Up on the Monday morning and it was time to pack as I was back on the road again. More properly speaking I was back on the rails which made a pleasant change from being off the rails as I so frequently am. Paul’s time-critical project was becoming less time and more critical by the day and I thought I’d get out of the way and not overstay my welcome as he and Sue had been so lovely to me.
I was off to Berwick-upon-Tweed as I had already booked my ticket and I’ll explain the rationale for both of these things now. I had booked my ticket online the night before as buying a walk-up ticket on the British railway system is merely asking to be robbed. I could start yet another rant here about how appalling rail fares are in UK but I’ll spare you.
Why Berwick-upon-Tweed? Well, it was one of several options. I had considered popping up to Edinburgh and possibly meeting up with my friend as I had not seen her for a while but I have been to Edinburgh many times and, much as I love it, I thought I’d give it a miss this time round. I had considered Hexham for the utterly ludicrous reason that one of my favourite bands, Fairport Convention,have a great song called the Hexhamshire Lass and I had never been there. Honestly, I decide to go to places for such idiotic reasons. Carlisle was also in the frame as there is a direct cross-country train and I had only ever spent one night in that quite important county town decades ago but in the end I plumped for Berwick for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, I have been up and down the East Coast rail line more times than I can remember and a highlight of it is always going over the wonderful railway bridge which spans the Tweed. I had often looked down at the peaceful looking town so far below and thought I would like to go there one day and this seemed like a good opportunity as it is only about 45 minutes on the train. Another good reason and the one that probably swung it was that there is a military museum there, the Regimental Museum of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, or the Kosbies as they are known in the mob. There turns out to be a bit of a story attached to the Museum as you shall see.
My train was at about 1400 and Paul happened to be going into town and so gave me lift to the Station so after collecting my ticket from the self-service machine I had a bit of time to kill so I thought of going for a bit of a wander but it was never going to be anything major as I had the suitcase and the weather was pretty unpleasant and getting worse by the minute. At least I didn’t have to lug the guitar as well as Paul had very kindly let me plank it in his place with the arrangement that we would meet up for a drink when I came back through Newcastle and he would bring it for me. Nice one, mate.
I managed a few images, shown above, but the weather was just evil so I ducked into the nearby Wetherspoons for a bite to eat as I was getting a bit peckish. I really cannot believe, even now, how my appetite came back after my surgery. For non-regular readers, Wetherspoons is a large chain (1,000+ and counting) which utilises the economies of scale and provides inexpensive food and beverages and whilst it attracts criticism in some quarters, I like them and use them a lot, especially when I am travelling.
Wetherspoons very rarely buy over existing pubs but rather they go for old banks, cinemas, theatres and just about any other large building they can convert. I have even been in one that was formerly a postal sorting office! The outlet close to Newcastle station is called the Mile Castle and is in the lovely old building you can see in the image which was formerly a Savings Bank dating to 1861.
‘Spoons, as they are often called, always take their name from a local person, event or landmark and they always have old photographs, posters, paintings etc. on display with accompanying text. I always have a good look round in any new ‘Spoons I visit as is amazing what you can learn about the local area and you know how obsessed I am with that.
As for the name, it refers to the nearby Hadrian’s Wall which built by the Romans to keep the “barbarian” Scots at bay. There was a castle built every mile along it’s length to house the sentries and one of them stood near here, hence the name. I have to say that on a day like this I wouldn’t have fancied “stagging” (Army slang for sentry duty) in a draughty turret. Trust me, sentry duty is no fun at all!
Another thing about Wetherspoons that I like is the reasonably recent introduction of small pizzas. I like a pizza now and again but often struggle with a whole one, especially if it is regular crust as the dough just bloats me. Deep pan pizzas are a complete non-starter for me. The Wetherspoons ones are, I believe, 8″ and just the right size for a lunch for me. I usually go for the Hawaiian and I apologise to pizza purists for that but I love them and the little beauty you see here was just enough to keep me going. I was working on the principle that I would be eating out that night and it would probably be something fairly substantial so I didn’t want to overdo it early on.
Lunch over, I walked back to the station at a fairly brisk pace as I didn’t want to be out in that any longer than I had to be. I had a few minutes to look round what is one of my favourite railway stations in UK, many of which seem to be on the Northeast line like York and Edinburgh Waverley, along with this place. As they have often been described, Victorian railway stations were cathedrals to the god of steam and they always speak to me of a bygone age.
I’ll deal fully with John Dobson’s masterpiece here in a future post but for now let’s get back on the train which I thought was surprisingly busy for an early November afternoon. Perhaps it was because it was the “cheap train” which was certainly the reason I had picked it and I’ll explain that to you briefly here.
Once again apologies to those who have read it before but this quick tip is for those who may be visiting UK and travelling by rail. It really does pay to shop around when you book tickets online as I had done as the savings can be considerable thereby making your holiday £ / $ / € / Ұ go a lot further. For example, if I get the equivalent train tomorrow at 1352 (03/02/2020) it will be £12:70 advance single. The preceding train at 1335 is £29:80 as is the succeeding one at 1455. The trains are exactly the same and it is not as if you are paying for a quicker service as the “cheap train” in this instance is marginally the quickest of the three. Don’t ask me why, it is yet another mystery of the modern day Great Train Robbery.
