Saturday, 14 December 2013

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

A very Merry Christmas to all my readers. Here is Santa visiting Spittal yesterday. Accompanied in his sleigh not by an elf but by the Spittal Gala Queen. His journey down Main Street was the culmination of a very well attended Christmas fete, with a funfair in the street and the Norham school brass band playing in the church hall while you browsed the stalls and refreshments.

The great attraction of the Spittal Santa is that he comes complete with real reindeer. Or rather, the last time I was there he came complete with a whole team of reindeer from the Cairngorm herd who earn their keep by being hired out to pull sleighs at Christmas. This year he was drawn by one single solitary reindeer. Maybe this is yet another example of Austerity Britain - perhaps we didn't put enough money in the donations tins last time to cover the cost of hiring a full team again. I was sufficiently concerned about this to put £1 in the bucket on the way out of the church hall, as well as spending £1.50 on the cup of tea and a mince pie meal deal. On the other hand, it could just be that the limited number of reindeer in Britain are in such demand at this time of year that their agent could only spare one for this little town.

I took this photo two years ago when half a dozen reindeer came. I spotted their transport parked outside the local school playing field, where they were being shown off to the children before leaving to prepare for their sleigh pulling shift. I did see them being led back to the van but could not get close enough to grab a picture, as their minders were understandably careful to prevent them being mobbed. And of course photographing a single reindeer in the dark is even more challenging. I did not feel comfortable about letting off a flash in the poor creature's face. I wonder if these reindeer go on the sort of training course that police horses are put through, to get them used to noisy crowds? They certainly seemed very stoical about it all. Maybe they have just understood that if they play along with this human idiocy for a couple of weeks a year their reward is to roam free and happy in the Scottish mountains for the other fifty.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Storm Surge

This was the scene beside the Tweedmouth end of the modern road bridge across the river Tweed this morning, a bright, calm day after a wild day and couple of nights on Wednesday and Thursday. Very strong winds combined with an unusually high tidal rise of 5.4 metres caused the river to overflow its banks at high water yesterday, which was at 16.03 according to the book of tide timetables on sale in the local angling shop, a copy of which I usually carry in my bag. After consulting it I went out at 4 pm to have a look. I know that makes me one of the sightseers loathed by the emergency services, but I like to think that I am not a complete idiot, and I stayed well out of the way of the rising water and of the workers.

At 4 pm in December it is nearly dark and so I was unable to take any photos, even if I had wanted to risk getting any closer to the action. The water was pouring through this gate across the road. Police had blocked off the road with cones and firemen were wading (or 'plodging' as we say here) around knocking on doors and delivering sandbags. A care home is located just at the end of the old bridge, and the prospect of having to evacuate many elderly and ailing residents must have been worrying the police considerably, but luckily the turn of the tide came just before the water reached their door.

On the other side of the bridge the path beside the river was completely flooded and the police had fastened a criss-cross of their blue-and-white tape across the entrance to the path, for the benefit of any members of the public who can't be trusted to rely on the evidence of their own senses. On the quayside the water was level with the top of the harbour wall and breaking over it, until the benches where one can sit and enjoy the view in more clement conditions were swimming halfway up their legs in water.

Only a couple of hours after high tide the water had all receded and as far as I know had not entered any properties. There was some worry about what would happen at the next high tide at 04.43 am and I expect some homeowners stayed awake to see. That was predicted to be a rise of only 5.2 metres though and also the wind had died down, so it was okay. This morning the yellow highways agency signs saying 'harbour and seafront closed' have been taken down but the sandbags remain for the time being.

I confess that I found it exhilarating walking around in the twilight cold, observing a force of nature that we cannot control. But of course I would not be saying that if I lived in the house shown above. I used to envy the folk who live along the Tweedmouth river bank. Not any more! 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Alnwick Mechanics Institute

This is the Mechanics Institute in Alnwick, in Northumberland, a building that is what in other places might be called a community hall. It has several rooms that can be booked for meetings of clubs and societies, dance classes, etc.  Many hours of my life have been spent in this building, one way and another. Then for a while one of the rooms was used as the office of the local registrar, to whom one is obliged to report all births and deaths. This meant that when my father died I had the strange experience of having to register his death in a room a few steps away from the larger room where he attended the meetings of the Alnwick Camera Club, every Wednesday night at 7.30 pm, for years and  years.

Because this building was so much a part of my everyday experience, taken completely for granted, I was well into adulthood before it occurred to me that the design of the doorway is a bit odd.  In fact it looks like an Egyptian tomb. You can see on the picture of the upper part of the building that the theme is continued all the way up in the 'pylons' feature.

I thought about this again when I finally got round to reading the book Black Athena by Martin Bernal, which traces the history of scholarly attitudes to ancient Egypt. By the high Victorian period the racist belief that Africans could not possibly have contributed anything to the culture of classical Greece or of the rest of Europe had become dominant, but in earlier times there was a positive craze for and veneration of all things Egyptian. Bearing in mind that Alnwick has always been some way behind the trends in the metropolis, I reckon the Mechanics Institute must have been built when this craze was in full swing. Bernal also explains that the Masonic movement has stayed loyal to the veneration of ancient Egypt through all the shifts in intellectual fashion and still uses a plethora of symbolism derived from it. I wonder if there was any Masonic involvement in the building of the Mechanics. If anybody knows, do please leave a comment.

The other interesting thing about the Mechanics Institute is of course the reason for its existence, the fact that it was erected out of the purposeful idealism that aimed at 'diffusing knowledge among artisans'. This was a widespread movement in the 19th century.  Birkbeck College in the University of London, of which I am a proud alumna, started out as the London Mechanics Institute.

In the second half of the 20th century we were finally blessed with universal provision of free public libraries and the need for private libraries and newspaper reading rooms disappeared. Or has it?

