Berwick – the original border town

Mapping the border between England and Scotland must have been a dream job for medieval cartographers.

No sooner had a new line been charted, a new round of hostilities would herald a land grab by one side or the other and it was back to the drawing board – a bit like painting the Forth Bridge.

At the sharp end of all the to-ing and fro-ing was the much prized port of Berwick which changed hands no less than 13 times before finally settling on the English side in 1482.

With the Scots and the French threatening to re-write the map books yet again,  Elizabeth I made the town virtually impregnable, employing Italian engineers and experts to build daunting defences that used artillery.

It was a persuasive argument and Berwick has remained English in body if not in spirit.

Within Berwick’s solid defences is a bustling market town whose national loyalties lean northwards if a recent poll is to be believed. Almost 2,000 people were asked if they would prefer the town to be administered by Scotland and 60 per cent said yes.

Much of the imposing Elizabethan ramparts remain and form part of a magnificent two-mile walk that takes in a stretch of the cliffs and Megs Mount, the northernmost tip of the magnificent Northumberland costline.

It also offers breathtaking views inland along the Tweed as well as across the town and harbour.

Berwick became a strategic asset on its growth as a seaport, trading in barley (the name Berwick comes from ‘beil wick’ or barley farm) and wool that persuaded Flemish, German and Scandinavian merchants to set up business in the town.

The ‘Burrrell at Berwick’ is the most important art collection in a public gallery in Northumberland and well worth a visit.  Sir William Burrell made his fortune in shipping and with it bought art and objects from around the world. Most of his collection was donated to his home city of Glasgow, but about fifty paintings and 300 decorative items were bequeathed to Berwick when he retired to nearby Hutton Castle.

The Burrell is incorporated into Berwick Museum and is located at Berwick Barracks. It features works by Degas, Boudin and Maris, ancient Roman and Venetian glass, Japanese imari pottery and Ming porcelain.

The focal point of town is the Guildhall, which stands at the seaward side of the main street and once served as a lighthouse.  From here, a short walk down Quay brings the visitor out at the oldest of the town’s three commanding bridges.

The oldest, a 15-arch sandstone bridge commissioned by James 1 of England in 1611 is matched in grandeur by Robert Stevenson’s Royal Border Bridge, whose 28-arched construction changed local life for ever in 1846 when it brought the railway another step northward.

The scale and solidity of  Berwick’s bridges is tribute to the power of the River Tweed, Scotland’s second longest river in spite of the fact that its final four miles flows through England.


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