Originally published April 7th 2018.
I’d chosen Berwick-Upon-Tweed as my starting point. Comfortably the most Northerly town in England, much of Scotland is further South than this historically crucial border town. Changing hands between England and Scotland on more than a dozen occasions, I was interested to find out who the residents thought they were. I arrived around lunchtime on the Tuesday immediately after Easter.
The main street was subdued and grey. It was drizzling in that very definite sort of way that drizzle can fall when it’s set in for the day. I walked around the town centre. There were closed night clubs with signs outside that said things like “You may be subjected to random searching” and “Top Brands only! Carling, John Smiths, Strongbow”. In the market place, an electric information board was slowly flashing the message “We appear to be having some trouble with the sign”.
The centrepiece of the main street is the town hall, a huge but narrow building that blocks the flow of the street like a giant log jammed in a narrow river, accumulating detritus into a new island. It boasts a magnificent spire-like tower, a call to commerce visible from miles around.
I found myself stalling for time, nervous to actually begin busking after all the months of preparation and waiting. The town was quiet after Easter. Maybe nobody would like me. I did another circuit of the town, and passing a “Guide dogs for the blind” charity statuette, I was struck for the first time by just how disconcerting the coin slot in the top of the puppy’s head is. I went into W.H. Smith’s for a bottle of water. An old man in front of me in the queue handed a lottery ticket over to the assistant. She scanned it before saying; “It’s not a winner” to which he replied, “aye” and shuffled out into the rain.
There was not an abundance of good wet-weather busking pitches. One side of the road had a narrow pavement, whilst the other was broad and spacious. That would have been the side to choose if the weather had been nicer, but all the shops that side were occupied, and there was no shelter. Instead, I chose the closed down Clarks shoe shop on the narrow side of the street, as it had a dry and recessed front door to play in out of the rain. I started up.
A smattering of damp people came past. The road was quiet, and the tall buildings caught the ring of the fiddle nicely. Reckoning that people would hear it easily from well up the road, I relaxed into it. Coins began to appear in my case, parents handing them to worried looking children to drop off. I continued. Someone shouted “Bell End!” as they went past. Most seemed to be OK with it. After a while, a pair of drunken men appeared and dropped 50p in my case. Having bought my time, as far as they were concerned, one of them then proceeded to sing ‘The Fields of Athenry’ at the top of his voice to the tune I was playing, utterly untroubled by the differences in key, pacing, and rhythm. His friend filmed this on a phone. I quickly ran the sums in my head, and calculated that they had 2 minutes before they were out of credit. Fortunately, they didn’t know any of the verses, so with a big thumbs up from the lads, I was left to continue my solo performance.
I’d imagined that the busking pitch would be a place for contemplation, philosophy even, where my mind could soar and crunch through difficult issues. In reality, it was over two hours into my performance before I finally figured out that the giant balloons in the window of the card shop across the way from me didn’t spell out “I.S.”, but were actually “21” facing the other way.
I watched the other piece of human street furniture, the traffic warden, as he wandered up and down, not quite catching anybody parking in the loading bays. He seemed to always be at the wrong end of the street. And he definitely wasn’t receiving coins for his performance. At about 5pm, Costa coffee rescued the optimistically placed and entirely unused chairs and tables from the sodden high street and called it a day. I decided to do likewise. I had no idea how much I’d made but it felt like a pleasingly heavy pocket full.
I walked up to the massive walls that surround the parts of the town that don’t end at the water’s edge, and scaled one of the gun bastions. Built during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, they cost an extraordinary £126,000, reputedly the most expensive project of the era. Looking out North of the Tweed, there seemed little prospect of a Scottish invasion today. As I was standing on England’s most expensive wall, I decided to use my phone to book what claimed to be “Berwick’s cheapest hotel room”, which proved to be a box with a small skylight out of reach, and a deeply ingrained smell of deep fat fryers. The bed was at least comfortable. I counted up the coins. £37 in 2hrs 20 minutes. If I could manage that on a wet afternoon in Berwick, in a bad pitch, then I’d probably be OK.
I set out for dinner, hungry from the cold, passing a hairdressers that had the leftover signing for the “Anglo Scottish Fish Producers Association” directly over the word “Hairdressers”. It was a pleasing combination. Further down into town, the cockle shop assured me that their Berwick cockles were “entirely different from imitations”. This statement caused me some logical discomfort, and I mulled it over throughout my dinner. At my table for one, I watched a family on holiday begin their dessert course. The father was presented with a giant ice-cream dish with two flakes. The little girl looked at it in astonishment before slowly turning to her father and asking “Are you afraid?”.
I concluded my evening with a pint in the Barrels Ale House, and read the local paper. There was an artificial insemination special in the agricultural pull out & keep section. I checked the events page. The family history society was hosting a discussion evening called “Our favourite toy”. There was also Qi gong for health, and a community ukulele group. I walked back to my hotel. In the dark, it felt much more Scottish. The pubs had large red Tennents signs outside, but without the redeeming selection of malt whiskies inside.
I returned to the main street at 9.15am. The rain was heavier than the day before. Fat, wet dollops fell with determination and certainty. It was market day. In practice, this meant a fruit stall at one end of the street and a donut van at the other. I bought a banana and asked where the rest of the market was. The man told me that it had withered away. The donut van people ran the market these days, and not many people bothered. It seemed a shame to me that this great commercial hub, endlessly contested for its riches and strategic position had come to such a moment of unimportance. After a while, a fish van turned up to swell the market to three.