My views on this have recently diverged from popular orthodoxy. Many British public libraries are no longer doing what they were originally supposed to.  They are full of mass market fiction, DVDs of Hollywood films and CDs of popular bands. Serious non-fiction is squashed into a small corner. Encyclopedias have entirely disappeared. In one way this is, of course, fair enough, since the internet is now a much more efficient way of distributing knowledge to the masses. But that means that the priority now has to be ensuring equal access to the web, and public libraries are not even managing to do that. The computer system of Northumberland public libraries is disgracefully inadequate. It is very slow and the versions of all the software are several release numbers out of date. It refuses to show any adverts at all, even ones that might be useful, or any user-generated photos, just in case they're 'inappropriate'. It has a very crude content filter which regularly blocks book reviews and history blogs because they have used a trigger word. And sometimes the whole system just falls over and dies for no apparent reason.

I would no longer take to the streets to protest the closure of public libraries. Frankly I wouldn't miss them. I am a loyal supporter of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, a triumphant survivor of the age of private library provision. I feel that a second age of the necessity for it is dawning. And I would love to see the return of a (suitably re-named) Mechanics Institute, diffusing serious knowledge to the workers.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Berwick Barracks: a facility soon to be needed again?

This is the main courtyard, or parade ground, or whatever they call it, of Berwick Barracks. Complete with original old cannon. The barracks are of architectural importance as they were designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, on a short vacation from building London churches, and are apparently a rare example of purpose built barracks continuing in use for that original purpose from the 18th century until modern times. The last soldiers only moved out in the 1960s. They were members of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, Berwick's local regiment, even though Berwick is in the English and not the Scottish Borders. Anyone who's been following this blog will not be surprised by that characteristic Berwick anomaly.

So there is now a rather splendid chunk of 18th century architecture sitting there seriously under-used. A small proportion of the buildings houses three museums: of the town's own history, of the regiment, and the one containing a portion of the Burrell collection, better known from the much larger portion in Glasgow. All of these are theoretically free to enter but you can't get into them without paying the English Heritage admission fee for the barracks complex as a whole. To add insult to injury English Heritage is now refusing to open at weekends, thus making it impossible for any local residents who work office hours to visit their own museums. Well done, esteemed custodians of our cultural patrimony. As a very small compensation the barracks were open free to all over the weekend in September when the Heritage Open Doors event is held. I took these photos then, because I refuse as a matter of principle to pay a penny to English Heritage.

There has been some fairly lively discussion on suitable future uses for the buildings. A hotel seems the obvious one  And of course that large tarmac area just says 'car parking' to the typical Berwick mind-set. I though foresee a darker future for the barracks. They will make a perfect detention or internment camp for illegal immigrants, subjects of control orders on whom the authorities haven't managed to pin any actual crimes, or the new 'sturdy beggars', recipients of Jobseekers' Allowance who persist in being unable to find a job no matter how often the government tells them they jolly well ought to.

Some Scots believe that if Scottish independence becomes a reality the Westminster government will declare zones of English sovereignty around the nuclear submarine bases in their country. In that case they'll need somewhere on English territory to lock up stray Scots who wander into the exclusion zone. In all seriousness, if the political row over military bases continues down its present course things could turn very nasty. In that case we could see Berwick barracks being used once more for their original purpose, housing English soldiers in a location where they can advance across the border at a moment's notice.  Never mind being under-used, they'll probably have to build an extension.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Remembrance Season

On 11th November the whole of Britain marks Armistice Day, the day on which the First World War ended.  It is now though more generally known as Remembrance Day and has become not just a day but at least a week of ceremonies to commemorate those who have died in all wars. Since the 11th is not often a Sunday there is always a debate about whether to hold the ceremony at the local war memorial on the nearest Sunday or on the 11th itself, and these days the dilemma is increasingly solved by doing both. Of course this new intensity is partly driven by the number of British soldiers who have met death or life-changing injury in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last twenty years.

To mark this season appropriately I am posting some photos of the war memorial in Alnwick.  Unlike the great majority of  towns whose inhabitants gather at artistically forgettable memorials the town of Alnwick in Northumberland is fortunate to possess quite a decent bit of public sculpture as its memorial.  It shows a soldier, a sailor and an airman standing in what I believe is known as the 'reversed arms' position. They stand out well against the clear sky of a cold November day.

This monument was sited in its present position at a time when the traffic was not nearly as heavy as it is today. Older locals say that the idea was to position it at the intersection of three roads, with one figure facing towards each road, as if they were standing guard over it. This is a nice idea and it works very well. Unfortunately it also causes a lot of confusion for drivers, because most of them can't work out whether it's a roundabout or not. (It's not.)  Periodically some heretical person tentatively suggests moving it into the adjacent public park, but such an outcry always ensues that the idea is dropped again for another few years.

There is no doubt that the level of public reverence for those who fought in the two world wars has increased greatly since my youth. When I was a child the conventional wisdom was that the ceremonies commemorating the armistice would simply fade away as the generation for whom they had personal significance died out. Instead the reverse has happened,with the veneration of those who fought in the world wars as 'heroes' increasing in inverse relation to the likelihood of knowing any of them personally.

Both of my grandfathers had distinguished military records and my mother was an 'army brat', so I feel I know something whereof I speak here. The men who fought in the world wars just wanted to get on with the more enjoyable parts of their lives afterwards and forget about the horrors they had witnessed. Those who survived long enough to become the object of persistent questioning interest from young people about 'what it was like' seem to have been uncomfortable with it. I am sure that both my grandfathers would have been. Not because they were being modest about their heroism - indeed my paternal grandfather seems to have exploited his gallantry medal quite effectively in his subsequent career in local politics - but because they were just plain sick of talking and thinking about it all.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Debatable Land On Tour 2013

You have noticed that this is not Berwick upon Tweed?  Go to the top of the class! I am in London for a few days. Once a year I permit myself to write a blog post from somewhere outside the Debatable Land musing on what I have learned about home by travelling elsewhere.

