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

Archive for the tag “Regeneration”

The past can be a welcome surprise

When I was little and we all had scrapbooks My Dear Old Ma wrote in mine ‘Times change and we with time but not in ways of friendship.’ My 11-year-old self walked a bit taller because it felt like a grown-up interaction with my mum. Later I saw it as sentimental. Friendships do shift and change with the ebb and flow of life – as do so many other things. We look back and think, ‘That wasn’t for ever after all’ or ‘I didn’t expect that to happen!’

Four years ago, I did not expect to be writing a column for my local paper. I did not imagine I’d be presenting a show on a community radio station (Lionheart, Alnwick), or that I’d jog to Berwick lighthouse, marvelling at the swallows swooping by my feet, and feeling as if I could run across the steely summer sea to Holy Island. I did not anticipate that the 11-year-old’s long-held wish to be a market trader would be granted – courtesy of a nudge from the Town Team and some parental support on the baking front.

A new entrepreneur in the making at Berwick Market

A new entrepreneur in the making at Berwick Market

I certainly would not have imagined myself at a seminar on heritage initiatives in Berwick. But a couple of weeks ago, I was. We’d been invited because we were beneficiaries of a Conservation Area Partnership Scheme grant. It enabled us to replace and repair stone and pipework at the front of our house.

At the beginning of our building project the planning and conservation people seemed, if I’m honest, mildly intrusive and annoying. We wanted to haul our listed house into the era of modern living and they smiled knowingly, shaking their heads when we suggested moving this window and opening out that doorway.  However, in the end, we are pleased with the input we received – even though it scuppered some of what we’d intended to do. Fact is, we have a better, more coherent and pleasing end product than if we’d been left to our own devices. And I didn’t expect to say that!

THI grants have enhanced the look of many buildings on Castlegate, Berwick. Including our own.

THI grants have enhanced the look of many buildings on Castlegate, Berwick. Including our own.

I had not realised the wider implications of the number of regeneration schemes that have cleverly converged on the town. The Berwick Historic Area Improvement Scheme is a catchall for grants received from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Townscape Heritage Initiative, One North East, and English Heritage (plus contributions from County and Town Council and business and home owners). It’s all managed by a project officer (funded by a separate grant). And different projects are happening simultaneously around town – including Castlegate, Bridge Street and, the final hoorah, the restoration of the Cowe buildings (purchased by Arch, the organisation established by County to stimulate regeneration in Northumberland). It equals some £3m pumped into the fabric of the town. That’s on top of vanguard project, Dewar’s Lane Granary (£4.7m), and plus the current Berwick Parks Project (approx. £1m), which could be viewed as a spin-off from these successes.

The Barrels pub and the former Cowes buildings - both being given a facelift with grant monies.

The Barrels pub and the former Cowes buildings on Bridge Street, Berwick  – both being given a facelift with grant monies.

The Free Trade public house on Castlegate - surely not a facelift too far?

The Free Trade public house on Castlegate – surely not a facelift too far?

Of course, infrastructure projects may seem highfalutin and insanely pointless when people are scrabbling to make ends meet. But these pools of money are available for what they’re available for. The works are usually (though not always) carried out by local tradesmen – a local economy boost and injection of new and transferable skills. I said funding had cleverly converged on the town, but it’s not serendipity. It took tenacity and vision to snare Berwick a share.

Come 2015, the current project will end. The conservation officer who made the bids and is overseeing and implementing the projects will be heading out of Berwick and back to County Hall – which will doubtless affect Berwick’s ability to benefit from other such schemes.

I’m sad about that. When we look back at Berwick’s scrapbook I don’t believe that the 2010-2014 Berwick regeneration will be considered a mistake. Or maybe I’m getting sentimental in my old age.

This article first appeared in The Berwick Advertiser in July 2013

Don’t sweep change under the carpet

‘I love you, you’re perfect, now change’:  Musicals may be clichéd and sentimental but they also have a knack of summing up aspects of the human condition succinctly and evocatively.

As I gaze at the wreck that was once my house, I’m beginning to ask what madness possessed us to embark on updating and modernising the home we fell in love with a few years back. Could we not simply have let be? Or just slapped on a bit of paint? You know things are bad when you start making decisions about fixtures and furnishings by drawing lots – using breadsticks because the drinking straws are under a pile of dusty boxes.

Breadsticks: the shortest straw?

