I woke in my room in the Castle Hotel on the morning of Wednesday 6th October 2019 in the knowledge that the next bed I slept in would probably be my own in London some 350 miles more or less due South.
After the events of the previous morning I had decided to skip breakfast, tasty as it was, as I would have had to have awoken at about 0600 to allow my slightly battered gastro-intestinal system time to get going and do it justice. It wasn’t as if there weren’t plenty of decent options for a bite to eat round the town.
For reasons of economy and logistics I was booked on a train at 1413 which would give me the morning in Berwick, some time in Newcastle to meet up with Paul for a pint and to collect my guitar and then a teatime train back to “the smoke” aka London. This would get me in at a civilised hour that would not involve night buses to get home. With luck I might even have time for a pint in my local to see if any of the lads were about.
I’ve explained the logistics so I’ll explain the economy aspect very briefly for those who may not have red my previous posts. Rail fares in UK are ludicrously high for reasons I will not bore you with and, if you are not time constrained, it really pays to choose your train carefully. As usual, I’ll give a quick realistic example for today (07/01/2020) as I write this. I don’t just seek out anomalies to make my point. If I was doing the Berwick Newcastle portion of my journey on the 1413 today it would be £14:70 single. The next train at 1450 is £29:80 and the one after that at 1512 is a bargain at £6:40 so the middle train, which also happens to be the slowest is more than double the price of the preceding one and more than quadruple the price of the succeeding one. As a famous British journalist is fond of saying, “You couldn’t make it up”.
The upshot of all the juggling with the lunacies of the rail timetables and ticketing policies was that I had a few hours to kill in Berwick and by then I was fairly tuned into the place, I did like it there. This might be a good time to mention something that I discovered whilst researching this series of entries and which really did surprise me.
I didn’t expect there to be many visitors in Berwick during the week in early November and with the awful weather, which was still pretty bleak that morning, but I had it somewhere in the back of my mind that it must be a fairly touristy place in season. Apparently, this is not the case as this article from the Daily Telegraph, a fairly respected UK broadsheet shows.
The magnificently named Boudicca Fox-Leonard, the Telegraph journalist of the 2017 piece, lists some very good reasons to visit, a few of which overlap with my own observations and experiences. It is, however, a quote from one of the locals that is telling when he says, “Our local council and English Heritage do nothing about it. It’s like Fight Club. The first rule of Berwick is no one talks about Berwick.” This really is a shame.
Due to my little medical blip I was unable to fly for while and I dread to think what my travel insurance will be the next time I go abroad. I try to fly now only if it is long-haul, not particularly for any ecological reasons although they are worthy enough but because I just hate the hassle and discomfort of flying. I have described elsewhere on this blog how it is not much slower for me to visit my family in Northern Ireland by train and ferry than it is to fly and the one time I used the Eurostar was a joy.
Whilst my ability to fly was somewhat in limbo for an indeterminate time I had decided that I was going to do a lot more travelling in UK as there is just so much of it I have not seen and there is certainly plenty to see. Had I not had to return to London for yet another medical appointment and to pick up further medication I would undoubtedly have rambled around the North of England for a lot longer. I have since sorted out the medication problem by registering for an electronic system whereby I can pick up my repeat prescriptions at any pharmacy in the country so at least that hurdle is overcome and more UK travel is definitely on the horizon.
Certainly Berwick is particularly interesting in view of it’s location and turbulent history but there must be so many other similar “undiscovered” gems and I intend to winkle a few of them out. A friend of mine, another refugee from Virtual Tourist, who lives near Leicester lamented for years that nobody ever visited for the purposes of tourism as there was so much to see there. That is slightly different now with the discovery of the remains of Richard III under a carpark and their re-interment in the Cathedral but Leicester has really “won the lottery” in that respect.
The Telegraph piece I mentioned above has another linked item entitled, “Is Lincoln Britain’s most underrated city break?” which I decided to have a quick look at and have immediately added Lincolnshire’s County town / cathedral city to my bucket list. It will be a re-visit but it is about 30 years since I was there.
I could pick a few random names here, Derby, Exeter, Carlisle (which was on my radar this time round), Hereford, I could go on for a long time. I’ll bet that with my knack of ferreting out interesting places, purely by luck and with neither skill nor planning involved, that I could cobble together a decent break in any of the above and so many more beside. Cobble several together to save on travel expenses and you have the beginnings of a proper adventure. Obviously I’ll keep you posted here on how it goes but I’m getting ahead of myself so back to a rainy Berwick.
