Border Lines

From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

Berwick: lovely place but what does the future hold?

Berwick: A tale of two towns – historically important; opportunity light

Hands up if you’re a born and bred Berwicker. So the rest of you are interlopers like me. Either way, what’s your take on living in Berwick?

During my scant months living here (the depth of my meticulously conducted survey is reflected by the word ‘scant’) I have been surprised at how often I’ve heard variations on the following statement – expressed by natives and incomers alike: “Berwick’s a lovely place to live but the people who’ve grown up here don’t appreciate it.”

Is this one of those things people say out of habit? Or is there something to it?

Berwick is a place where wild nature collides with tempestuous history. The result is a fascinating town: a ramshackle history book of a place tucked inside beautifully maintained walls wedged between river and sea. It seems to harbour a taster of all Northumberland’s coastal and historic delights and make them accessible in one place.

I’ve been uplifted by the pride in natural and historic heritage here – local schools take pleasure in teaching children about it; the library has relevant and attractive books and regular displays highlighting the town’s hidden jewels and gritty past. The Maltings hosts drama workshops, the archives are accessible and active. I’ve not met a child who couldn’t tell me who LS Lowry is. I doubt the same would be true of the primary school we’ve just left in London.

If children are steeped in the joys of the place, what – if anything – changes and when does it change? How does appreciation of life in Berwick turn into the grind of living just anywhere?

As a Suffolk girl I identify with home-dissatisfaction syndrome. Suffolk has its share of history and beauty – what with Wolsey being an Ipswich lad and the county officially designated ‘Constable Country’. But at 18 I couldn’t wait to kick the green and rolling dust off my heels. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate Suffolk. I just don’t want to live there.

Choice is probably a strong defining factor in how we relate to a place. Incomers arrive for a reason – maybe work or a slower pace of life. Ours is a decision rather than a happenstance.

It’s a different thing entirely to turn a life into a living and vice versa. In my short time here I see how hard it is to get by. There aren’t many jobs around and the minimum wage is king. Even if you’re lucky enough to be employed, you’ve got to be incredibly resourceful to pull in a wage that enables you to stop working long enough to enjoy what’s around and about. The tourist season is short-lived and anyhow I suspect that tea shops, Elizabethan walls, ice houses, wild beaches, barracks, fascinating bird life, salmon fishing don’t currently put pounds into the pockets of many – or enable many school leavers to step into regular employment.

Young people need to see – and be excited by – what lies ahead of them. Familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, and lack of money does not necessarily translate into lack of appreciation of surroundings. But I suspect that lack of opportunity may begin to chip away at children sooner than we’d like to think.

Perhaps the native/incomer perspective of Berwick is a perpetuated myth. Maybe ‘lack of appreciation’ is an expression of frustrated ambition, lost hope and disenfranchisement. And maybe the issue that Berwickers – old and new – should consider exploring and addressing is how to ensure a sense of ownership, engagement and, most vital of all, opportunity for a future generation of Berwickers.

(This article was first published Thursday 7 April 2011 in The Berwick Advertiser www.berwick-advertiser.co.uk)

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