Do the lovely people who owned our house before us shake their heads in wonder at our need to meddle? They lived here for umpteen years happily and comfortably. Actually, I suspect they are totally cool with what we’re up to.

But often change is seen as a criticism. Imagine for a moment that you have been in charge of a shop window for some time. Your display has been effective – the shop has kept going even in these straitened times. Then someone rearranges it. Some of it you like; some you don’t. But generally it is now more alluring. Even so, it would be hard not to take it as a personal reproach.

And I’m wondering if there isn’t a little bit of that going on in Berwick.

I see that it can get people’s backs up when incomers coo over the delights of the place and then follow up with, ‘what’s wrong with Berwick’, and ‘what Berwick needs’.  Often as if no one had ever had such thoughts and ideas before.

The truth is there are no new ideas under the sun. But, on the other hand, that is not a reason not to try things twice or even three or four times. New people do often bring fresh approaches and energy. Plus, let’s face it, the difference between a successful initiative and one that falls flat can be a simple question of timing and luck.

We seem to be at a moment when real change is within the town’s grasp. There’s the Portas money – match-funded by the county council. There’s an ambitious Berwick Plan being developed by Arch (established by Northumberland County Council to stimulate regeneration and growth in Northumberland). Additionally, there are grassroots groups such as Berwick Deserves Better – chiselling away to improve Berwick bit-by-bit for the people by the people.

Most people I speak to agree that Berwick needs more than just a springclean. Each person usually has their own gripe or hobby horse – parking is a popular one, so is the sapping of the town’s resources by a distanced and uninterested council, and ‘the state of the town centre’ is high scoring too. My own is the lack of a decent and accessible children’s playground.

It would be marvellous if we could achieve a thriving town centre, lower shop rents, improved facilities for families, more jobs, renovation of derelict buildings, and better upkeep of open spaces by doing nothing. But we can’t.

All change: building works – some of our alterations will no doubt be more successful than others. But we will be glad we did it. Eventually.

So we do need people who are prepared to put themselves on the line and take action and try things out. And no doubt there will be some duff decisions and some unexpected strokes of genius – though none, I hope, made on the basis of the shortest breadstick; there will be some changes that some of us love and some loathe – and, hopefully, some areas of total harmony.

Which, in some marvellous and symmetrical way, is what I expect with the renovation of our house. But I’d like to state that the genius decisions were mine and the less good ones The Husband’s. Because I do love him, and he is perfect, but…

A version of this article was first published in the Berwick Advertiser on 4th October 2012

A jolly good day out in Berwick

A day out – at home!

I do love a good day out. And if it’s a good day out just outside my front door, so much the better. And, my goodness, we’ve had a couple of great Berwick days during the damp, bleak month of June – both garnished with lashings of community spirit and, miraculously, sunshine.

I know many staunch republicans absented themselves from all things Jubilee, but I confess that, despite my ambivalence towards the monarchy, I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to partake in a bit of neighbourly togetherness.

And, oh, what fun we had. The Parade was packed with all sorts: superbly priced, efficiently delivered, deliciously tempting sandwich and cake platters; a charity raffle; a mega inflatable slide; marvellous entertainment from Norham Brass Band (loved the Abba selection and can-can!), the mellifluous Mamatones, the anarchic Berwick Broadcasting Corporation, and much more besides. Families supped, chatted, laughed and sunned themselves. How idyllic.

The following week the Olympics, another event from which I’ve kept my eyes firmly averted, made its presence felt in Berwick’s sunny streets. Again, despite my misgivings about the corporate handcuffs applied to the so-called ‘People’s Olympics’, I looked forward to a second opportunity to gather with the good folk of Berwick to wave flags and enjoy bunting and laughter.

The Olympic Torch enters Berwick – ready for mass flag waving

Two national events that, although perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, prompted two brilliant community days. Days that left me with a warm glow about my adopted town and its ability to put on a good bash. When it counted, people flooded into the town, lined the streets, found places to park, walked to where they needed to go, chatted to each other and cheered each other on. It didn’t matter that our high street can perhaps seem a bit grim, or that the parking isn’t ideal: people came and enjoyed.

We, as a town, are rather good at this sort of thing – the party or festival that brings the community together, piques the visitor’s interest and makes them welcome. And it’s that ethos of the ‘good-day-out’  that might well become a unifying factor as we wrestle with all the various elements that conspire to make things tough for us – from devolved administration to economic constraints.

