Border Lines

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

Colin Firth: a glorious eyeful

You want Berwick to look its best when you welcome visitors. On a recent sunny Monday, en route to the station, we weren’t disappointed. The Tweed was dressed in sparkles. Our London Friends were in for a treat. And then, the good Lord laid on an even more thrilling sight: Colin Firth!His visit to Berwick is now legend. But, I’d just like to say – WE SAW HIM FIRST! The Husband wondered momentarily why his three female companions flushed (naturally rather than hormonally), whispered and giggled “’Ssss Colin Firth!” One London Friend apologised to Colin for staring. He smiled graciously and, if The King’s Speech had not already done it, our hearts were his forever. How easily we are influenced by what we see – even if it is just a glimpse.

I suggested that we ‘take the scenic route’ dropping down from the station to the path above the Tweed. Colin and his three companions opted to follow our example. I know it’s pathetic but we were thrilled! The moment arrived when all eight of us were enjoying that marvellous view back to the Royal Border Bridge, the sun warming our faces. We left Colin and his companions taking photos and to their onward journey to visit local hero Eric Lomax for lunch.
Sunset: The Royal Border Railway Bridge from our garden

And that is when I panicked. Colin had glimpsed the very best of Berwick. But what else lay in store? I mentally checked off the various derelict buildings – the old school and that pot place round Palace Green, the Youngman’s building on Hide Hill, the many apartments above the shops, the neglected quayside, City Electrical Factors on Chapel Street, Kwik Save by the library, the old Playhouse site. Like a proud parent knowing they’re going to have to sit through an under–rehearsed school play and keep on smiling whatever, I felt my stomach churn.

Don’t look Colin! The abandoned City Electrical Factors

And then I felt pretty angry. Have we learnt nothing? Here are all these brownfield sites crying out for attention, for sympathetic development, and all I seem to read about are planning proposals for greenfield sites that will continue to suck the heart out of Berwick.

As recent London ex–pats it’s something we are familiar with. How many years did it take the government to take longterm action after the 60s/70s decline in manufacturing and the transport revolution left warehouses, factories and docks abandoned and decaying? Too many. But, finally, riverside regeneration has happened. And what a difference! Vibrancy and heart have been returned to communities that were all but forgotten for nigh on half a century. Parks and green spaces have been nurtured and tended and made family friendly. Perhaps the jewel of that process is Docklands. Its thrusting vision of white collar ambition and city life may not be an inspiring image to all. But the idea – the impetus to take a derelict wasteland of an area and regenerate it into an active heartland, making the most of its natural surroundings and resources – now that must surely inspire even the most ambivalent.

So, back to the view of the Tweed and Berwick that I shared with The Husband, London Friends and, oh, did I mention Colin Firth? One of its major attractions is the lack of urban sprawl. Of course it’s easier to slap up houses and supermarkets around the town than it is to tackle the unwieldy and difficult issues of dereliction and decay of buildings and areas within the town. But here’s an idea: let’s not erect one more building out of town until we’ve sorted out the centre of Berwick. Then, when visitors come, they won’t just get a glimpse of something special; they’ll get a glorious eyeful. After all, if the heart ain’t beating, the body won’t function.

A version of this article was first published on 6th October 2011 in The Berwick Advertiser www.berwick-advertiser.co.uk

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