the face of our protestations that it was merely a stopping off point.

Between us The Husband and I have travelled to and from London many times since our move – there have been occasional delays but, overall, we can’t complain. The minute you deviate from London, however, it’s another story.

The train not necessarily taking the strain between Berwick and places other than London

We persuaded Mother-in-Law and Father-in-Law to travel from Bristol to Berwick for Christmas and arranged platform assistance for them at both ends. Surely it must be better than the car, where The Husband’s strict rules allow for one pee break and a Mars Bar? We had not anticipated the terrible weather of Christmas 2010. Brief, repetitive bulletins came from Mother-in-Law each time she remembered to turn on her mobile: severe delays. Then, unexpectedly, everyone was kicked off at Newcastle. Pandemonium.  Finally The Husband drove to Newcastle to get them. Pale and shaken they related stories of being told to stay put; being told to lug their bags over the bridge etc. At no time were they offered real help. That night Father-in-Law had a heart attack. He received excellent treatment at the Wansbeck.

I have done the journey from Berwick to Ipswich three times in the last few months. New timetabling means an extra change at York to get to Peterborough. Twice, delays have meant I’ve missed my connection from York, then from Peterborough (which is a dreadful, windy place, with marathon length walks between platforms – sorry Mum!), and scored a bonus journey to Cambridge. Arriving over two hours late in Ipswich both times.

On one trip I met a Lovely Lady from Berwick who was travelling to Colchester – we’ve bumped into each other since in Berwick. She says she always goes via London now and has had no problems. I think I must do the same. But I can’t ask my elderly mum to do that. If the Peterborough walk’s bad, the tube between King’s Cross and Liverpool Street’s a killer. Apparently the not-stopping at Berwick is to do with time allocation. Certain London-bound trains can regain precious extra minutes if they skip places such as Berwick and Grantham.

I must be getting old because I’m really fed up with:

1. Attitudes to customers. There’s more than a hint of arrogance about companies that don’t ensure that informed staff are around to help people who find themselves in confusing situations when in that company’s care.

2. Attitudes to elderly people. Above point times five. In this era of an ageing population, can we really continue to disregard elderly people’s equal right to assistance, care and respect?

3. Attitudes to areas outside London. When towns like Berwick are written off as disposable ‘time-saving’ places – there are very real implications as far as facilities and opportunities are concerned.

4. Attitudes to the environment. If prices continue to rise and investment in track, rolling stock and service is not forthcoming how many people will put rail at the top of their travel options?

Of course, I’ve met some really helpful platform and on-train staff – those at Berwick Station included. But my experience is that they’re in the minority. What’s yours?

A version of this article appeared in the Berwick Advertiser on Thursday 7th June


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

From South to North – The Great Divide

Every self-help manual counsels against it. Every ounce of commonsense shrieks at the thought of it. Who in their right mind would decide to move their lives from South to North because of a house casually spotted on holiday?  

But that’s just what The Husband and I, along with the then Nine-Year-Old, did. Fresh from the waves and winds of Tiree – the outermost of the inner Hebrides – we broke our journey back to London in the Border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. The sun twinkled on the estuary, fishermen plied the ancient craft of netting salmon in the Tweed, Berwick nestled snugly and prettily behind its ancient Elizabethan fortified walls, and our hearts yearned for a bit more holiday and a bit less normality.

So it seemed normal to spot a house for sale and fall in love with the idea of moving into it. It seemed natural to spend the the car journey from Berwick – the last town in England before Scotland –  to London discussing how we’d arrange our finances to purchase this house we’d seen just once. It was a bit scarier when two months later the house was ours.

How the heck were we going to organise our lives to move from London to Berwick? Besides, we LOVE London. Its frenzy of people and cars, its cultural diversity and opportunites to soak up culture, the sheer anonymity of it. The fact that all our older children are there – and the rest of our families are easily accessible from it. London is the place we love. Well, I do. It seems The Husband – a Londoner born and bred and no spring chicken – has begun to yearn for a rural idyll. He wants to work less and enjoy life more. What loving wife would argue with that?

Lovely London

So, a year after buying the house, we took the plunge. The Husband trekked up and down the A1 in a Transit. And, with the help of The Silvery Haired Old Gentlemen (his oldest friends in more ways than one), he shifted the essentials of our London life to Berwick. We left our London house in the safe hands of the 23-year-old London Daughter and two of her friends – with plans to sell in a year’s time. What could possibly go wrong?

How hard could it be to translate our leafy North London lives into a Berwickian version? It’s a slightly mad work in progress. And the comparisons between London and Berwick life are often rather surprising.

Since our move, I’ve documented some of my thoughts, experiences and ideas in a regular monthly column in our local newspaper – The Berwick Advertiser. On this site you can read those articles and more random blog updates about the joys and struggles of adapting to a new life. Do offer feedback and comments. Whether you’ve made a huge life change or stayed where you are all your life; and whether you live in Berwick, London or some far flung part of the globe – I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

Beautiful Berwick

Post Navigation