Life in a northern town: the colourful life and times of Berwick-upon-Tweed

En route to stay with friends in the Scottish Borders (more on which in future posts), I paused for a few hours in England’s most northerly town, Berwick-upon-Tweed. Not having previously visited this part of the world, I was keen to learn more about my surroundings and when I saw guided tours of the Berwick Town Hall & Cell Block Museum advertised, this seemed as good a place as any to begin.

I’d done a little bit of reading up before my visit and was aware that Berwick has a colourful past. Its name means “barley farm” and this historic town sits on the River Tweed on the frontier between England and Scotland, hence the constant warring over ‘ownership’ across the centuries.

Indeed, the Tudors prized Berwick so highly that Elizabeth I spent the equivalent of £40m on Italian-designed ramparts to fortify the town, which took 12 years to build and were the single biggest expenditure of her reign. Doubtless she’d be pleased to hear that, over 400 years after her death, they remain intact and a much-admired element of Berwick.

But I digress. Back to Berwick Town Hall, whose 150-foot steeple was so beloved of L.S. Lowry (the renowned artist visited and painted Berwick many times and I intend to walk the six-mile Lowry Trail the next time I’m here). I can highly recommend taking the 90-minute tour of this venerable old building, which was built by the Berwick Guild; it remains at the heart of the town’s history, over the centuries having acted as a forum for shops, markets and Guild affairs.

We began our tour in the light and airy Guild Hall, used for debating civic and military matters and, previously, as a court room. I loved its majestic gold chandeliers, red drapes and the portraits of forbidding-looking mayors.

The Ante Room / Council Chamber next door, modernised in 1974, is regularly used by the town’s Council and Mayor, as well as by its Sheriff – Berwick being one of the few UK towns to appoint a Sheriff, whose role is largely social and ceremonial. This room is also notable for its working gavel and its plaster relief of Justice, made by a Guild member – he, poor man, waited 36 years for his £5 remuneration.

BTH 01
The Ante Room / Council Chamber

 

Berwick’s ongoing political machinations are interesting, of course, but it’s when you arrive on the Town Hall’s top floor that the history of this fascinating building starts to come to life. The barred windows were a potent foretelling of what we were about to learn; this floor acted as a jail for two groups: debtors and criminals. It hadn’t occurred to me that the treatment these groups received would have been different – but in fact, debtors led far more comfortable lives. For a start, they had something to occupy their time, as they were made to work to pay off their debts; constructing coffins and fishing nets were key sources of income. Debtors were also provided with a fireplace and cooking utensils – still on display today – so that they could prepare their own meals.

BTH 02
Living conditions were reasonably good if you were classed as a debtor

 

As for the common criminals, boredom was the name of the game and would explain the copious – and in some cases, incredibly artistic – graffiti still visible on the cell walls. The shackles used to restrain more unruly prisoners remain here, as do the branding irons used on transportees. All sorts of punishments were inflicted on prisoners including whipping, fines and being put in the stocks.

Capital crimes were tried in the courtroom downstairs and at the end of the tour we spent a chilling couple of moments inside the ‘Condemned Cell’, where prisoners facing execution spent their final days. Only three executions have taken place in Berwick, so the town never employed its own executioner, preferring to borrow that particular service from other towns.

BTH 03
A glimpse into the workings of the Berwick Guild

 

So much history contained within one building – and we weren’t finished yet. After a peek inside the Bell Tower (a highly unusual feature; usually only churches possess bells) and a chuckle over the fact that each of the eight bells has its own name – Cuthbert being my favourite – our tour concluded in the Museum. This contains a diverse range of artefacts discovered in or around Berwick, some of which are very old indeed, for example the 10th century Viking sword found on the bed of the River Tweed.

I thoroughly enjoyed this tour. Our guide was knowledgeable and entertaining and his enthusiasm contagious; although I only had a few hours in Berwick today I shall definitely return, following in L.S. Lowry’s well-trodden footsteps.

3 comments

  1. […] The Museum is compact, fun and aimed at all ages and I spent a happy half hour in there learning about Berwick’s rich history as a border town. I liked its narrow, cobbled alleyways, designed to make you feel as though you are wandering Berwick itself and the quirky ‘Window on Berwick’ display. It was also interesting finding out about this Georgian market town as a seaside resort and its on-going place at the heart of the British salmon fishing industry (hence why debtors were paid to make fishing nets). […]

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  2. I think people can be a bit sniffy about Berwick-Upon-Tweed. I love its crumbly edges (that sounds patronising, but I don’t mean it to be). Spent some time there a few years back and took photos of different parts of town that caught my eye. On my return home I discovered that one of my photos was almost an exact replica of a scene LSL had painted. I’d always admired his work and it was only after my visit did I discover that he holidayed there – making me like the place even more! Thank you for writing about it.

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    • I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Berwick-Upon-Tweed and would have liked longer there. I wonder why people are sniffy about it? I found it to be a town with masses of charm and history (and some very nice restaurants) – I will definitely return, and will continue to tell others what a great destination it is. I can just picture it now, drenched in this gorgeous sunshine that we’re currently enjoying.

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