The journey was quick and uneventful, indeed it would take me much longer to get from my home to, say, Twickenham for a rugby match and both of them are in London. However, the change was much more marked than my notional journey in the capital. I know there is some pleasant scenery on this stretch although it was impossible to appreciate in this murk but when I alighted at Berwick-upon-Tweed I was in very different environment to the bustle of Newcastle city centre.
Stepping down onto the platform at the fairly quiet station I could not help feeling a little like Michael Portillo and, again for the benefit of non-UK readers, a quick explanation follows. Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo, or Miguel Portillo y Blyth as he is named on his Spanish passport (his father was a refugee from Franco’s Spain) was formerly a British politician, achieving Cabinet rank in the Conservative Government.
He incredibly managed to lose his very safe seat in a Labour landslide election in 1997 but was parachuted into another one shortly thereafter. He described his finest achievement in politics as “saving the Settle to Carlisle railway” and I would echo that sentiment as it is arguably the most attractive line in the UK which was threatened with closure.
After leaving politics in 2005 and carved out a career as a broadcaster with his signature TV series involving him travelling by train in various parts of the world, often accompanied by a Bradshaw’s antique railway guide, and I simple love them. Coincidentally I was watching some earlier today on the BBC iPlayer. I shall not post any links here as I know they are not available in all parts of the world but I do recommend you try to find them if you can.
I often find myself mentally scripting “pieces to camera” as I am in railway stations or on trains and I was “doing a Portillo” as I took off into the drizzle for my short walk to the hotel. Many of these mental telejournalism exercises end up here in my blog entries so now you know. Yes, I did warn you I was odd.
With Mr. / Senor Portillo having the resources and budget of the BBC licence payer’s fees behind him he habitually stays in the finest hotels and one of the episodes I watched today had him holed up in the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, having been transferred there in one of their fleet of 14 Rolls Royce Phantoms. Your humble narrator does not have access to such resources and so walked the couple of hundred yards to the Castle Hotel where I was greeted by a very friendly lady. This was to be feature as all the staff were lovely. I told her I had a reservation and this appeared to cause a bit of consternation. I had booked a single room with shared facilities as that does not bother me at all and it saves a few £££ but for some reason which I wasn’t actually told, my room was not available. After a bit of muttering and jiggery pokery on the computer I was informed that I had been upgraded to a double en-suite room for the same price. Happy days.
I cannot remember how much I paid but it was a last minute deal and, if memory serves, was only about £40 or £45 a night. I wasn’t expecting the George V at that price but I am a man of simple tastes and all I require is a comfy bed, preferably long enough for my lanky frame, not too much noise and some hot water for a shower. The Castle certainly had all that and rather than describe it in detail I’ll let the images speak for themselves. I still have this habit of taking loads of images when I go into a hotel room which is a throwback to the days when I wrote tips / reviews for Virtual Tourist. I had to include the image of the toilet roll holder as there was no way I was going to run out, even had I stayed there a month, I thought it was very practical but slightly amusing. Perhaps it is just my odd sense of humour again.
I had booked room only as, even with my newly re-acquired appetite I still rarely eat breakfast, at least not at conventional breakfast time but the lady had told me breakfast was included, so another bonus. I think you’ll agree that I had scored a right bargain and I was well satisfied.
Having dumped my kit I headed back out quickly as I reckoned that in the conditions I had probably about an hour of semi-daylight left and I wanted to make the most of it. Almost immediately I found the local war memorial which I took images of for the War Memorials Online project that I contribute to although it was difficult to get any sort of an image in that light.
In what appeared to be a private dwelling just beside the War Memorial I spotted the display you can see above in the front window, commemorating a Private William Edward Currins of the 1st / 7th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers who died in Flanders in 1916 and is buried there. He was 23. I don’t know if there was a family connection there or if he was just one of the fallen chosen at random.
I should explain that the time of year is relevant here as it was the 4th of November which made it exactly one week before Armistice Day and six days before the National Act of Remembrance which is always held on the Sunday nearest to it. I attended in central London as I do if I am not travelling at the time and shall report on that here in due course.
I am glad to see that Remembrance Day, poppy selling et, seems to be important as ever but I was particularly struck by the extent of the observance in Berwick. Perhaps it is because this is historically a military town and homeplace to the Kings Own Scottish Borders Regiment, which was one of the main reasons I was here, but it was noticeable.
Overlooking the Memorial was the church you can see and I thought I might take a look because churches fascinate me as regular readers will know. I could see that th front door was not open so I thought I would go round the side, which I did and something just wasn’t right. It clearly wasn’t a Church. A quick internet search reveals it was formerly the Church of St. Mary, Castlegate, was built in 1857 – 8 and once had the distinction of being the most Northerly Church in England. It is Grade II listed with Historic England, was de-consecrated in 1989 and now serves as an adult training centre. I do like to know these things.