This photo shows the London Eye, of course, and the building which used to be the home of the Greater London Council but now houses a hotel and the London Aquarium. The GLC was abolished by the Thatcher government because at that time it was very left-wing. The Houses of Parliament are just across the river and the two rival powers used to glower at and spy on each other across the water.

As we move closer to the referendum on Scottish independence, this historical episode seems more relevant. Many Londoners resent the fact that Scotland, a country of five million people, has its own parliament and aspires to total independence, while Greater London, a region of around eight million people, depending on how exactly you define it, no longer even has its own regional council. I can see the logic of this, but on the other hand there are many countries in the world no larger than Scotland - all the Scandinavian ones for a start - whose right to a full parliament nobody disputes.

London does now have an elected Mayor though. In fact it has a Mayor (Boris Johnson) who is a prominent member of the Conservative party but has frequently annoyed the Westminster government by demonstrating a lamentable independence of mind and tendency to put the perceived interests of Londoners before the policy of the national party. This is what strong local government of any kind tends does. Local knowledge and local interests lead to conclusions that outsiders did not see coming.

This morning I had a conversation with a friend and a friend-of-a-friend in London which left me with my head in my hands despairing of the ignorance of the English about Scottish politics and the history of the United Kingdom. I am seriously thinking of writing An Idiot's Guide to the Scottish Independence Debate and selling it on this site. Watch this space. The people I was talking to said that the English are entitled to have a say on the future of the UK. Of course they are, and it would be nice if they ever showed any interest in the subject. Instead, having ignored the Scots for, oh, about three hundred years now, they are whinging that they ought to be able to vote on whether or not Scotland should be allowed to leave the Union. This betrays an ignorance of the fundamental founding principle of the United Kingdom, which was an agreement by two sovereign states to enter into political union. This implies that either party can choose to withdraw from it at any time, without needing the permission of the other.

Put it another way, would the residents of the banks of the Thames accept being told that they could not decide to leave the UK and form an independent city state, as a substantial proportion of them seem to fantasise about, without a majority poll in Scotland agreeing to it?  I don't think so. 

Saturday, 19 October 2013

The Lowland Clearances

I have just finished reading this very interesting book: The Lowland Clearances: Scotland's Silent Revolution 1760-1830, by Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell. It is the book version of a series broadcast on Radio Scotland ten years ago. The cover design is based on an illustration to Burns' poem The Cottar's Saturday Night by the well-known engraver James Faed. He has a local connection: some of the Faed descendants live in Berwick and last year one of them arranged an exhibition of the artist's work at the Granary art gallery, which is on the top floor of the building whose ground floor cafe I habitually frequent.

The argument of the book is that the Lowland areas of Scotland suffered just as much social disruption, hardship and consequent emigration during the period of agricultural 'improvement' as the Highlands, but that whereas the Highland Clearances is an established term, there is no corresponding acceptance of the term Lowland Clearances.

I've used this picture before in a previous post about emigration (here) but it seems worth recycling in this context. This memorial to mass emigration is in Liverpool, and most Scottish emigrants sailed from Glasgow, but they were the same kind of people: poor, desperate, seeing absolutely no future in the land of their birth and willing to risk a long voyage in horrible conditions for the mere possibility of a better life. Aitchison and Cassell make it clear that the prime attraction, the main driver of nearly all emigrants, was the possibility of owning their own piece of land. To escape forever from the payment of rent and the whims of the large landowners and their factors, to be the masters of their own destiny, that was the dream. For a large number of migrants the dream came true. One of the contributors to this book was a Canadian man whose ancestors were driven off their rented land in Lowland Scotland and subsequently became wealthy and propertied in Toronto.

The authors consider that the extent of population loss in the Lowlands, which includes the Borders, has been hidden by the fact that displaced tenant farmers in those areas usually migrated to the cities, notably Glasgow, in the first instance and only left the country altogether when they had failed to make a living there, whereas the image of Highlanders being marched straight from their ancestral glen to an emigrant ship is etched in the folk memory of both Scots and their descendants in the lands to which they travelled. It is also probably true that the Gaelic culture of the Highlands has a romantic appeal which the English speaking communities further south cannot match.

The take-home message of all this is that it is not inevitable that either the Highlands or the Borders are so empty of people. They used to be full of people making a living from the land. They could be full of people again, making a living in the new ways that modern technology has made possible. For the purposes of this blog I maintain strict neutrality on the subject of Scottish independence, but I am not neutral about the arrogant attitude of some English people that assumes large areas of Scotland have always been deserted and poverty stricken and always will be. That is just downright offensive. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Berwick Swans

It seems to be a while since I posted any pretty pictures of wildlife, so here is a photo of some of the swans of Berwick enjoying a leisurely evening feed beside the old bridge. Despite the foggy look of the scene it was taken only a few weeks ago during the summer. A heavy mist known locally as a 'sea fret' is a feature of life here on the coast.

This is only a small fraction of the herd of swans that assembles on the estuary of the Tweed over the summer. It is common to see more than fifty together, and not that unusual to see a hundred or so, although when the numbers get that large it's hard to keep count of a constantly swimming target. They gather on the estuary during the moulting season in July and August because, apparently, they can't fly while their old flight feathers are being shed, so they need a safe place to hang out while the new feathers grow. They don't all go away in the winter though, there are always a fair few swans around on the river and on the sea just offshore.

