Forgotten Frontier town
/ Forgotten Frontier town /
“Berwicker!” is the blunt response I get from the man who serves me my egg roll sandwich in the bakery on the high street.
I’d popped into Greggs to get myself something to eat while waiting for the town’s festivities to begin and was just trying to make small talk with the man behind the counter, by asking him whether he saw himself as English or Scottish – a question I quickly learnt people in Berwick were tired of being asked.
This year Berwick is holding its 405th ‘Riding of the Bounds’ event, a historic tradition of riding the boundaries of the town to check that they are still secure from intruding Scots. Similar events happen all along the Scottish border during the summer, but for the opposite purpose – to keep the English out.
I head over to the old army barracks of the King’s Own Scottish Borders Regiment, just outside the centre of town, to where the riders and their horses are congregating in the courtyard. The locals are out to wave the riders on and Barbara and her husband Peter are among them. They’re both dressed for the blustery, wet weather, both in big hats and long coats, with a rosette pinned to their coats. Barbara clutches a bag with a dozen more rosettes pinned to it - mementos of previous Ridings, I assume.
Barbara and Peter are retired teachers and very well known in Berwick. They’re active in the local community, serving as governors, supporting the local hospital, and involved in the local theatre. They have both received MBEs for their work and Peter has also been Mayor of Berwick twice – an esteemed mayoral position, allowing him to take the third most important place at national ceremonies, after the Mayor of York and the Lord Mayor of London.
“This is because of the historic importance of Berwick’s mayoralty. We used to be a Royal Burgh,” Barbara proudly explains to me. “This is why our mayors wear royal purple. Other mayors wear red.”
Throughout the day, I keep hearing snippets of Berwick’s illustrious past. It had once been more important than Edinburgh and, when Queen Victoria declared war on Russia in 1853, she signed the declaration as the Queen of England, Scotland and Berwick Upon Tweed. But, by the time the peace treaty was signed, Berwick had been subsumed into England so didn’t get a mention in the peace treaty, causing some uncertainty about the town's diplomatic relationship with Russia.
As the cavalcade starts to move, we follow them out of the barracks’ courtyard as they make their way towards the Town Hall. The procession, led by a group of bagpipers and St George and Saltire flag bearers, makes an effort to rekindle the pageantry of this seventeenth century tradition, even if it all does feel a spiritless.
Waiting at the steps of the Town Hall is the current Mayor. She is waiting for the Chief Marshall of the riders to ask her permission to ride the bounds of the town. When they all arrive, the Chief Marshall trots up to the steps.
-“Morning Mrs Mayor.” The Chief Marshall has some difficulty keeping steady on his horse as he attempts to stand. The horse then begins to neigh, drowning out the rest of what was being said.
-“You have the Mayor's permission to ride the bounds and then come back this afternoon and let me know what the situation is,” grants the Mayor.
The riders then make their way towards the boundaries of the town, riding through the town centre, which, beside the elaborate procession, looks a little run down, being populated by low-end chains and charity shops, and with some buildings looking like they could do with a fresh coat of paint.
Barbara tells me that she loves Berwick but that it does have its problems. Youth unemployment is high and the town centre needs improving. She describes Berwick as a “forgotten town” and tells me that the only main road leading into it isn’t even a dual carriageway, despite a local campaign to make it one for over 30 years.
“This is the biggest issue in Berwick today,” Barbara tells me. “It was certainly an issue well before Peter was Mayor and continues to be.”
The A1 is the only road that goes directly from the south of England, through Newcastle and to Edinburgh. But being a rural, single-track road, tailbacks due to slow tractors are common.
“In the summer cars will be lashing up and down and then a tractor will come out, people get cross, overtake, and crash!” Barbara says, smashing her fist into her other palm.
“Those in London clearly think the roads going to other places are more important, which is a shame because we think Berwick is a lovely little place with so much to offer. “We are a little alone here. But we don’t really mind it that way either.”