Berwick : The Border Town
Five miles north of Holy Island is the mouth of the River Tweed and the historic town of Berwick upon Tweed. This is the most northerly town in England and perhaps no other town in North East England has had a more eventful history than Berwick.
There is no doubt that Berwick can claim the distinction of being the Border Town, as it has changed hands between England and Scotland thirteen times. Its history is inextricably tied up with the struggle for the Anglo-Scottish frontier. An old legend is said to explain the fascinating history of Berwick:
“During the temptation while the Evil one was showing to the Holy one all the kingdoms of the earth he kept Berwick hidden beneath his thumb, wishing to reserve it as his own little nook”
Berwick, with an English name meaning ‘Corn Farm or trading place’ began as a small settlement in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, in which it remained until the Battle of Carham of 1018 when it was taken by the Scots. From then on Berwick became a hotly disputed territory. In 1174 Berwick was retaken by England in a ransom following the failure of a raid into Northumberland by the Scottish king, William the Lion.
The town returned to the northern side of the border in the reign of Richard I (1189-1199), who sold it to obtain money for the Crusades. At the beginning of the following century Berwick returned once more to England, after Richard’s brother, King John sacked the town, but Berwick continued to change hands until 1482 when the town finally became part of England within which it still (technically) remains.
Berwick : English or Scottish?
Today the visitor to Berwick can be forgiven for believing it to be a Scottish town, as after all it stands on the northern bank of the River Tweed, an entirely Scottish river and in some respects it does seem to have a rather Scottish appearance.
Berwick is also the name of a large Scottish Burgh and the old county of Berwickshire (of which Berwick was not part) was in Scotland. Furthermore Berwick, is a little bit more closer to the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, than it is to the North East’s regional centre of Newcastle upon Tyne.
The belief that Berwick is Scottish is also reinforced by the fact that some of the commercial banks in the town are Scottish and that the local football team plays in the Scottish league. Dialect also leads to the belief that Berwick is Scottish as to most Englishmen the local ‘Tweedside’ accent spoken in Berwick has a Scottish sound to it, although to most Scots it sounds like a Northumbrian dialect.
The Scottish claim for Berwick is certainly strong but the English influence upon the area is also very significant. Berwick as already stated began as an English or at least an Anglo-Saxon settlement, in the Kingdom of Northumbria and although for four hundred years it regularly changed hands between England and Scotland it has remained in England for the past five centuries.
Berwick’s policemen and laws are therefore English and its most senior councillor is an English mayor not a provost as in the Scottish system of local government. Until recently Berwick town also had an important status as the administrative centre for the Northumberland County District of Berwick upon Tweed, which included the Farne islands, Lindisfarne and the Northumbrian villages of Wooler, Bamburgh and Belford. The distant edifices of Lindisfarne Castle and Bamburgh Castle can be clearly seen above the rooftops from Berwick.
Independent Town Prosperous Past
It is hardly surprising that given Berwick’s curious Anglo-Scottish location, the local residents tend to regard themselves as independent ‘Tweedsiders’ or ‘Berwickers’ rather than English or Scottish.
In fact until the Reform Act of 1885 Berwick did have a considerable degree of independence with the status of a ‘Free Burgh’ meaning that it had to be mentioned separately in Acts of Parliament.
Berwick’s status was such that even the Crimean War had to be declared in the name of Great Britain, Ireland and Berwick Upon Tweed. Strangely after this war, when the peace treaty was signed Berwick’s name was omitted and for many years the town was said to be technically still at war with the Russians.
It is hard to believe that a town with such a turbulent history as Berwick was once one of the most prosperous merchant towns in Britain and was worth to Scotland an annual customs value of £2,190, which was then equivalent to about one quarter of the customs of the whole of England.
In the thirteenth century the wealthy town was described as:
“So populous and of such commercial importance that it might rightly be called another Alexandria, whose riches were the sea and the water its walls”
Berwick: town walls, buildings, bridges
In the fourteenth century Berwick became a walled town when King Edward I fortified it against Scottish attack. His defensive walls supplemented the stronghold of Berwick Castle which stood on the site of the present railway station. Some of the town walls can still be seen today, dating mainly from the later Elizabethan period. They are among the finest of their kind in Europe.
Berwick is one of the most picturesque towns on the region’s coast, mainly because of its attractive red roofed houses, pinkish grey Georgian buildings and the fine seventeenth century bridge, which spans the River Tweed.
Most notable of the town’s buildings are the spired town hall of 1754 in Marygate and the Berwick parish church, called Holy Trinity which is one of only a few built in England in Cromwellian times. For an historic parish church it is unusual, in that it has no steeple, tower or church bell. Instead a bell in the Town Hall is used to summon people to the church services at Holy Trinity. It is no wonder that many visitors to Berwick mistake the Town Hall for the parish church.
The River Tweed at Berwick is almost as well known as the Tyne at Newcastle for its bridges. There are three here, namely the Old Bridge, the Royal Tweed Bridge and the Royal Border Bridge.
The Royal Tweed is the most recent. Built in 1925 it carries the old A1 through the town, although a more modern road now bypasses the town to the west.
The Royal Border Bridge is an impressive nineteenth century railway viaduct. Opened by Queen Victoria in 1850, it was built by Robert Stephenson, creating an important rail link between London and Edinburgh.
The ‘Old Bridge’, also known as ‘Berwick Bridge’ dates from 1611. It is a fine red sandstone structure with fourteen arches. Until the nineteenth century it was the main crossing point of the Tweed at Berwick, but did not as might be expected link Northumberland to Scotland. It in fact linked the Norhamshire district of the County Palatine of Durham to the county burgh of Berwick upon Tweed. County boundaries are perhaps a little more logical today.
There’s an interesting old poem that describes Berwick and its bridge. There’s more than one version but the second, less complimentary verse given here is attributed to Robbie Burns.
“Berwick is an ancient town
A church without a steeple
A pretty girl at every door
And very generous people.”
“A bridge without a middle arch
A church without a steeple
A midden heap in every street
And damned conceited people.”
Coldingham: St Cuthbert and the Otters
Leaving Berwick, we can continue northwards along the coast for two miles, passing Marshall Meadows Bay before we reach a point near the east coast railway line, where a sign marks the England Scotland Border.
Here we have reached the northernmost point in England. The coast from here northwards, towards Edinburgh, was once part of Northumbria but was lost to Scotland many, many centuries ago. Of course Northumbria’s history does not end at the Scottish border, as only seven miles to its north, near St Abb’s Head we find the village of Coldingham.
This was the site of a Northumbrian monastery founded in 655 AD by St Ebbe (or St Abbe), the sister of St Oswald, King of Northumbria. Like St Hilda’s monastery at Whitby many miles to the south, Coldingham was a home to both nuns and monks and was frequently visited by St Cuthbert who was a friend of St Ebbe.
During his visits to Coldingham, St Cuthbert would often wander the seashore during the night arousing the curiosity of a Coldingham monk who spied on him from a distance. What the monk witnessed is remembered in the famous legend of ‘St Cuthbert and the Otters’. The monk saw Cuthbert walk into the sea until the freezing water came up to his neck, after a while Cuthbert left the water and on the shore he began to pray. The monk’s delightful story is told by St Bede:
“immediately there followed in his footsteps two little sea animals, humbly stretching themselves on the earth; and, licking his feet, they rolled upon them, wiping them with their skins and warming them with their breath. After this service had been fulfilled and his blessing had been received they departed to their haunts in the waves of the sea”