As you can see here, they don't even stay on the water all the time, they are sometimes quite happy to camp out on the slipway. A few weeks ago I saw a pair of swans with a group of 'teenage' cygnets comfortably settled here on the slipway, but by rotten luck I did not have my camera on me at the time. (I hear all serious photographers sucking their teeth in disapproval at this point - I know, I know, you should take your camera with you at all times.) Though it might in any case have been difficult to get a decent shot, as the parents stood up and spread their wings in a warning manner when I moved closer to get a good look.

And trust me, you don't want to get on the bad side of a swan. They come up to chest height on a human adult and that beak looks pretty worrying when it gets that close to your face. The closest encounter I ever had with one was during the heavy snow a couple of winters back. White swan sitting in white snow equals total camouflage. The first I knew about it was when a large angrily flapping creature rose up in front of me just before I stood on it. I was definitely more scared than it was. I didn't slow down until I got to the far side of the bridge.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Man in the Sand Box

This is artist Matthew Walmsley up to his neck in sand. He staged this scene today as an art installation cum protest on the pavement outside the studio of fellow artist Simon Harwood.

My last post was about the fact that Berwick film festival has now developed a 'fringe'. The open studios being held by several artists over this weekend could be considered to be part of this fringe, but as Berwick has had a thriving artistic community since well before the film festival got going, this might be getting things the wrong way round.

There is no secret about the fact that Matthew is extremely unhappy about the way he was treated by the new regime at Berwick Visual Arts. He lost his job as part of the transition to new funding arrangements and organisational structures, and did not, to put it mildly, take it well. I am not in a position to comment on the rights and wrongs of his non-employment, but most regular attenders at local art events would agree that the new Berwick Visual Arts seems to be generating a lot less art with a lot more money. As to the rumour that a 'Gateshead Mafia' is taking over the arts scene in Berwick, I could not possibly presume to speculate.

I had a bizarre conversation with Matthew while he stood in his giant sand-box. He had originally intended to remain silent throughout but the urge to explain the symbolism proved too strong. There was a reference to people 'burying their heads in the sand' about what is going on in the arts scene locally. He feels that he, his family and his career have been buried. Making people stand up to their necks in sand was used as a form of punishment or torture in some cultures and is familiar from the movies about the French Foreign Legion, and in staging this version of the practice he is expressing his sense of being tortured by the way he's been treated.

This is all good stuff and I really wish that more people had got to see Matthew's statement. I hope that this blog post  helps to spread the news to those who didn't make it over the bridge to Tweedmouth this weekend.

Berwick Film Festival - The Fringe

My last post was about Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival 2013, now in full swing. The festival is in its ninth year and is going from strength to strength. So much so that I am delighted to be able to report it has now developed its own Fringe.

I followed a fly-posted arrow through a car park to a disused basement in Quay Walls, and found a group of enterprising young locals had responded to the rejection of their submission by the festival selection committee in the best 'let's do the show right here' style. They were showing a short film about this character on the left. The highlight is when he is seen climbing from the inside of Berwick's famous town hall clock out onto the front elevation of the building, a scene they assured me was not computer generated but staged in dangerous physical reality. I asked if they were referencing the line in Orwell's 1984 about the clocks striking thirteen. They said No, but now I'd mentioned it, that was quite a good idea.

The other two rooms of the basement had been decorated as a cross between Churchill's underground war rooms and a noir version of one of the many vintage shops in the neighbouring street. I have no idea what any of it was trying to say, but I loved the vibe. It's a great antidote to the overdose of the heritage industry version of Berwick that we all suffer from. The film also featured a masked man writhing in the fetters of the 18th century prison cells. I think it's good to be reminded sometimes that a lot of this heritage was pretty unpleasant and we're well rid of it.

A number of more established local artists have seized the opportunity offered by the film festival's visitor traffic to hold 'open studio' days. There are many fine artists in Berwick. I have to admit that the great beauty of the town and its coastal setting is also a magnet to second-rate artists, but not as much so as some other picturesque parts of Northumberland.

Over the last couple of years there has been a change of funding regime in the visual arts scene in Berwick that has left a lot of bad feeling in its wake. So much so that one of the sights of the festival Fringe was an artist staging a dramatic protest about it. Look at my next blog post to find out more!

Friday, 27 September 2013

Berwick Film Festival 2013

Once again I am in the middle of volunteering at Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival. Yesterday a chap from the local paper came and stuck a camera in my face while I was shivering outside one of the video installations in unusual historic buildings which are what makes this festival so special. If I end up featuring on the paper's website, I'll let you know.

I made a point of saying on camera that 'what the festival does for the town' is bring in a lot of upmarket tourists. We are constantly being told that this is what we need here, more visitors with deep pockets and discerning tastes, and the film festival delivers these in spades, but that doesn't stop a lot of the locals moaning about the amount of funding it gets. In actual fact, it is getting increasing amounts of commercial sponsorship, and if the local whingers put more effort into doing likewise and less into blaming everything that's wrong with the town on a supposedly uncaring county council, we'd all be better off. Anyway.

I am delighted that the theme of this year's festival is the cultural links between this area and the Nordic countries. The title chosen is North by Northeast, which in my view does not convey the subject matter very well, not least because we locals are always careful to describe the region as 'north-east England and south-east Scotland'. To me the real theme seems to be the idea that the peoples of the North Sea and North Atlantic Ocean form a kind of community, that the residents of northern Britain, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are a distinctive cultural zone.

I have written about this theme myself on this blog (here) so I am finding the festival programming a joy. The main publicity image (here) is taken from the video work shown in this photo. The Norwegian artist Sidsel Christensen filmed herself hanging on a hoop in a coastal landscape of Norway and then again in the estuary here in Berwick, each tine looking out across the North Sea towards the other location. This reminded me of once being told by a Danish woman that I was her next-door-neighbour, because she lives right on the coast of Denmark and I live right on the coast here in Berwick. I love this idea.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

On a Promise, On the Tweed

The great excitement of this summer in  Berwick was the beginning of boat trips on the river Tweed. Here is the boat moored at the specially constructed landing stage. It's called On a Promise. I always thought that phrase had a slightly risque meaning, but maybe that's just me. Anyway, the owner has been lured away for two days a week from his more lucrative regular business of taking well-heeled city types on angling breaks, and the bookings for this year's season were apparently very encouraging. Previous attempts to run boat trips were scuppered by the cost of insurance, which I would imagine is quite high when you are transporting members of the general public around on a river with a steep tidal range. This year the council finally coughed up to cover it, and away we went.