I wandered about Berwick fairly aimlessly as I had seen about all I wanted to see, well all that was open at least and I was really just killing time. I did pop into a lovely old-fashioned and prosaically named “Music Shop” where I had a long chat with the lovely lady there who told me that the premises had been in her family since Noah was a sea cadet We had a general moan about the decline of music shops due mostly to online competition. There were a few guitars but not many as she said that so many youngsters were too lazy to learn and her best selling line was ukeleles which are infinitely easier to play. This was borne out by a large selection on display and she told me that her absolute #1 seller was the ukelele with a livery of the Scottish flag. With all due respect to George Formby and Tiny Tim I cannot stand ukeleles but if they are keeping an independent music shop alive then I can’t complain too much.
If the Music Shop was prosaically named then coffee shop a few doors along most certainly wasn’t. I stupidly didn’t take an image so you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you that it was called “The Mule on Rouge”, complete with a red paintjob and a logo of a mule bucking. Priceless but not unique in terms of quirkily named Berwick coffee shops. The previous day I had spotted a place called “The Loovre” which was situated in a beautifully restored Victorian public toilet. Utter madness.
By this point my stomach had woken itself up and I thought it was time for a bite to eat. As I have mentioned there is a plentiful supply of eating houses in Berwick and for some reason I had decided on one I had not even seen. I had noticed earlier the sign you can see advertising Sinners Cafe which was indicated through an archway and pretty well hidden away from the road. The sign says Sinners of Sidey Court is “Berwick’s best kept secret” and may well be although I am sure the locals have sussed it out as it is very good.
Sinners of Sidey Court, what a lovely old-fashioned name in this historic town. Actually it’s not. A plaque on the opposite wall of the archway informs us that the building was formerly the Avenue Hotel and was redeveloped and named after Thomas Leslie Sidey, the town’s Mayor in 1980 – 81 and the worthy gentleman himself opened the redevelopment in 1982. Hardly ancient but I suppose all history has to start somewhere.
The first thing I noticed about the exterior was the prominent display of poppy wreaths and crosses as Remembrance Day was fast approaching. I mentioned in a previous post how seriously they seemed to take it very seriously in Berwick and I like that. Inside the cafe they had a whole table dedicated to the full range of poppy related items so good for them. I already had my poppy so I got a poppy wristband to add to my collection.
I had seen a rather monstrous looking meal called the “Ultimate Sinners Breakfast” advertised which you can read for yourself in the image but my stomach wasn’t that awake just yet. I had also noticed that they served breakfast until the somewhat arbitrary hour of 1120. I suppose the kitchen needs to get ready for lunch but it just seemed rather a strange time to pick. I was just about in time and so I picked a slightly less-challenging offering than the “Ultimate” which I would love to have go at under the right conditions.
Up came my rather more modest choice served by a very cheery lady and I do apologise if this is getting repetitive but just about everyone I met during the whole trip was just so damned friendly and I do feel it is worthy of mention. I polished it off in no time flat and read a few pages of my book whilst finishing off my coffee. It was that “in-between” time and the place was pretty empty so I didn’t feel guilty about hogging the table.
As you can see from the interior image, there is a slightly retro feel to Sinners and whilst it may not be exactly a secret as claimed in the advertising, it is a great find and I thoroughly recommend it. Incidentally, they have good veggie / vegan options if that is an issue for you.
After my tasty breakfast it was back to killing time and I hit couple of the charity shops where I struck exceptionally lucky and ended up with rather more books than it was possibly sensible to be humping about in a suitcase. Books are bloody heavy! I had only one final piece of shopping to do and the image below may give you a clue.
I described in the last entry the wonderful haggis dinner I had enjoyed in the Brewers Arms and how much I love that particular delicacy. I always buy some when I am in Scotland to bring home and usually some Lorne / square sausage as well but I’ll tell you what that is another time. Unfortunately, I have a tiny freezer compartment in the tiny fridge in the tiny kitchen in my tiny flat (apartment) – OK, you get the idea. The upshot of that is that, much as I would love to, I cannot bulk buy and freeze. I am lucky in that my local supermarket stocks MacSweens haggis which is a very well known brand and very good so I don’t actually have to go “haggis cold turkey” if that is not an oxymoron but I do like proper butcher’s haggis when I can get it.
I went in to W.R. Skelly the butcher in Marygate purely because it looked like a “proper” old-fashioned butcher and that turned out to be the truth as I now know it is run by the seventh generation of the same family in a business stretching back over 250 years. It is said to be the oldest business in the town and I can believe it.
