I have watched and read the discussions on the future of Berwick High Street and Town Centre with interest over the last couple of years, partly to see if anyone else would venture to address the bigger picture and the natural future development of Berwick. Apart from a couple of flippant remarks, no one has done this to my knowledge. I’ve also held back from a reluctance to stick my head above the parapet but feel it is time to speak up and throw my insights into the ring of discussion.
A rudimentary knowledge of how settlements (villages, towns, etc.) develop over time, coupled with the geographical facts of Berwick’s location, suggest that the town area (Berwick, Tweedmouth, Spittal) is naturally moving towards an old town/ new town split. This is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact, if the natural developmental trend is recognised and handled in the right way, it could even be beneficial to the whole area.
Consider the facts:
- Berwick town is hemmed in by the sea, the river and the border. This area is now almost at saturation point – certainly within the by-pass , and there are only a few fields beyond that.
- The town centre is Grade II listed, which means it is protected against wholesale change.
- There are many historical/ important buildings within the town area which we cannot afford to lose.
- The historic buildings and lack of space mean that most of the shops in the town centre are of limited floor space.
- The majority of the population of the town area (Berwick, Tweedmouth, Spittal) now live on the south side of the river.
- Any further residential development is most likely to add to this situation – East Ord is already virtually connected, within the next century Scremerston is likely to go the same way.
- The more the population builds up south of the Tweed, the more pressure there will be for future retail development to also be on the south side.
- Modern retail chains require larger floor space than the town centre allows – Tweedmouth has more potential in this area.
- Most of Tweedmouth developed much later than Berwick. Many of the buildings are Victorian and some may arguably be of less historic/architectural importance.
- This area is highly dependent on tourism for income and this can cause conflicts between the needs of the visitors and the needs of the permanent residents. An old town/ new town split could potentially satisfy the needs of both, with less conflict.
- Locating the larger stores on the south side would leave the present town centre for smaller businesses, specialist shops, cafes, etc., more tourist and leisure oriented.
- Lower Tweedmouth could act as a sort of bridging area between the two predominant shopping areas.
(At this point I can almost hear the small traders screaming at me – but if all the chain stores are in Tweedmouth, who is going to buy from us? How are we to draw our customers over the river? However, please bear with me for the moment.)
Those of us who work with the history of the area have long felt that not enough is made of it to draw in more visitors. Perhaps, in some ways, being located by the sea had blinded everyone to a potentially more lucrative form of tourism – and Berwick’s unique selling point – its history.
If Berwick had developed as an inland town, it would have had to work much harder to draw visitors and use all if its available assets. Can you imagine, for instance, a historic city like York marketing itself to the Blackpool crowd? It sometimes seems to me that this is what Berwick has done – blinded to its real potential by the glitter of the sea.
While I’m not suggesting that the town centre should be turned into some sort of historic theme park, the history of the town, and the area, could and should be used much more than it is in marketing the town and attracting visitors. The museums and archives also have parts to play in this, as could The Maltings, The Granary and other cultural aspects of the area. It doesn’t have to be all tacky historic souvenirs, it can be done tastefully, to attract visitors of a different calibre. With the right leadership, Berwick can also put on events – this has been proved – and events bring in tourists to spend money in the town, perhaps even all year round.
Meanwhile, local people may buy their regular necessities mainly from chain stores and supermarkets, but there are always times when the shopper is looking for something different – perhaps for a gift – or because they are bored by massed produced goods.
Also, if more money is generated in the local economy, and kept here, to put more money in the pockets of the residents, they may be more likely to seek out specialist shops more often. Other small businesses, such as hairdressers, and boutiques may help draw footfall north – as could dentist and optician appointments, etc. These days, small specialist businesses have the option of additionally trading online too, to try and boost sales and cover slack times of year.
Of course, small businesses could only afford to move into these shops if the rents and rates are set at appropriate levels. If the upper floors were not needed for storage of stock for these smaller businesses, they could be turned into flats which would keep the area more secure in quieter times. It could also encourage an artistic/ café-style community around the current High Street.
While not claiming that this is the answer to all of Berwick’s current problems, it could at least provide a more positive way of viewing the decline of the High Street as we have known it, and perhaps a workable vision of how the area might develop in the future.
What do you think?