The English town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, just inside the border with Scotland, has always intrigued me. At war with Russia? A football team that plays in the Scottish league? Three world class bridges? Yes please.
When I passed through the town on the train to Edinburgh in the 1990s, I caught a tantalising glimpse of its beauty, and have spent the last twenty years looking for an excuse to visit. Don’t tell Kat, but that was the real reason behind our recent break in Northumberland.
Berwick is strategically sited between England and Scotland, so got caught in the middle of plenty of battles, and has changed sides numerous times over the years.
From the 16th century until 1836 it became an independent borough, and was in neither England nor Scotland. It may have thought doing this would keep it neutral and out of trouble, but the town was accidentally left out of a Peace Treaty after declaring hostilities with the Russians in Crimea. Because of this administrative error, the Borough of Berwick is still officially at war with Russia.
Let’s hope the locals don’t do anything silly to upset Vladimir Putin – he might not need asking twice to kick-start WWIII.
The town’s football team are unique in that they play in another country’s league. Berwick Rangers are currently struggling near the foot of Scottish League Two (the fourth – and bottom – tier of the Scottish league system). Kat was quite happy that there were no home fixtures for the “Wee Gers” when we were in town – I quite fancied a trip to Shielfield Park. (Pub quiz trivia fact: the first match at the ground was in 1954 v the mighty Aston Villa.)
Bridge aficionados like me will be in heaven as there are three superb bridges crossing the surprisingly wide River Tweed.
If you drive to Berwick up the A1 from the south, you are likely to cross the busy concrete Royal Tweed Bridge. To the right is the Old Bridge, built in the 17th century by King James I of England and VI of Scotland to join his two kingdoms. We walked over this – cars use it too, although it is not wide enough to have two lanes.
To the left is the majestic Royal Border Bridge with its 28 arches. This Grade I listed brick viaduct is used exclusively for trains travelling up the east coast between Edinburgh and London. It was designed by that celebrated railway engineer and pioneer Robert Louis Stephenson.
I’d actually booked to stay in Berwick for my 40th birthday, but due to a change of circumstances I cancelled and went to Dubai instead.
I wouldn’t have been the first person to go to Berwick on holiday. The English painter LS Lowry, famous for his matchstick men and industrial scenes from the north-west, regularly holidayed in the town to take in its sea air. You can follow the Lowry Trail around town, which has blown-up reproductions of 18 of his paintings next to the spots that inspired them.
You can see how little Berwick has changed since his day by looking at his painting of the Town Hall. This was built in the 1750s in a grand neoclassical style with steps, a colonnaded portico and a clockface, and stands on Marygate in what is today a pretty run-down town centre.
As well as the Lowry Trail, there are two more town walks which would make Berwick great for a weekend break.
You could walk along the banks of the River Tweed, which traditionally marked the border between England and Scotland. Walking in the direction of the North Sea you can spend time on Berwick’s sandy beaches and see an iconic red and white stripey lighthouse.
History buffs will enjoy a walk all the way around Berwick high-up on the impressive Elizabethan-era town walls, with some jaw-dropping views of the river, its bridges and the coast.
So, did I make the right decision to go to Dubai (population 2.7 million, July average temperature 40C) rather than Berwick (population 12,000, July average 17C)?
To be honest, I think I did. There may not be any futuristic skyscrapers or Burj Khalifa-like towers in Berwick (in fact there seemed to be very little that had been built since the war), and it may be a tad nippier. But there is plenty of character, and historical interest, in what could just about be described as a (very) poor man’s York or Edinburgh.
Perfect for a day-trip or as a weekend break, but I wouldn’t recommend any longer.