My alcove in the abandoned Clarks seemed OK, so I set up again. For twenty minutes I received nothing. Busking comes in waves. Sometimes you get three people all at once trying to give you money, and sometimes nobody hands you anything for ages. The temptation is always to overthink, and turn the near randomness of it into immediate cause and effect. If a tune gets you some money, you assume it to be a winner, and then find yourself surprised when it gets you nothing later. I worried that the morning was just too miserable to succeed. The rain was relentless. Hands were in gloves and on umbrellas. Maybe I looked too warm and happy? I removed my hat. Immediately, the first money of the day arrived. Great, now I can’t wear my hat any more.
At 11:20, I packed down. The rain had got into my fiddle case much more than I’d realised. I needed to dry it out before I committed my fiddle and bow to the box for any length of time. Costa coffee allowed me to use their blue paper roll, in return for the purchase of a small lemon tartlet, and I dried the case out as best I could, before lining around the instrument. It was time for my first appointment!
Having announced I was busking over England, a variety of offers began to come my way. Things to do, people to meet, places to go. My first offer was a ghost tour of Berwick, and I emerged from Costa to meet Edward and Andy of Frank N Knight tours. The rain had worsened further, bringing a biting wind with it, and so they started by asking me quite sincerely if I still wanted to do this. “Of course”, I said, so they began with the story of the ghost in the British Heart Foundation stockroom.
With some of the most violent history in the UK, Berwick has no shortage of ghost stories. We encountered screaming ghosts, poltergeists, ethereal galleons, a zombie, burning corpses, poisonings, and what they reckoned could well be the oldest documented Vampire tale in the world. (1194AD) Despite the weather, it was good fun. In driving rain and bitter wind, we ascended the walls and traveled round to the big lonely house behind the barracks, tall and desolate. It looked the part.
“When the artist L.S.Lowry came to Berwick, he was going to buy that house, but when he went in, and climbed the dusty stairs to the top floor…”
“To his utter horror..”
“It had dry rot. So he didn’t bother.”
The weather won and we went to a cafe, where the ghost stories carried on as we thawed with a warm drink. Slowly the conversation turned to a more general chat about life in Berwick. It’d been a tough Easter for the pair. The weather had been unremittingly awful, and attempts to drum up custom for the ghost walk in the local camps had failed, weather-weary tourists preferring heated pools and slot machines. We discussed the difficulties of making a living in the creative arts. Andy was trying to get work as an extra, a stand up, a ghost tour guide, anything he could turn his hand to, and he was good at it. But it was proving tough, and he really needed a sunny day. At least I’d earned something in my alcove that morning.
The main street was awash. Rain turned to plump, wet sleet. The wind blew it into the alcove, and busking was simply not possible. I walked and kept walking. From the high bridge across the Tweed, one can see the whole area. The railway goes round the town at a respectful distance, turning in a horseshoe, high up on viaducts and embankments. Beneath me, the inrushing tide had met the falling river and ground to an uncertain halt. Brown and mixed. This inspired me to buy humbugs from a shop on the Tweed dockside, and I talked to the lady about life and music. She wasn’t sure if she was English or Scottish and didn’t really care. National identity just sort of peters out round here. People are from Berwick, and don’t identify particularly with one side of the border or another. Kathryn Tickell once told me the anecdote of the small boy from these parts watching England v Scotland in the football, and deciding to support Scotland because it was closer. No wonder they call it the debatable lands. Berwick has changed hands so many times that it’s stopped trying to decide which it is. The houses are a jumble of European pan-tiles and stout Scottish chimney breasts. Last time it changed hands, it was on the understanding that it could be governed by the English but not actually become English. This led to it having to independently declare war on Russia in 1853 during the Crimean war, and, almost inevitably, it being left off the peace treaty. Berwick was only formally absorbed by Northumberland in 2001. Economically, it’s part of an area that spans the border, and would prefer to ignore the border, were it not for the significant differences in healthcare, education, and other devolved issues. The school over the border at Eyemouth is now oversubscribed with Berwick kids. Berwick Rangers FC play in the Scottish league.
The border wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t for the fact that two significantly different administrations split an otherwise independent and self-contained community. Its not really about English or Scottish identity. The hard line on the map that shows me where England ends and Scotland starts exists only in law. England began to fade somewhere South of here, and Scotland won’t really get going till much further north. Like the tide beneath me on the bridge, England and Scotland have met, mixed, and cancelled each other out.
That evening, I was invited to an open night at the microbrewery in Spittal, across the bay from Berwick. The brewery was in a desolate industrial unit next door to the abandoned dyeworks. I was told they were unable to demolish the works owing to pollution concerns, so it was slowly doing the job by itself, collapsing inwards. The tall chimney marked the end of the land, where the North Sea pummeled away at the spit of sand. It was bleak and very cold. The brewery was a single story whitewashed unit, out past the last house. I opened the door and went into what felt very much like a rave with a knitwear theme. The building was packed, bare, dimly lit, and a sound-system was hard at work. Young bearded men and colourfully dressed women were pouring strong beers. A wood stove was doing its best in the corner.
A retired lady got talking to me. She’d ended up here with her husband, having gradually moved further and further north. “They say you should look for the idyllic life. Well, bollocks!” I mentioned I was heading to Darlington next. She told me to go to the snooker club, and ask for Peter. To tell him that Veronica and Mike had sent me. I promised I would. No further information was given. It sounded like a good lead.
Having dined on what I imagined would be the only haggis and chips I’d find on my trip round England, I left for my overnight accommodation in Newcastle. Berwick had been fascinating. A worthy first stop, but not really England in anything other than a legal sense. Berwick is just Berwick. It’s happiest that way, without further identity being foist upon it.