As we approached Berwick on the A1167, I felt the pit of Alnwick in my stomach when I saw the ‘To Let’ sign on the tinned up Queens Head, courtesy of Punch Taverns. Alighting the bus, my doubts appeared a bit premature, yet Berwick was still perplexing me as the busy Golden Square was neither Golden, nor remotely rectangular? In fact it’s just a normal road where the bus stops on the North side of the Tweed, bearing no resemblance to a square at all?
Walking down Marygate, commerce and trade were thriving on a sunny Thursday in Berwick. It’s nice to see a bit of buzz and bustle in a town, but disappointing not to see any Cops, and a well drilled team of Roma pick pockets roaming at leisure. I’d have called the police, but I know the austerity cuts and a large rural area means no one would have responded until I got back to Leeds in two days time. So we went for a walk around the walls surrounding the entire old town. It’s a bit like a cooler, more verdant version of Malta, as if De Valette and his builders had practised building massive walls, forts and redoubts on the very edge of Scotland before really going for it big time in the Southern Mediterranean.
As a kid I would have been thrilled, fascinated and knackered, because you can really get hands on, clambering up and down, just watch out for the frequent, unguarded steep drops. There’s plenty of other fine architecture; domestic and military with an interesting Scottish influence in everything. The natural barrier that is the mighty Tweed, it’s bridges and the town’s history of internecine conflict between folk essentially living on the same piece of island is equally fascinating.
There’s lots of pubs, even a couple of night clubs to go at, but on a single day visit I restricted myself to the Good Beer Guide (2017) listed establishments. And there’s three of them!
Before we reached The Pilot, we were in need of victuals on which to base an afternoon’s drinking. Berwick has plenty of eating establishments, we plumped for the Rite Bite Baguette shop and sat at their tables on the Castlegate pavement. I’ve never had one, or even heard of them before, but a Stovie pie is something to behold!
The Greenses is a specific neighbourhood, without the town walls, inhabited by the fishermen of yesteryear, which still retains a strong identity and community. Presumably named because there is a High Green and Low Green, The Pilot is situated on the latter in the midst of an unpretentious, well kept, pleasant, and very very tidy, residential area. Why is everywhere in North Northumbria so tidy and well kept? Why can’t other places be like this?
Approaching the pub, I felt a second twinge of Alnwick deja vu. Totally unnecessary though, the door to the two room pub was wide open. Like the houses and the street outside, the pub was spotless. The welcome from the lassie behind the bar and the six locals was warm and friendly. Four of them sat at the bar chatting, the other two sat at tables reading, but only one drank real ale. There were three hand pumps to choose from; the underrated Deuchars IPA, Kelburn Black Moor (a dark mild) and rapidly becoming a bit of a rarity these days, John Smiths Bitter in cask.
Just to prove the John’s was popular, an old gadgie walks in and orders a pint, simultaneously prompting timeless pub exchanges such as;
“How far you been this morning?”
“Not far, the dogs knackered”.
“Won’t see you tomorrow, I’ve a funeral on”
“Who’s funeral is it?”
“Expect it’ll be them’s that’s in the box!”
I wandered round inspecting, like a secret shopper. The pub was immaculately kept and satisfyingly original. Nautical artefacts and images were prominent, they would be in an old fishing community though. The ‘best’ room boasted an organ which the barmaid told me was played daily by a teenage lad staying on the nearby caravan park who was practising for his piano exams; it really is that sort of place and it’s brilliant. As well as this daily rendition, they have Folky stuff on Thursdays and bands play at weekends.
My two halves of beer were of good quality, approaching 3.5 on NBSS and at £3 for the two, represented excellent value. This isn’t the sort of pub you’d visit for the beer alone, there’s far more to it. I couldn’t put my finger on one thing, more a combination of community, people, place and something you don’t get in a lot of pubs anymore; a time and a place that’s all too often been lost.
Old George rose from his stool at the corner of the bar, and bade everyone good bye, regardless whether he had met you before, or would ever see you again. As the door closed behind him the conversation turned to his welfare; that’s why you should always be the last one out of the pub. Apparently he’s been wandering up and down the main road again; there were eight cars queued up behind him on Castlegate,Tuesday morning!
As I walked back into the town centre I peered through the windows of The Free Trade Inn on Castlegate. It looked very original, as though time had long passed it by. A bystander informed me they only opened at weekends these days. I got told later, it wasn’t the same place since the landlord met his tragic demise in front of a lorry. But, once upon a time …