I enquired about Lorne sausage and the butcher was very apologetic that he didn’t have any so I asked about the haggis. I was in luck, he told me, as he had some freshly made that very morning. Morning for him would have been early as the shop opens every day except Sunday at 0600. I really cannot imagine what trade they get at that hour but they must or they would not do it.
I told him that I was cooking for one and a whole haggis as sold in the supermarket was a bit much so I asked if he did the sliced haggis which is the other way it is commonly sold. He said he did although that this batch was so fresh that it had not properly firmed up yet but if I told him how many slices I wanted he’d cut me a big piece to and a while in the fridge at home would make it easy to slice. This is what he did and it sliced exactly as he said not to mention being possibly the best (and freshest) haggis I have ever eaten. It wasn’t even from Scotland although I suppose if I had been here a few centuries before it would have been, such is Berwick.
I took the image of the butcher’s at 1350 and by 1400 I had gone back to the hotel, picked up my bag and said cheerio to the lovely lady on reception and walked to the station. Berwick is quite compact place which is yet another reason to visit.
As it happened I needn’t have rushed as all trains coming from Scotland were being delayed due to some accident. That wasn’t a major problem as I had plenty of time scheduled in Newcastle but it was a bit of an annoyance. Berwick station isn’t a bad place to hang about, if a bit cold and blustery that day and, as you can see, you can even get a bit of a history lesson both from the sign and the little bit of the castle that wasn’t either robbed out to build the Parish Church or flattened to make way for the station. You can just see it across the works yard in one of the images.
I certainly felt more than a twinge of regret leaving Berwick. In fairness to English Heritage, who were castigated by one of people interviewed for the Telegraph piece I linked above, they do have an excellent guide which is available free online here. The tagline is “three places, two nations, one town” and, whilst I had only visited one of the three places I feel that this is a fairly good summation of the town. It is definitely on my re-visit list when I get time, possibly linked with a bit more explorataion of the Borders which is an area I have spent far too little time in.
When I alighted back in Newcastle I took a little time to look around the station there and, as promised a few entries ago, I’ll give you a quick potted history here.
The story of the station starts in 1846 when the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway commissioned that man John Dobson to design a central station to link the various services that were going to pass through the city, from London to the South, Scotland to the North and Carlisle to the West. The curved nature of the platforms was to accommodate the alignment of the tracks approaching form the different directions. Yes, as I told you before, Dobson really was responsible for designing about half of Newcastle.
Dobson produced a grand design which had thankfully changed very little and is unlikely to do so in future as it is quite rightly a listed building. Today, as it was at the time of it’s conception, it is a major transport hub with just shy of nine million passengers in 2018 / 19 with the figure rising to over 13 million if you include the integrated Metro station and, of course, the Metro is to a large extent just an upgrade of the former branch line.
As the station was to be built on the North bank of the Tyne a crossing was required which was the High Level Bridge, my vertiginous nemesis of the previous Saturday and this was given priority for resources which meant that construction of the station was not particularly speedy. I was surprised to learn that the contract was tendered at £92,000 which is the equivalent of about £8.5 million today. In light of the recent £1 billion refurbishment of London Bridge station I think this is quite reasonable. I know which one I would rather look at.
Due to money problems in the railway company at the time, Dobson’s original grandiose plan was pared back some with the covered carriage drive and attached hotel going by the board. This is quite unusual in that most major rail stations had their own hotels in those days. Two excellent examples are the Balmoral which many (myself included) still refer to as the North British and the wonderful George Gilbert Scott creation at St. Pancras in London.
The station was eventually opened by H.M. Queen Victoria on 29th August 1850 and, naturally, she arrived by train to perform the ceremony. I am always fascinated by how inextricably steam railways and the associated engineering are so inextricably linked to the admittedly lengthy reign of that durable monarch. I often wonder how history will look back on the reign of our current monarch, who has reigned even longer. I do not mean in terms of Her Majesty herself but in terms of what is associated with this period of British history which has covered my entire life.
Paul had texted me with his ETA and I still had a bit of time to kill, notwithstanding the delay, so I thought I might chance a pint and I didn’t have far to go as I spied the Victoria Comet right opposite the station. On the principle that I had not been in it before I thought I would give it a try and I was in for a treat. Having secured my pint and a seat, I took myself for a bit of look round and was utterly delighted to find the display you can just about see in the image. Sorry about the reflections, it was the best I could do. You can just make out that it refers to the 1971 film “Get Carter” which is a great favourite of mine.
Starring Michael Caine, Britt Eckland and Ian Hendry and directed by Mike Hodges, the film tells the story of gangster Jack Carter (Caine) who returns to Newcastle to avenge the suspicious death of his brother. In the opening sequence of the film Carter travels to Newcastle by train and this really dates the film, not to mention commenting on how the railways have changed. On the train he dines in a proper dining car complete with white-jacketed waiters and proper food whilst in the carriage there is a man smoking! Have a look.
