If you read the very first post on this blog, back in 2007, you might be wondering what I was doing in Chathill in the first place. Back then I was just going to visit all the stations on Merseyrail's Northern and Wirral lines. Just those, no others. Slowly it expanded. I added the City Lines. Then I added the grey lines on the Merseyrail map. Now I'm visiting every station on the Northern Rail map. The blog's tentacles have reached all over the country.
It's addictive, station collecting. It starts to become an obsession. I just booked a holiday for next Spring, and I found myself looking at a map of the local public transport, wondering what stations I could visit. Someone I follow on Twitter went to an interesting place in Suffolk; I looked up where it was, and if there was a station nearby.
What I'm saying is that the Northern Rail map is sometimes a straightjacket, stopping me from exploring further. A case in point came on the last day of my trip to Newcastle. Northern's purple stops at Chathill, and after that the line turns grey, hinting that beyond is Scotland and, quite possibly, dragons.
Between Chathill and the Scottish border, however, there's one more station, the last, most northerly station in England: Berwick Upon Tweed.
The minute I realised it was there I knew I had to visit it. No matter that it wasn't within the bounds of the blog - I had to go there. Instead of getting a nice lie in on my last morning in the Royal Station Hotel, I packed up my stuff and headed for the 6:30 train to Edinburgh.
The train loitered at Berwick and so did I. It was smaller than I thought it would be - just a single island platform - but it was pleasingly furnished and clean. It helps that you've just swept over the Royal Border Bridge, an epic viaduct across the Tweed that gives you a magnificent view of the town and its environs. After that you have to be in a good mood.
I crossed up and over the footbridge and down into the ticket hall. It's been refurbished too, with some original features, but a CafeXpress has been inelegantly inserted into it. The corporate colours clashed with the subtle Victoriana.
There's some impressive ironwork outside, and the building's built in imposing red brick, so it's still a decent presence. It's bigger than it needs to be, but that was the Victorians for you - railway stations were just a massive game of "who's got the biggest penis?" to them.
I walked into town. Berwick is built on a bend in the river Tweed, and for most of its history England and Scotland exchanged barbed words over who owned it. The town was passed back and forth like a valuable heirloom among grabby descendants; successive armies marched in, kicked the previous one out, and hung around until it was their turn to get ejected.
The town walls date from Elizabeth I's time; with Mary, Queen of Scots getting all uppity over the border she thought it might be wise to bolster the town's defences. Now they're a tourist attraction. Grassed mounds that give you a great view over the town centre, with the occasional gun emplacement to remind you that these walls were proper defensive measures.
Like most towns that have retained their walls, Berwick Upon Tweed feels ancient. It's a morass of narrow back streets and higgledy-piggledy houses leaning in on one another. From the central street, with its impressive Town Hall, back roads fall down towards the river.
The problem was it felt tired. Physically, it was like a slightly larger Morpeth, which I'd visited the previous day, but here it was a bit more run down. There were empty shops on the high street and the paintwork on a lot of them needed work. It was undoubtedly charming, and I'll take a couple of vacant units over a MegaMall that sucked up all the life in the town, but there seemed to be a sadness in the streets.
I headed down to the wide River Tweed. There are three crossings here: the railway goes over the Royal Border Bridge, there's a concrete bridge from the 1920s (the Royal Tweed Bridge) and the Old Bridge, which dates from the time of James I. In the morning light all three seemed to glisten, impossibly glamorous and exciting.
The Quayside was straight out of Poldark, or rather, its Northern cousin: cobbles, tiny boats, dark alleyways leading to secluded courts. I followed it round to the base of the Old Bridge, then turned back into town. The road was steep and unfriendly; strange to think this was once the Great North Road from London to Scotland.
It was still early. The streets were still quiet and the shops were still closed. I followed the edge of the walls past a tiny shuttered ice cream parlour; on closer inspection, I read a plaque on the side that informed me it was built as Berwick's first public toilet for ladies. I immediately ruled out ever buying a 99 from them. I don't care how long it's been closed and how nothing inside it is original, that's still a place where people used to go to pee and so I couldn't eat a King Cone without suspecting it would be riddled with germs. At least there was a better view of Stephenson's railway viaduct from the end of the road.
I headed back to the station, being sure to keep Berwick's own Weeping Angel in sight at all times. Moffat was really clever to spot how freaking terrifying some of these war memorials are. This one looked like it could quite easily snap your neck without a moment's doubt.
I needed to get back to the station so I could get a bus. You heard. I thought there was no point in coming all this way to Berwick Upon Tweed and not getting even a glimpse of the Scottish border. I'd thought about walking, having assumed that the town was right on top of the red line, but it turns out that the border's actually a few miles north. A bit of online research revealed I could get a bus to Foulden, a village just over the line, cross over it, then get another one back. I paid my £4.30 - once again being thankful that bus fares on Merseyside are subsidised; you could almost get a SaveAway for that - and I was carried swiftly through small lanes to Foulden.