These photos were taken on the first day the service ran, a beautiful day in July. I followed the official photographer from the local paper along the quayside and got the benefit of the skipper obligingly slowing down to let her take some front-page-friendly shots. I didn't actually get around to going on a trip myself until yesterday, when I suddenly realised that it was the last week of the season and I had to go now or not until next year. Sadly the weather yesterday was very dull and overcast and the photos I took onboard were absolutely rubbish. Here is the best of them, showing the railway bridge from underneath. It was worth going though for the unfamiliar views of the old fishing shiels on the banks and the talk by David the skipper, who took the opportunity to inform visitors about the way he feels the traditional salmon fishermen were stitched up by the company that bought the fishing rights from them. Well done him.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

By Bus Round the Borders

I've been wanting for some time to do a post about our local bus services, but how could I make a photo of a bus look interesting? Then I spotted this bus a few days ago waiting at the nearest thing Berwick has to a bus station. Which isn't very near. They knocked down the bus station years ago and filled in the gap with a couple of new shops, one of which is now empty and adding to the air of dereliction in the high street about which there is so much local hand-wringing. You see, in the long run it would have been better to put your trust in the public sector. Anyway.

This bus has been extravagantly decorated by Perrymans, a small independent bus company that runs many services in the Borders, to advertise the fact that it is possible to travel to Holy Island and back with them. I said possible, I didn't say easy. The Northumbrian island of Lindisfarne, always referred to locally as Holy Island, is connected to the mainland by a causeway which is covered by the sea at high tide, so it can only be reached by road for about half the day. The tides, of course, shift around the clock by about an hour a day. So imagine trying to organise a bus service around that. The timetable of the bus from Berwick to Holy Island is of mind-bending complexity. There are, in fact, seven timetables, lettered A to G. This is combined with a schedule of dates which tells you which of these timetables will be operational on any particular day. Having established the date on which you wish to travel and the tide-dictated time that the bus will leave, you then have to work out how long you will be on the island before the return service shows up, as this varies from day to day, and how best to pace yourself to fill the time. On some days you will have seen all the attractions of this very small island in great detail and still have time to consume a large pile of crab sandwiches (a local speciality) to stave off the hunger pangs while you wait.

The other special problem for the bus operators round here is, of course, the fact that many of their services cross the border. We are all trying not to think about what might happen if an independent Scotland ever decided to impose passport controls at the border. For the time being the biggest problem is created by the fact that the passes for free bus travel granted to English folk of pensionable age are only valid within England. Strictly speaking their holders become liable to pay the full fare the moment the bus passes the 'Welcome to Scotland' sign at Lamberton. However, Scottish Borders Council generously pays a subsidy to the bus operators to cover the difference, permitting retired shoppers, tourists and even a few older workers to travel all the way to Eyemouth, a whole five miles or so north of the border, for free. There are also, thanks to some agitation by the local MP, special arrangements in place to permit retired people to travel free to medical appointments at Scottish hospitals.

But that's where it stops. I once saw an older English gentleman have a serious strop on a Perrymans bus when it was explained to him that his free pass was not valid all the way to Edinburgh. If he wished to travel by bus to the Scottish capital he would have to pay the full fare of £10 each way. He announced that in that case it would be cheaper to use his senior citizen's discount on the rail fare, turned on his heel and stomped off in the direction of the train station.

And don't even get me started on those bus services that are subsidised by the local education authorities either side of the border to transport children to and from school. Most of them allow the general public on board as well but they only run on school days. The problem is that the dates of school terms differ by several weeks between England and Scotland. So the weary would-be traveller, having established with the aid of bifocals and flashlight that those cryptic abbreviations on the timetable mean 'Only runs during Scottish school terms' or 'Does not run during Northumberland school holidays', is left in a whimpering heap trying to decide whether a bus is likely to turn up at this particular stop any time today.  And fervently wishing she'd tried harder during her driving lessons.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Church of Scotland in England

This is the interior of St Andrew's Church in Berwick. I visited it last weekend as part of the Heritage Open Doors event, an annual national event in England when buildings that are usually not open to the public let anybody come in for a couple of days. I have already written a post about the Anglican church in Berwick (here) so I thought I'd redress the denominational balance a little and write about the Presbyterian church. It is not nearly as old as the Anglican one, it is a 19th century building, which is quite modern by the standards of British churches, but it is much more attractive inside than most of the Anglican churches that mushroomed in the 19th century. It has a spacious and airy feel, some elegant wooden beams and some lovely stained glass windows. The picture below shows a modern window of St Cuthbert.

In England the Presbyterian church combined with the Congregationalist church in 1971 to form the United Reformed Church. St Andrew's in Berwick however was so opposed to this that it withdrew from union with the Presbyterian Church in England at that time and joined up with the Church of Scotland. The national church of Scotland is Presbyterian. This choice by St Andrew's was not a special arrangement just because it's on the border, there are apparently Church of Scotland churches all over the world. But in Berwick it does rather come across as making a point. It is very noticeable that Berwick residents of English ancestry and/or loyalties attend the Church of England, while those of Scottish ancestry and/or loyalties attend the Church of Scotland. Since these two churches are right next to each other, the impression is even more marked.

