Berwick – Promoting Local Talent and Playing ‘what if?’

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Where do we start?

Following on from my last post, Is Berwick to be Doomed by Local Attitudes? the question is where to start?

The logical place is probably listing what we already have that we might be able to build on/ uses in a different way.

  • The Maltings Theatre and Cinema
  • 3 Museums
  • Berwick Record Office
  • Several Art Galleries
  • A Film Festival
  • Craft Fairs
  • Local Drama Companies
  • Local Bands of various kinds – large and small
  • Youth Theatre
  • Local Publishing Company for local writers
  • Numerous local artists and craftspeople
  • Historical guided walks
  • Operatic Society
  • Spittal Variety Group
  • Civic Society exhibitions
  • Choirs
  • Bygone Borderlands events
  • Tweedmouth Feast
  • Spittal Gala
  • Spittal Seaside Festival
  • Riding of the Bounds
  • Minden Day Parade
  • Farmers Markets
  • Local food producers

In short, a lot of local talent! Every time I’ve looked at this list I’ve thought of something else and I probably still haven’t thought everything relevant! We have a lot to work with, but we need to join up the dots and tell people about it.

Perhaps we need a Berwick Guide to ‘What’s On’ and a co-ordinated plan to spread out events throughout the normal visitor season and beyond, so that it looks like an organised programme rather than everybody doing their own thing. This could be sent out through Libraries and Tourist Information Centres (TICs), etc., as far afield as we can send it. Yes, this would need money to produce, but wait a minute and let’s look at a bigger picture.

What if?

Before we can think about looking for funding, we need to make a plan of what we would like to do.

To make a plan, we need to start playing ‘what if’ and make a list of possibilities/ what might work/ what we would like to do, etc. Then we pick out the best/ most relevant/ realistic parts and out them together into something more coherent.

THEN we start to think about how we might find the money. The plan will no doubt be adjusted several times, and the money would probably have to be sought from several sources in relatively small amounts to fund different parts of the project. This can be a bit torturous, but patchwork is the way to do it – voluntary hours can also sometimes count as match-funding. (I’m not a fund-raiser myself, but have sat on enough committees to know that is the way it is done.) Although funding may be more difficult to find that it was a few years ago, that shouldn’t be used an excuse to sit back and do nothing.

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Returning to Berwick’s History

To kick this off, we’ll return to thinking about history. There was a comment made in response to the post Could this be the future for Berwick? That the public “don’t understand the history – it has to be explained.” Of course! That’s what historians are for! If the public understood everything by just looking at a building it would be too easy, they wouldn’t appreciate it in the same way as if they have to make an effort to learn about it. The important thing is that many of the public want to know more.

One of the recurring complaints I’ve heard over the years is that there doesn’t seem to be anywhere visitors can go to find out more about Berwick’s history. No centre for interpretation. Even if they’ve managed to find the town museum hidden in the Barracks complex, they have been disappointed at not finding more local information of the kind they were seeking.

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Berwick sometimes seems complacent about its history. Or perhaps – more likely – even most local people don’t really understand it either! They maybe have heard of disjointed bits and pieces, but don’t understand how it all fits together. After all, the most interesting bits are arguably before the walls were built and that’s a long time ago. For many people, anything before the Victorian era is difficult to get their heads around without help.

So, what if the local historians all put their abilities together and were able to take over one of the empty shops on the High Street, to turn it into a historical interpretation centre for Berwick and perhaps the older part of Tweedmouth.

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  • A sort of long-term exhibition to outline the history of the town and why the historical remains are so important.
  • A first step for anyone wanting to learn more about the history of the town, perhaps with scale models of some buildings to help explanations.
  • From there, people could be directed on to:
    • The museums
    • The Record Office
    • Derek Sharman’s walks around the walls
    • The Town Hall tours
    • The Main Guard
    • Etc. To find further information

All these things might make more sense if they have been put into context at the interpretation centre first. This is not to compete with any other organisation, but to supplement and complement their work and make finding them easier for the visitors. Both the town museum and the TIC are now effectively run from outside the town and are therefore not so in touch with local needs.

Perhaps there might be a room in this interpretation centre we could use for occasional talks, classes, other learning activities, for adults/ families/ the general public, visitors or locals. Maybe we could hook up with local film-makers for make some short documentary pieces we could show when speakers/ tutors are not available. (These may also be used for advertising on the internet.) Other spin-off activities might result, e.g. Jim Herbert might occasionally take a group of people up to the castle ruins to talk through an interpretation in the field. Generally educate those who don’t know – both tourists and locals – but want to know more.

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More Suggestions

Amateur groups could maybe help to start events moving. Perhaps with some

  • Street theatre – the youth theatre and/or adults
  • Historical interpretations
  • Pieces by local writers
  • Choirs or smaller vocal groups on the Town Hall steps.
  • Perhaps we should look for a pavement artist

If you make people feel good, and having fun, they are more likely to spend money.

Also as the economy improves, try to bring in more visitors of a higher income level and encourage them to spend in the town. For this we need to pitch shops and services in the town to a level that seems reasonably-priced compared to Edinburgh, but focus on quality over constant cheapness – think value. Some local people may also buy these items, if only for gifts/ special occasions.

Publicity Opportunities 

                     There are actually a number of ways of gaining publicity for free – especially through the internet.

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Also, remember, we are only a year away from the Scottish Referendum. That is likely to bring some more publicity – for Berwick and Carlisle in particular – regarding the effect Scottish independence might have on English border towns. Can we think of a way to cash in on this? We need to plan for it now. If they do vote for independence, we’ll probably have even more publicity – we need to plan ahead to take advantage.

What would be on your ‘what if’ list?

Could this be the future for Berwick?

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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.

ImageBerwick’s New High Street?

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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.

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(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.

Berwick Barracks

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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.

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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.

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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?