Willie Shand enjoys a fine day out in this pretty Northumberland town.
FROM its source in the hills above Moffat to where it eventually spills into the North Sea, the River Tweed twists its course of some 97 miles.
Part of its journey takes it through the hills and glens of the Scottish Borders. For around 20 miles it literally forms the border between Scotland and England before finally ending where I am today – three miles south of the border at Berwick-upon-tweed.
Today I’m in the English county of Northumberland, but at many times in the town’s chequered past I’d still be in Scotland.
Between 1296, when Edward I sacked it, and 1482, when captured by Edward IV, Berwick-uponTweed went back and forth between the Scots and the English no fewer than 13 times! You can see why its inhabitants neither say they’re English nor Scots, just Berwickers.
To locals the town is simply known as Berwick (pronounced Berrick), and a right old town it is. It was even mentioned as early as 872 when the Pictish King Grig passed through on his way to raid Lindisfarne.
It’s only 6.30 in the morning and I’ve no problem finding a parking space down by the quay. I left home early to get past Edinburgh before the morning traffic.
It’s Wednesday and already the stall-holders are setting up their stands in the Marygate for the weekly market.
From the quay I watch dozens of swans swim beneath the arches of the James VI Bridge. The mouth of the Tweed is home to more than 600 mute swans.
This old red sandstone bridge with its 15 arches was completed in 1624.
Apparently, when King James VI of Scotland was on his way south to London he wasn’t too happy crossing its wooden predecessor and made comment, “Is there ne’er a man in Berwick whae can work stanes to make a brig over the Tweed?”
This attractive bridge was the result.
It’s the fifth in a series of bridges to have crossed the Tweed carrying the Great North Road. Of the earlier crossings, some fell victim to war, others to the equally destructive powers of the Tweed in flood.
At each buttress is a pedestrian bay – one of them having a built-in sun dial should you have need to check the time.
Unfortunately, the architect of the old bridge did not foresee the advent of the motor car, and by the early 1900s the bridge’s single lane was struggling to cope with traffic. And so, just a little upstream, a new bridge – the Tweed Bridge – was built in 1928.
Berwick is famed for its bridges, but none is more impressive than the Royal Border Bridge. With 28 arches and some 2,152 feet long, this amazing viaduct sweeps across the Tweed carrying the main east coast
rail line, 126 feet high above the river.
It’s one of the greatest viaducts in the world. What a cracking picture it makes if you can catch it with its arches reflected in the river. I’m doubly rewarded this morning with not only good reflections but also a heron standing down by the water’s edge.
The townsfolk must have been fair excited the day Queen Victoria and Prince Albert came to perform the official opening in 1850.
The bridge had been designed by Robert Stephenson, son of George Stephenson who invented the steam locomotive.
How disappointed the crowds were when, despite all their preparations, the royal visit lasted all of 10 minutes before they were off. What’s more, the Queen refused to cross the bridge as she thought it didn’t look safe!
Berwick’s railway station is built upon the site of what was once Berwick Castle. Few castles held greater strategic importance and few can have been more often at the forefront of attack.
Dunbar, Pinkie, Carberry, Flodden, Alnwick, Hadden Rigg, Ancrum Moor . . . the list of major East Borders battles goes on.
Sadly, much of the castle’s ancient stonework was taken for use in the building of the Royal Border Bridge.
If anyone appreciated the significance of controlling Berwick it was Edward I. In 1296 he laid siege on the town, slaughtering more than 7,000 of its menfolk.
The town was then soon to see the start of massive fortifications which were only to be strengthened over the subsequent three centuries.
The defensive walls still surround the town today. No-one can visit Berwickupon-tweed without being touched by the past. There are clear reminders everywhere you look, and even more so when you take a walk round the town’s walls.
With the tide on the ebb, the exposed mud and seaweed is like a breakfast call to the birds. I try to edge a bit closer to the heron but it clearly has an eye on me, too, and flies another few hundred yards upstream.
Who could come to Berwick and not be drawn to take a walk around the town’s Elizabethan walls or to take a stroll along the banks of the Tweed?
And, if you’ve a good pair of boots in the car, one of the best introductions to the Tweed is to follow the Riverside Walk for a few miles out to the Borders Bypass Bridge and return by Tweedmouth and over the James VI Bridge.