So, no Church to see and frankly I wasn’t too bothered about seeing much else of anything as the weather was steadily deteriorating if such a thing was possible. Nothing else for it but to hit the pub and purely at random I picked the Brewers Arms which turned out to be a good choice and a place I was to return to during my stay. The Brewers had an extensive menu with inexpensive daily specials and the food is good as I was to find out later on but I had set my heart on having a curry that night for no particular reason other than I had not had one for a while.
The pub was not too busy and I sat myself down at a table beside a fireplace which I was desperately trying to date. I had taken a wild stab at about 1930’s and this may or may not be correct as the building dates to 1905 and was previously called the Heavy Battery. Although there is not much online about the pub, it is described on one website as being art deco style which is a favourite of mine when I manage to recognise it. This is beautifully illustrated by the funnel shaped entrance which I have never seen before and really is attractive so I am going to stick to my 1930’s guess for the fireplace and surmise that it was a refurbishment at that time!
Whilst I was in there Paul texted me to find out if I had arrived safely and enquired where I was. When I told him he recommended that I take myself off to the Barrels pub down by the river. He knows Berwick pretty well and has played there so I was definitely going to take his tip. Come to think of it, Paul has played just about everywhere one time or another. I finished my drink and took off in the direction he had told me heading for the Barrels. On the way I marked a decent looking Indian restaurant for later use but, in the event, I never got there.
I found the Barrels easily enough, pausing only briefly to take a night shot of the bridge. Well, you know by now what I am like about bridges. I walked into a very small bar but I found out later that it is only one of several bars on the premises including the basement which is home to the town’s major live music venue It is still a live venue despite the attempts of a litigious neighbour to have it shut down a few years back. I explained my “drinking problem” to the cheerful barman who dispensed my odd cider concoction sympathetically and I took a seat at one of only a few tables in there.
I should have stayed at the bar which is my normal practice as the adjacent table was occupied by two men, one of whom was obviously slightly the worse for wear and he had shortly managed to upend my pint as he tried to stand up. Fortunately I was quick enough to dodge most of it and at least he had the decency to buy me another albeit he could not quite believe it when I told him what I was drinking.
I didn’t take any images in the pub as I really did not want my “friend” starting asking awkward questions about what I was doing so the pretty poor external image above will have to suffice along with the poster of forthcoming events which was in the gents. If you look at it you will see that there was an open mic night the next evening which I might have even considered had I not very helpfully left my guitar behind in Newcastle! It would have been nice to tell Paul that I had played there as well but such is life.
Once again, I did not retrace my steps but rather continued along Bridge Street, knowing that I could loop round and find my way back to the Indian restaurant I had on mind but not too far along I spied the Magna Tandoori which looked OK from the outside and the menu posted outside looked fine so in I went. I have included an image taken in daylight the next day from which you can see that the windows are fairly high up and partially over by some attractive window boxes so I couldn’t actually see inside.
It was a dismally wet Monday night in November and I wasn’t expecting many people to be out but having negotiated the desk and been shown into one of the two huge dining rooms I hadn’t expected to be the only person in the whole place. The dining room you can see is only one half of the restaurant which is massive. The building was apparently formerly a Georgian townhouse and it must have been some dwelling in it’s day. I am sure the Magna is very pleasant with a few people in it but it was a bit like eating in an aircraft hanger with just me there. However, I just wanted a decent feed and there was certainly plenty of choice.
Apart from the “usual suspects” the chef’s specials included venison and duck dishes as well as regional specialities from Bengal, Goa and Bombay. Trapped in the indecision of another fine menu (go on, Google that phrase!) I inexplicbly played very safe and ordered the mixed pakora followed by the lamb dansak. As is my way, I did not order rice which always seems to amaze waiters but it just bloats me and opted instead for some chapatis. I do so love Indian breads. I also treated myself to a Cobra beer as I reckoned it would not tip me over my self-imposed daily limit and it’s not really a curry without beer, is it?
The meal was fine with just a couple of things worthy of mention. The first was the sauce accompanying the pakora which was mango but much thinner than the usual chutney and served warm which I had never encountered before. The second little oddity was that there was pineapple in the dansak which was another first for me but it was very good and I am particularly fond of that fruit. Normally pineapple is associated with the milder curries and I like a bit of oomph so that worked well. I am sure the staff wanted rid of me so they could close up but they didn’t rush me in any way which is to their credit.
Having settled the pretty painless bill I zipped up my leather bike jacket and stepped out into a night that had somehow managed to get even more unpleasant if that was possible. I was glad that jacket was well-padded. If you’ll pardon the indelicacy, it was a case of head down, arse up and go like Hell which I did until I reached the sanctuary of the hotel and my nice cosy bed.
In the next entry I brave appalling weather, have an utter disaster of a day sightseeing and still manage to thoroughly enjoy myself so stay tuned and spread the word.