The (Scottish) man who showed me around St Andrew's remarked with a mischievous gleam in his eye that they do get English people attending their services, of course, but usually by mistake. This is probably because the Scottish church is accessible directly from the town's main car park, while to reach the English church one has to negotiate a gate and a path through the graveyard. The thing that unites all worshippers in Berwick is outrage at the over-zealous enforcement of the rules of the said car park. Both Anglicans and Presbyterians regularly emerge from services to have their prayerful mood shattered by finding a fine for parking without payment outside permitted hours slapped on their windscreens. Letters to the local press have denounced this as part of the persecution of Christians in modern Britain.

The different religious traditions of England and Scotland are one more aspect of the cultural differences between the two nations. The Church of Scotland has no bishops and local congregations elect their own 'elders' to run their affairs. This creates a culture of participation and egalitarianism which feeds into other aspects of the national life. The Church of England has the Queen at the top, followed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and then down through a layer of bishops and then a layer of parish priests to the ordinary person in the pew, who does what they're told by higher authority. Not, of course, that a very high proportion of the population of either England or Scotland go to church at all these days, but centuries of religious culture leave their mark. And the fact that religious affiliation still expresses some deep sense of national identity is surely something to ponder when considering the future of the Borders.

Friday, 6 September 2013

All Flodden-ed Out

I love the title of this show taking place at the Berwick Maltings tonight. Not quite enough to actually go to see it, because I'm hard-up just now, but enough to borrow it for this blog post. 'Soddin' Flodden' just about sums up how I feel about the massively OTT celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden, which falls some time this month (don't know the exact date, don't care). I am going to come right out and confess that I find everything about this battle and its commemoration a crashing bore. If you want to learn about this battle, one of the most significant ever fought between England and Scotland, then two other excellent bloggers have written posts that will explain it all to you  - Berwick Time Lines and Northumberland's Past, both linked to in my sidebar.

I might be more interested in the 500th anniversary of Flodden if I had't been exhorted to get excited about it for what seems like years. I might also be more enthusiastic if I weren't so disgusted by the amount of money awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund to 'Flodden 500'.  The current official figure is £877,000. I call that the thick end of a million quid. My determination never to buy a lottery ticket has been powerfully reinforced by this. As far as I know nobody has ever done any kind of cost-benefit analysis on whether the directly attributable increase in tourism will bring in, say, £878,000 to the local economy.

Despite my almost total lack of interest in Flodden, I am dutifully doing a regular stint stewarding the summer exhibition by Berwick Civic Society, which this year is about, guess what. Here it is. You can still see it every afternoon except Wednesdays until the end of September, in the old guardhouse on the Walls. But you may not have time after you've visited all of the places that together comprise the Flodden Eco Museum.

The term 'eco' here has no relation to environmental matters, it means it is a conceptual museum, consisting of already existing buildings and locations which all have a connection with a common theme, in this case the Battle of Flodden. It's an interesting idea as far as it goes, although in some cases the connection with the battle seems to have been a little forced by eager proprietors. It may also be a little too conceptual for some visitors. I've just had a conversation with one visitor to our exhibition in the Main Guard who had just come from touring the battlefield. He said that it was very interesting but it would be nice if there were a museum or somewhere to get a cup of tea. I tried to explain about the Eco Museum and his dominant reaction appeared to be that this didn't help him to get a cup of tea. Memo to all residents of Branxton (the village closest to the battlefield): where is your entrepreneurial spirit? Get that kettle on quick! Memo to the 'Flodden 500' folk: what have you spent all that money on?

The official publicity for Flodden 500 takes an almost painfully even-handed approach to the two combatant nations. The poster refers to a battle which 'shaped our nations', plural. The death of King James of Scotland and a great swathe of the country's elite seriously weakened Scotland as a nation and in this sense had long-term effects on the power balance between Scotland and England. One of the reasons Alex Salmond avoided holding the referendum on independence in 2013 is because of this anniversary of a battle Scotland lost disastrously. It's being held in 2014 soon after the anniversary of a battle Scotland won triumphantly, Bannockburn. I am not trying to score cheap political points here. Nobody in the English Borders takes a triumphalist pro-English line about these things. Rather, the epic human tragedy of Flodden has become part of Borders consciousness. Farmers in the area of the battle used to regularly plough up human bones, and there is no way of telling whether the bones are English or Scottish.

I have only once visited the battlefield, as a teenager. That was when it was just a field and had not  yet been invaded by 'interpretation boards'. I do recall it having a rather eery atmosphere. But back in the 1970s nobody made so much fuss about it all.

Friday, 9 August 2013

The Desolate North East

Greetings to all my readers from the desolate, remote and uninhabited North East of England. The description of the area as uninhabited came as a particular shock to those of us who live here. Yes, our home region was described thus last week by Lord Howell, who is none other than the father-in-law of our esteemed Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. The noble lord felt that it would be terrible to ruin the beautiful rural environments of Southern England by extracting shale gas there ('fracking'), but that there were areas of the country where nobody would be disturbed by this, notably the North-East. The headline in the Newcastle Journal next day was simply: "What on earth is he talking about?"

The photo above is a memento of a period in the 1970s when the powers that be in the South got the same idea about there being nobody much in Northumberland to be bothered by having unpleasant industrial processes dumped on them. At that time it was the waste products of nuclear power stations. They wanted to bury radioactive waste in the Cheviot hills. Needless to say this went down like a lead-lined balloon with the locals and there was a very active campaign of opposition, which incidentally provided my earliest exposure to the experience of political protest. Of course if we had accepted the expansion of the nuclear power station programme in the 1970s we might not have needed the large scale development of wind turbines which are getting local folk so worked up now - but then they're not proposing to put nearly as many of them in the Home Counties either.

