I felt a huge sense of privilege setting foot in Northumberland as I became acutely aware of the strategic history of the county. In particular our visits to Berwick upon Tweed served me well in my quest to understand what makes a nation great. In 2014 Scotland went through a referendum to decide whether independence from the UK was the way forward. The result was a no but a marginal one at that. Standing on the edge of the town surrounded by ancient walls you can feel a sense of passion. A passion to protect what they know and love.
However, for me the best manifestation of the debate are the two churches (of Scotland & England) standing side by side. I tried to ignore the fact that the English one was open and the Scottish one was closed but focused on the buildings themselves. In building churches people are aspirational and celebratory and I have always wished that those feelings could be bottled so that we might take a small sip whenever we need to. Berwick upon Tweed is a stunning example of human pride and determination but it is also a place of great sadness. From the walls from which to fire destructive canons to the site of the gallows death is all around you as you walk the cobbled streets in search of what makes the town unique. There is no doubt that the town is built on its history and its border position that resulted in 13 changes of country status. It is beyond changing position that we see a glimmer of humanitarian survival that knows no boundaries.
If I totally honest I do not feel a sense of border or country as I see them as largely destructive. We fiercely protect what we know and ignore what we don’t understand. We have an acute sense of citizenship and belonging and these feelings drive us to a way of life that has stood the test of time. Thus this walls in Berwick upon Tweed still have a place in modern life but one can’t help feeling that they stand for what is wrong rather than what is right with the world.
Once I had allowed the sense of struggle to settle I explored the surrounding area with renewed enthusiasm as the expansive beaches, beautiful hills and pretty villages went on and on and on. Perhaps my favourite day included a very long walk on an even longer beach where it was incredibly easy to get lost in time and space. While the boys ran up and down sand dunes I strode out and surprised myself in just how far I could walk. This trip has been defined by walking and it did not fail to deliver. There was one hillside which was really beyond me as I watched the boys climb it with ease. I sat on a bench half way up and reflected on what the second bit of the climb to the top meant. To them it meant a chance to pitch their strength against a particularly steep and long climb. To me it represented a distance too far and a climb too great. After 12 years of a particularly challenging illness my mind remains willing but my body screams at me most of the time. Then I saw it. I saw a bird take off from the cliff at the top and soar among the pockets of air taking its time to descend the steepness and off into the valley in the distance. In a second I collected my stick and began the climb. The boys had rounded the corner and could not see me and, for that, I was grateful. There was a considerable amount of grunting and some language that is best kept to myself. Within a couple of steps my shins were raging with pain and my hips felt like they were going to fail me but still I climbed. As a walk became more of a climb I did wonder about my own sanity while never doubting that I would reach the top. It was probably the slowest anyone has ever done the climb but I care not. As I reached the top I turned to see what the bird had seen and smiled inside and out. The boys appeared and their looks of horror reminded me that I can still be a very foolish person. It was not wise to attempt it on my own and I took their notes with due attention. But inside, deep inside my soul. I knew that I had achieved something that I should not have been able to do. That is my personal and lasting sense of aspiration.
On returning to Berwick upon Tweed I focused more on the modern challenges facing a town badly hit by the recent economic depression. Empty shops are beginning to be reclaimed and there is a sense of recovery of which they should be most proud. It is a town on the edge and something tells me it always will be. But it has a defined spirit and a strong sense of worth that captivated me and will ensure that I visit it again and often. Our final hours of our week long holiday were spent on the walls again where we have seen returning geese, starling murmurations and a pair of raptors that we are yet to identify. As the light began to fade we saw a kestrel in perfect hover and I couldn’t help but feel it was watching over the town despite all its historic greatness. Sometimes it is the simplest things that we remember and the hovering of a bird is what I will take away from Berwick upon Tweed. I loved every minute of my time in and around the town. If you have time and space in your life go and visit, but just remember to look skyward.