Berwick: a town of festivals?
A couple of weeks ago The Husband and I trotted along to a meeting at the William Elder Building. The aim was to discuss ideas for a bid for £100,000 from a government grant scheme launched after the Mary Portas Review to boost ailing town centres such as Berwick.
In recent years, exhausting amounts of expensive research has examined the challenges Berwick faces. A baffling array of ideas, projects and events from various groups of dynamic people have followed. Some of these have run their course, others struggle to keep going. Separately, independent stand–alone events, like the Film Festival, attract international attention. But few projects seem to capture the collective imagination and support of all Berwickers.
Some 40 of us gathered – individuals, representatives from organisations and businesses and interested parties, all of whom would like to see Berwick booming and blooming. A place of cultural and historical stimulation: a vibrant, fun and happening town – on the map of places to go.
The meeting was ably led by Peter Watts (Trustee, Berwick Community Trust) who’d gathered valuable input from a range of Berwick people and stakeholders, including The Maltings Theatre & Cinema and Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival. We watched a great amateur film (which has accompanied the bid) produced by the Youth Project. It offered a thoughtful perspective from young people on how and why Berwick could and should be improved.
Facelift type projects were discussed at some length. But do they sustain a town centre? What we’d all love is a regular influx of interested and interesting people (with money to spend!) drawn to Berwick by ‘something’. But what? Of course we want pretty shops, lovely cafés, a flourishing market, acceptable parking, a decent children’s playground etc – but what’s the big draw?
The sheer breadth and depth of marvellous Berwick events was aired and admired…the Film Festival, Food Festival, the much mourned Tattoo, the Riding of the Bounds, the Minden Parade, the Dickensian Market. Great cultural venues such as the Granary, the Barracks, Gymnasium Gallery and the Maltings; natural delights like the river and coast, and historic landmarks from the walls to the Royal Border Bridge were dusted down and appreciated. But, let’s face it, regeneration for Berwick isn’t happening – even with all this.
In our little discussion group it quickly became clear that we were done with reports. We wanted action. But there are as many ideas of what action looks like as people in a room. Many of us were involved in different events. All beavering away, valiantly endeavouring to create ‘the’ event. Endlessly reinventing the wheel of licences, permissions, permits and local involvement with varying degrees of aggro and success.
So, how to move forward?
Well, as one person at the meeting said, “Can we agree that whether or not we are successful in this bid, we will get a working party together and, despite the barriers – insurance, absentee landlords etc – we will clean and tidy and decorate the town centre?”
And, as someone else pointed out: there’s no deep historical reason that Hay–on–Wye is now ‘the town of books’. Richard Booth decided to pull a publicity stunt in 1977, it caught people’s imaginations, and the rest is very lucrative history.
I’d say that surely the ‘something’ to attract people is Berwick itself. Berwick with its glorious potential, amazing calendar of events and attractions. And the unifying factor is people acting together. A co–ordinated, independent town team, planning and making things happen, with a mission to promote ownership of Berwick by its people for its people.
So let’s hope the bid’s successful – but let’s hope even harder that we, as a town, get the momentum to work together effectively to make Berwick the place we want it to be – and that others want to come to. A town of festivals, perhaps?
A version of this article was published in The Berwick Advertiser on 5th April