The interesting thing about the form of words used by Lord Howell is their clear implication that sparsely populated areas of the South are rural, beautiful and unspoilt, while sparsely populated areas of the North are remote, desolate and uninhabited. Apparently his imagination will not stretch far enough to embrace the concept that the remote landscapes of Northumberland might be worth preserving in their unspoilt beauty as well. This has, sadly,confirmed all our stereotypes about the narrow life experience of those running the country. It has probably also made a good few people living here at the far end of North East England wish that the border could be moved just a few miles south and free us from being ruled by the likes of the Howells and the Osbornes once and for all.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Tweedmouth Feast 2013

I'm very late posting about this year's Salmon Queen crowning (due to the internet problems mentioned in my previous post) but better late than never. It took place on Thursday 18th July during the period of glorious weather we've been enjoying this summer.

Here is the moment when Queen Annie was formally invested with the crown and robes. She made a charming acceptance speech to the effect that she has lived in Tweedmouth all her life and it is an honour and a privilege to be chosen as Salmon Queen.

My fellow blogger Jim Herbert was chairing the Tweedmouth Feast committee this year. Here he is welcoming us to the festivities. Jim's blog, Timelines, is linked to in my sidebar. He knows an awful lot about historic buildings.

After the crowning the new queen and her attendants always lay a wreath at the war memorial adjacent to the riverside park where the festivities are held. It is in some respects an incongruous ritual but one very expressive of genuine folk culture (as opposed to the kind dreamed up by quangos and tourism boards).

As I watched the teenage party process away from the memorial in the dazzling evening sun, I reflected that their generation is growing up to think it normal to be at war.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Summer on the Historic Bank of the Tweed

This is a fun picture, isn't it?  These upcycled old shoes are in the courtyard of the youth hostel near my home. The young staff there are very hard working and full of enthusiasm. I am sitting in their cafe as I write this, using their broadband network. My home one was recently disconnected (don't ask), which is why you haven't heard much from me for a few weeks. Now I feel so much at home in here that I'm wondering if it's worth getting reconnected in my real home.  Check this hostel out, come and stay here on the quayside in beautiful Berwick!

This lovely planter full of lavender is a rare example of something really beautiful being provided by the council. It's in the Tweedmouth street known as Parliament Close, a quiet and pleasant group of houses that look nothing like the location of a major historical event. A small plaque on a wall records that this land on the flat south bank of the river Tweed was the location for what we would now call a summit meeting between England and Scotland, to hammer out the position of the disputed border once and for all. They settled for making the river the border. It's moved slightly north since then.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

A Tweedmouth Gravestone Links British Past and American Present

Summer is here at last and the roses climbing the wall of Tweedmouth parish church are in full bloom. There is something about the combination of living plants and ancient graves that gives old churchyards their charm.

There are many interesting headstones in Tweedmouth churchyard, enough to supply material for several blog posts. This time I would like to say something about the small stone shown below. It was pointed out to me by my friend Priscilla, who is very knowledgeable about the history of North Northumberland and tells me something interesting every time I see her.

The writing on this stone is only just legible and the date of death has sadly now sunk below the level of the soil, but it is certainly one of the oldest stones in the churchyard and probably no later than the early 18th century.

If you can get your zoom cursor onto it you should be able to confirm that it says 'here lies the boody' of the deceased, with a double O, rather than 'body' in the modern spelling. My friend thinks this just indicates that the stonemason was poorly educated. I prefer to believe that it represents the actual pronunciation of the word locally at that time.

I had to study Shakespeare's play Henry IV (part 1) for my English O' level, and I remember the notes to the book explaining that the reason so many of Shakespeare's jokes are just not funny any more is that the shift in pronunciation of some words means that his puns don't always work to a modern ear.  In Act I Scene 2 Falstaff refers to himself and his dodgy mates as 'squires of the night's body'. The notes explained that this is a pun on 'knight's body', a squire of the body being a recognised role in a knight's household, and 'night's booty', Falstaff and his cronies being practised highway robbers. This pun was not, according to these notes, as strained as it seems now to us, because to the contemporary audience the words 'body' and 'booty' sounded almost identical.

I then forgot all about this for twenty years or so, until I saw the film Boyz in the Hood, which at the time was innovative in its depiction of young African-Americans in Los Angeles. The way they used the word 'booty' reminded me of Falstaff. Since that film came out the term has spread into general slang on both sides of the Atlantic - as in the famous Beyonce 'booty shake'. In this usage the word 'booty' means, of course, 'body' in a specifically sexual sense.

I want to assure my American readers that, while you may be more familiar with the regrettably snobbish attitude adopted by many Brits to 'Americanisms' in speech, there are also plenty of Brits who are fascinated by the way that modern American English has preserved features of older British English which have now been lost in the country of their origin. I would love to think that there is a direct line from the 'boody' lying in an 18th century grave on the English-Scottish border to the flamingly alive 'booty' of Beyonce and her compatriots.

P.S.  A few months after I wrote this post, the graveyard was given a clean and tidy-up and as a result the lower part of this stone is now visible. The date of death appears to be 1714.


Tuesday, 25 June 2013

An Earlier Percy Wedding

My previous post may have led some readers to believe that there has been enmity between the Housbys and the Percys for generations. Not so!  My grandparents were present in Westminster Abbey for an equally spectacular Percy wedding back in 1939. My grandfather was chairman of the local council at the time and in this capacity got to go to many interesting events.  Lady Diana Percy was married to Viscount Brackley in grand style only a few months before the outbreak of World War II.

The yellow card below is the golden ticket that actually got you into the Abbey, the larger white document is the formal invitation. On the inside are directions to Syon House, where the reception was held. This is the Northumberlands' official London residence, though it's actually in Brentford. Well, that's what this 1939 invitation says, anyway, though in modern times the rather downmarket associations of Brentford have led the custodians of the house to prefer to describe it as 'in West London' or 'just across the Thames from Kew Gardens'.

