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

Archive for the tag “Youth”

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

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

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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