I didn't spot the point when I crossed over into Scotland. I stepped off the bus into a small country village that didn't look any different to the ones I'd been exploring in Northumberland the last couple of days. A bit quieter, yes, but it was nine am on a Saturday; people were having a lie in.
There was a brown Historic Scotland sign pointing at the Foulden Tithe Barn, so I went and had a look at that. It turned out to be an old barn. A very old barn, yes, but even the plaque on the side admitted it had been substantially altered in the 17th and 18th centuries, so it was hard to get excited about it.
More promising was the church behind it. Sorry, this is Scotland; the kirk behind it. I let myself into the graveyard, casting a casual eye about for anyone famous and/or my own name, and walked up to the church.
God has put a test of human willpower right outside the church. The bell on the top is rung by pulling a long metal cable, and that cable is just hanging there, on the exterior wall. It required every iota of strength and self control I possessed not to grab hold of the metal ring and make the bell clang over and over. I should definitely get a place in heaven for that.
I pressed against the vestry door and found, to my delight, that it was unlocked. I was able to simply wander into the kirk. How wonderful it must be to live in a place where you can trust the locals, where a community building like this is simply left open for visitors and worshippers, without fear of it being vandalised or robbed.
Inside was a simple, Protestant space, unadorned, uncomplicated. I'm not a believer but I still appreciated the quiet dignity of the building, and how special it must be to come here to gather your thoughts. I signed the visitor's book and left quietly, double checking to make sure I'd pulled the door tight behind me.
I left the village the way I'd come, but this time I carried on walking until I reached a small wooden bus shelter. Presumably, after independence, this'll be where the shock troops will be posted to man the border towers, but for now it was just an isolated spot that happened to be quite close to an administrative line.
That's my rucksack dumped by the post box, by the way. Who the hell was going to steal it?
I trekked a few yards up the road so I could pull this face.
And then I went a couple of yards further so I could pull this face.
Then I went back to Scotland to wait for my bus and wonder why exactly I thought those facial expressions were a good idea.
Don't leave us, Scotland. I know it's not really any of my business but, you know, I'm called Scott, so I feel like I have a little bit of a right to an opinion. I like you. You've got lovely people and lovely towns and the Glasgow subway. (We won't mention Lulu). You make Britain more interesting by being in it. I know the Coalition government are bastards, and you didn't vote for them, but I live on Merseyside; we never vote for the Tories, and yet they keep getting in. It doesn't mean that there should be a People's Republic of Liverpool. If you leave we'll be condemned to Tory governments in England until the end of time.
Anyway, I refuse to believe Alex Salmond would be any better. He's a particularly oily politician, with off-the-scale levels of ego; I strongly suspect that after independence he'll declare himself Emperor of Caledonia and demand a castle be constructed on Arthur's Seat. Think of that face on your bank notes. Then shudder.
The whole independence debate makes me sad, mainly because people are so furious about it (on both sides) - you can't be a bit wishy washy or open to debate; either you want the United Kingdom to be destroyed in a ball of flame or you want all Scottish people to be enslaved and dragged to London by their throat - there's no position in between. And as an English person it's hard not to feel unloved - are we really that bad? Have we really been that cruel? I feel like a husband who's just been told his wife has never loved him, and can't work out why.
The only plus side to Scottish independence is Sean Connery's promise to come back to live there if there's a "yes" vote. I want to hear what excuse he comes up with for not selling his luxury home in the Bahamas, because let's be honest, there's no way he's ever leaving that. Not least because he'll have to start paying taxes.
I went back to the grass verge by the bus stop and sat down (the actual shelter seemed to be a place for swifts to hang out; they kept divebombing the entrance so I was nervous about being in there and ending up as a low budget Tippi Hedren). I don't want this to one day be a spot where I have to wave a passport, or where one bus service will end so I can take another one. I like our silly, odd, mixed up, family. I'd like it to stay that way.
congratulations on your 500th post. I've been reading your blog pretty much since it started and always enjoy your writing. Never commented before but it's certainly not been a waste of time for me. Actually, you're doing this so I don't have to, so keep up the good work and I'll keep living my train station fantasies vicariously through you. If that's ok.
I will echo Anonymous' congratulations and also note that I have never commented before either. I did think of coming to Liverpool for your collecting of the loop but it was my birthday and people wanted me at home that day.
I started reading because your blog came up near the top during a google search for Flemming's Thrilling Cities. Your choice of music on your iPod back in them days got me hooked and I have been a dedicated reader ever since.
Love your work and keep it up.
Oh, you two. Thank you.
*giggles behind hand fan, geisha-like*
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