The lower picture in this newspaper cutting shows an elderly woman wearing the traditional costume of Cullercoats, an old fishing village that is now a suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne. My grandmother has written on one of the cuttings that they saw Mrs Donkin seated in the Abbey in her fishwife's outfit. One wonders what the high society guests made of her. She must have been one of the last women to wear this costume 'for best'.

The imminence of war lends poignancy to these mementoes of a happy occasion. My grandmother has also written on the cutting that the wedding reception at Syon House was the last time they saw the young Duke of Northumberland, brother of the bride. "He was killed at Dunkirk."

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Ça Ira

I can't believe I don't have any photos of St Michael's Church, Alnwick, but I don't. Apparently it was such a taken-for-granted part of my life for so long that I never bothered to photograph it. So instead I have scanned the cover of an old guidebook to show you what it looks like. This serves the additional purpose of proving that my family has been involved with St Michael's for a long time. Observe the pre-decimal price.

I was christened in St Michael's church and the funeral services of both my parents and of many other people I was close to were held there. So as far as I'm concerned, this is my family church. The Duke of Northumberland, his heirs, successors and hangers-on, are at liberty to regard it as their family church as well, even though their attendance is generally limited to turning up on Christmas Day and sitting in a row in the special ducal seats down the side of the chancel, at a right-angle to the rest of the congregation and featuring comfortable cushions and fancy wood carving that the rest of us have to do without. And since they are formally resident in the parish they are entitled to hold their weddings there, even if they do spend a lot of time out of the parish, at their London residence or at their private home in the Scottish Borders, purchased reportedly as a bolt-hole to escape the visitors to Alnwick Castle whom they expect the rest of the town's inhabitants to welcome with open arms.

Do not, however, expect me to be unequivocally thrilled when one of the Percy daughters gets married in St Michael's church wearing a dress that I'm guessing probably cost as much as some families in the parish earn in a year and invites half the royal family to be her guests. All I know so far about yesterday's 'society wedding' in Alnwick is taken from grudging peeks at the website of the Northumberland (for which read Alnwick) Gazette, which in relation to the Percy family habitually displays a degree of fawning adulation for an unelected local leader seldom seen in a newspaper outside North Korea. If you want to see the pictures, go ahead, click on this link, because you won't see any of them on this blog. During the preparation (for which read massive hype and tourist promotion) for the wedding the paper was reporting that the family hoped the whole town would see it as 'their' wedding. Given the level of security necessitated by the number of royals present, I can't see that this can mean much except that they were all encouraged to stand for hours in indifferent weather waiting to cheer as the procession of their betters walked past. But to be fair, there was a firework display at night to reward them. The ducal family are well known locally for their fondness for very large, very loud and very late firework displays.

A few years back the oldest Percy son modelled for a statue of Harry Hotspur, the scion of the family immortalised by Shakespeare. I made a point of being out of town for the unveiling ceremony. In fact I went to Paris for a few days, where I stood in the Place de la Bastille and sang a few snatches of  La Marseillaise and Ça Ira, two songs of the French Revolution. (Don't worry, the Parisian traffic was far too noisy for anyone to be able to hear me.)  Since then I have taken the more constructive step of  leaving Alnwick permanently. At the time Lady Melissa was walking down the aisle I was sitting in a park in Berwick enjoying performances by a string of great local bands, congratulating myself on my good sense in moving out of the feudal zone.

When my mother died some close friends of our family planted a tree in her memory in the churchyard of St Michael's. I like to think that some of the HRH-es may have thrown it a passing glance. I'm sure it will grow better after the light of the royal countenances has shone upon it.

P.S.  Some time after writing this post I visited my friend Margaret in Alnwick. She is a church warden at St Michael's and in this capacity she could have been present at the wedding service if she had so wished. Instead, she announced that she was sure her fellow wardens could manage without her and took herself off to visit her family on the other side of the country for the weekend of the celebrations. Respect!

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Beautiful Spittal

This week I've decided to big up Spittal, a village semi-detached from Berwick that never seems to get as much recognition as it deserves. It has one of the best beaches on the Northumbrian coast and yet hardly anyone is cashing in on this. The sum total of the facilities available in Spittal, other than pubs, is one cafe, a shop which is closed on Sundays, and one grossly inadequate set of public toilets. Meanwhile Berwick itself is awash with coffee outlets, probably  more than it can sustain. If I had a wodge of capital to invest in a business, I would be setting up a rival cafe in Spittal.

Spittal Gala is taking place this weekend and the publicity for it in the local paper made me think. The paper commented that this annual festival is usually assumed to have its origins in the fishing industry, as with the Tweedmouth salmon festival, but that in fact 'galas' are always associated with mining. And Spittal was indeed a mining town in the past. A 'directory' of Northumberland published in 1855 says that the inhabitants of Spittal are 'mostly fishermen and pitmen'.  This is a valuable reminder that mining was not confined to stereotypical 'it's grim up north' style towns. In some parts of Northumberland the coal seams extend under the sea and so some pit villages are on the coast. Spittal used to have extensive factory operations as well, but the big chimney seen in the photo is now the only survivor of those. It is a much loved landmark, the sign of being back home when seen from the window of the train. Certain interest groups would like to knock it down and cover the whole of the Point with houses. N-O-O-O!  Another suggestion is to cover the chimney in some sort of shiny cladding so it looks like a space rocket. I quite like that idea.

 The heritage industry (which, as regular readers will have gathered, I dislike) seems to have trouble processing such conflicting images. A place can be branded as a picturesque fishing village or a family-fun seaside resort or a former mining community or a former industrial site, but not all of them. Spittal is a wonderful miniature example of how real communities just do anything they need to do to get by and have fun whenever they can as well.  Shine on, you crazy chimney.