This track takes us under the arches of the Royal Border Viaduct and through a vaulted passage in a fragment of the 1297 defensive walls that rose steeply between the river and the castle. It’s known as the White Wall.
This pleasant walk follows closely the river’s banks and passes through stretches of mature woodland, sometimes with clear tracks, other times with none, but with the river seldom far from your side, it’s hard to go wrong.
It’s amazing what can be done with just a pile of driftwood. Someone’s built a full-size pirate ship for the kids to play on.
Just watch the wee wooden bridge that crosses a stream as you leave the woods. It’s seen better days. The slippery surface almost sent me head first for a mud bath!
At low tide, it’s not all mud, though. At either side of the Tweed’s mouth are lovely sandy beaches.
Berwick is a compact and extremely picturesque wee town. It’s easy to see how this place could be such an attraction to one of the country’s best-loved painters, L.S. Lowry.
In contrast to the quiet of the riverside, Marygate with its shops and street market is bustling with activity. At its foot is the Georgian town hall.
You can’t miss it. Its 150-feet-high spire dominates most views of the town. The town hall was built in 1761 and performed many functions.
As well as being the town’s courthouse, butter market and administrative centre, it was also the gaol. Its bells still ring out the 8 p.m. curfew, although you might be safe enough to ignore it nowadays.
At the opposite end of Marygate is the Scotsgate – which is just as it says – the gate or entrance to the town by the Great North Road from Scotland.
At night, all gates into the town would have been closed and guarded. No-one was allowed through except for the doctor or those who could convince the guards they were going to fetch the doctor.
Climbing the steps on to the town wall and above the Scotsgate gives a perfect vantage point for the Marygate. I remember about 10 years ago photographing a pigeon on a window-sill from this spot and couldn’t believe it when I found it was still there – or one of its relations, at least!
The Elizabethan walls run pretty much intact all the way round
Berwick for just over a mile. These ramparts were built in the mid 1500s and, although never completed and never put to the test, they were the single most expensive building project of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign.
Such was the strategic importance of the prosperous little town of Berwick.
The town walls from 250 years earlier enclosed a much greater area, and with 19 towers and five gates it ran for some two and a half miles. Tough luck for anyone whose house lay outside the line of the new wall.
There’s a lot to see on the way round – the old gates like the Cow Port and the Sandgate; the Sally Port, the quay with its impressive Georgian architecture and Customs House; gun emplacements; the oldest Barracks in Britain and the Cromwellian Parish Church with its fine stained-stainedglass windows.
Coxan’s Tower gives a grand view over the mouth of the Tweed, but just watch the well-worn steps.
Take care, too, as youyou go round, of the unprotected sheer drops at the wall edge, in places up to 35 feet high.
An old Russian cannon points out to sea – a trophy from the Crimean War.
Dropping down to Pier Road lets us walk out to the lighthouse at the end of the long breakwater. On a blustery day there’s little protection from the wind and weather out here, but if you want to say you’ve been at the mouth of the Tweed, it’s just something you need to do.
It’s worth climbing the wee rise of Meg’s Mount, if only for the view of the three bridges and away to the Holy Island and Bamburgh Castle.
Roaring Meg was the name of the cannon that once stood here. From the top, 100 feet above the river, this is said to be one of the finest views in Northumberland.
It’s amazing to think that the Royal Border Viaduct stands upon elm piles driven more than 100 feet deep below the riverbed, and that the whole thing was built for just £253,000. That’s inflation for you!
Another legacy from the Victorian era stands a little closer to the landward side of Meg’s Mount. This was where the Victorian ladies went to spend a penny.
And a grand affair it was, with its rustic cottage appearance and Minton tiled floor. It cost only £175 to build and it even had an attendant who was paid the equivalent of 12½p per week.
Apparently, it was quite a lucrative business, taking some 5/2d in the first day – that’s 62 customers!
I paid it a visit twice today, although on each occasion it cost me a bit more than a penny. Now called the Loovre, it’s a unique ice-cream shop.
I can certainly recommend the raspberry and white chocolate waffle cone! n
Walking the gorgeous banks of the Tweed.
Cannon still in position at Berwick’s Cumberland Bastion.
The flags flying here have changed over the years!
Once a toilet block, the Loovre now sells award-winning ice-cream.
The stunning Rose Window in the Holy Trinity Church.