Right at the end of this clip you can see him heading across the road, as I had done, and you can just see the outside of the Comet where the film then cuts to an inside scene. In this clip, narrated by Si King, who is himself a bit of a cooking hero of mine and a Geordie, there is a brief glimpse of the interior and it really has not changed much. I remember reading somewhere that when they were filming things got a bit lively as all the extras were drinking proper drink, presumably paid for by the film crew, and getting more than a little merry.
Get Carter is a great film and I do urge you to see it if you have not done so already. Apart from anything else, it shows the dramatic changes in the city in the last 50 or so years. It even features that damned High Level Bridge which looks as terrifyingly high in 1970, when filming took place, as it does today.
I thought I’d get quick bite to eat and the grub in the Comet looked great but all a bit hearty. I wasn’t terribly hungry after my excellent breakfast but I thought it made sense to grab a little something. I really didn’t fancy eating on the train as the food isn’t much to speak of and is priced in accordance with the tickets i.e. to put maximum profit in the pockets of the shareholders. Nothing else for it then but to head back to the Mile Castle for my favourite small Hawaiian pizza which is what I did.
Paul had arranged to meet me in the Centurion Bar in the station which made sense as it meant he would not have to lug my guitar far and I theoretically shouldn’t miss my train.
I have mentioned that I generally don’t like station bars but when I walked into this one my jaw dropped as it is the most magnificent room. A 2015 article in the Telegraph newspaper mentioned above describes it as, “one of Britain’s finest bars”. I didn’t want to annoy people by using flash but I hope the image of the bar below gives you some idea.
Stunning as it is, the bar has not always looked like this and it has a quite chequered history. It was originally a waiting room under Dobson’s plans but in 1892 it was completely done up to provide a First Class Waiting Room and Bar. Not least in this makeover was the exquisite tiling which alone is now valued at £3.5 million and is said to be the best example of Bumantofts tiles outside a museum. No doubt a ceramicist could tell you what these are although I had no idea at the time but you can have a look at the link here. What I can tell you is that they are bloody impressive and there is currently a single tile on eBay for £29:50 which makes sense of the £3.5 million.
What beggars belief is the act of vandalism that took place in the 1960’s when these magnificent tiles were concreted over and the room was used as cells for the British Transport Police. It really is astonishing that anyone saw fit to do this. The tiles were thus hidden until they were “re-discovered” during building work in 2000 and someone had the very good idea to restore the Centurion to it’s former glory and use. I am so glad they did.
I also found out whilst researching this that there is a “secret” bar here and indeed it is. It is so secret that I had no idea of it’s existence even whilst sitting in the main bar and I still don’t know where it is!
Bidding Paul a sad adieu and with very heartfelt thanks I ambled over to my platform and settled myself down for the journey home. The train left bang on time but, being British railways, that punctuality was never going to last. Somewhere during the journey the guard, or whatever stupid name they have given them now, came on the PA system. From what I could make out of the tinny squawk he told us the train wasn’t working properly. The result was that were were going to be late arriving which we were, about 35 minutes if memory serves. Brilliant. Two journeys and two delays that day, just my luck, or was it? According to their latest figures, only 43.4% of LNER trains over the network arrived at stations on time so I am not just making this up.
As I said, I had built in a bit of time to possibly have a drink in my local on the way home, which I did, but none of my mates were about and so I limited myself to the one and headed home to sleep in my own bed, which was becoming something of a rarity recently.
Time now for my usual round-up of the trip which I had thoroughly enjoyed for so many reasons. You’ll be glad to know that I won’t go on too much but one thought has struck me, especially whilst writing the last few entries.
I know I am always writing about how interesting everything was and how friendly people were and how tasty the food was and so on. I am becoming slightly concerned that I sound either like an advertising agency for various entities or else I am naive to the point of having a childlike wonder at everything I see and do. I can assure you that I do not receive a penny for any of my comments here, they are all genuine reflections of what I experienced.
As for my possible naivety, I do enjoy travelling immensely and my natural curiosity leads me to seek things out and then research them to within an inch of their lives when I write them up. If that is an unsophisticated approach to both exploration and writing then so be it as I am unlikely to change at my time of life.
Northumberland was a great trip and I really want to get back there soon. Paul, I know you read this so don’t forget me if you need a dep again!
In the next entry I am “confined to barracks” a bit for various reasons and have to find some diversions closer to home so stay tuned and spread the word.