Our streets teem with people trying to make a case for improving Berwick’s lot – or simply improving it bit by precious bit. By the time this goes to print, the first Town Tidy Up of the year will have happened. Organised by Città Slow and Berwick in Bloom, supported by the newly formed Berwick Deserves Better – the aim is to tidy, clean, mend and paint community areas such as Eastern Lane by the Maltings, around the station and Castle Vale Park, and deal with graffiti in places like Woods Wynd. Meanwhile, the Town Team is busy polishing the second bid for Portas funding. Additionally, Arch (established by Northumberland County Council to stimulate regeneration and growth in Northumberland), is hatching a methodical approach to developing ‘a programme for Berwick which will make a significant contribution to competitiveness, place quality and sustainability, but which is also realistic, pragmatic and deliverable.’  Which, hopefully, will bode well for a number of prime redundant sites in Berwick, including the Kwik Save building.

So, let’s hope that, in time, such initiatives coalesce to make a lasting impact on the quality of life for those who already live and work in Berwick as well as those who visit. As one person I spoke to said: Berwick is a quality town. We have the history and heritage that makes people want to call in; we have the boutique B&Bs that attract people to make Berwick a base from which to visit other locations; what we need are the add-ons that make people who visit linger a while –  and enjoy a jolly good Berwick day out.

(A version of this article was first published in The Berwick Advertiser on 5th July 2012)

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

Colin Firth: a glorious eyeful

You want Berwick to look its best when you welcome visitors. On a recent sunny Monday, en route to the station, we weren’t disappointed. The Tweed was dressed in sparkles. Our London Friends were in for a treat. And then, the good Lord laid on an even more thrilling sight: Colin Firth!His visit to Berwick is now legend. But, I’d just like to say – WE SAW HIM FIRST! The Husband wondered momentarily why his three female companions flushed (naturally rather than hormonally), whispered and giggled “’Ssss Colin Firth!” One London Friend apologised to Colin for staring. He smiled graciously and, if The King’s Speech had not already done it, our hearts were his forever. How easily we are influenced by what we see – even if it is just a glimpse.

I suggested that we ‘take the scenic route’ dropping down from the station to the path above the Tweed. Colin and his three companions opted to follow our example. I know it’s pathetic but we were thrilled! The moment arrived when all eight of us were enjoying that marvellous view back to the Royal Border Bridge, the sun warming our faces. We left Colin and his companions taking photos and to their onward journey to visit local hero Eric Lomax for lunch.
Sunset: The Royal Border Railway Bridge from our garden

And that is when I panicked. Colin had glimpsed the very best of Berwick. But what else lay in store? I mentally checked off the various derelict buildings – the old school and that pot place round Palace Green, the Youngman’s building on Hide Hill, the many apartments above the shops, the neglected quayside, City Electrical Factors on Chapel Street, Kwik Save by the library, the old Playhouse site. Like a proud parent knowing they’re going to have to sit through an under–rehearsed school play and keep on smiling whatever, I felt my stomach churn.

Don’t look Colin! The abandoned City Electrical Factors

And then I felt pretty angry. Have we learnt nothing? Here are all these brownfield sites crying out for attention, for sympathetic development, and all I seem to read about are planning proposals for greenfield sites that will continue to suck the heart out of Berwick.

As recent London ex–pats it’s something we are familiar with. How many years did it take the government to take longterm action after the 60s/70s decline in manufacturing and the transport revolution left warehouses, factories and docks abandoned and decaying? Too many. But, finally, riverside regeneration has happened. And what a difference! Vibrancy and heart have been returned to communities that were all but forgotten for nigh on half a century. Parks and green spaces have been nurtured and tended and made family friendly. Perhaps the jewel of that process is Docklands. Its thrusting vision of white collar ambition and city life may not be an inspiring image to all. But the idea – the impetus to take a derelict wasteland of an area and regenerate it into an active heartland, making the most of its natural surroundings and resources – now that must surely inspire even the most ambivalent.

So, back to the view of the Tweed and Berwick that I shared with The Husband, London Friends and, oh, did I mention Colin Firth? One of its major attractions is the lack of urban sprawl. Of course it’s easier to slap up houses and supermarkets around the town than it is to tackle the unwieldy and difficult issues of dereliction and decay of buildings and areas within the town. But here’s an idea: let’s not erect one more building out of town until we’ve sorted out the centre of Berwick. Then, when visitors come, they won’t just get a glimpse of something special; they’ll get a glorious eyeful. After all, if the heart ain’t beating, the body won’t function.

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

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