Explore Berwick-upon-Tweed – and Holy Island

Elizabethan town walls, Georgian terraces to die for – and one of the world’s most famous islands on its doorstep. We take the train north to Berwick-upon-Tweed

View over Berwick from the harbour. Photos by Stephen Emms
View from the harbour at Tweedmouth. Photos by Stephen Emms
It’s England’s most northerly town. Walled, like a Tuscan settlement. And, more surreally, it has the appearance of a sleepy Mediterranean port, its pantile roofs catching the ever-changing light.

But Berwick-upon-Tweed has a rich history, having swapped hands thirteen times between England and Scotland (the last time, admittedly, was in the 15th century). It’s far from provincial, too, being an hour each way to Newcastle and Edinburgh respectively. And if you’ve caught the train from London to the Scottish capital, you’ll have crossed the famous Stephenson railway viaduct, opened in 1850 by Queen Victoria, and larger than any built before.

Impressive: the Stephenson Bridge
Impressive: the Stephenson Bridge

It’s the plaintive beauty of an ancient town that’s so appealing and, to appreciate this, we took a slow walk along the mile-long circular Elizabethan walls, dating back to 1558.

Under grey skies we passed alleyways and gateways, cramped cottages that ooze history, and elegant sandstone Georgian houses with high chimneys and views over boats in the vast estuary, tide out. The town’s Lowry trail is a reminder of what a special place this has always been for artists and writers, with its sense of space and  grassy banks. Plus it’s oh-so-quiet; there may not be a soul about.

The Elizabethan Town Walls at low tide
The Elizabethan Town Walls at low tide

Crossing the Old Bridge, after a wander to the ruin of the old castle, we heard the shriek of swans: Berwick boasts one of the largest colonies in the country, often gliding in a line on the Tweed. The south side – where we stayed in a rambling old vicarage (see below) – is, with its working harbour, more gritty: the Kentish Town to the old town’s Hampstead, if you like.

The old bridge
Picture-postcard: the old bridge, dating back to 1611

A bit of shopping? Bridge Street and Castlegate have a selection of independent outlets including Berrydin Books, interiors boutiques like Danish Design and an antiques centre or two. Main central street Marygate is avoidable, sadly typical of many UK high streets with its boarded-up shops, but worth a peek is the imposing 18th century Town Hall.

Coffee stop? Head up to Church Street to grab a brew at the Corner House, a bohemian hangout, with its junk shop aesthetic, jumble of paintings – and roaring fire in winter.

Contemporary art, run by Berwick Visual Arts, lies within its hilly streets, too: we loved the Gymnasium, showing a Catherine Yass multi-channel video installation, next to the Hawksmoor-designed Barracks, a must if you’re fascinated by military history. Also worth a visit is the Maltings arts centre and Granary Gallery, perched right on the town walls.

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Eating & Drinking

Pan Catalan at
Pan Catalan at El Taperio

The town has dozens of options, but most are fairly basic. Foxton’s, an acclaimed local restaurant, is, for Londoners, an uncomfortable name, with its “estate agent green” signage; we weren’t impressed with a rather cold plate of antipasti and dry salmon with herb crust, either.

Better was a newish tapas bar on Bridge Street, El Taperio, packed and buzzy on a Wednesday night. A good pan Catalan, with tomatoes, ham and garlic, to start, but meatballs were disappointingly grey-dry, with an aggressively spicy sauce, and a main of seabass overcooked.

Creamy: smoked haddock at Audela
Creamy: smoked haddock at Audela

One restaurant really impressed, however. Audela (whose name is derived from the name of the last vessel to be built at Berwick Shipyard in 1979) is small, modern and friendly. The lunch menu is extraordinarily good value with most mains between £7-9: locally-caught crab linguini was note-perfect, its heat balanced with a sweet pesto, and zest of lemon; Eyemouth smoked haddock with poached egg, hollandaise, spinach and sauté was even better: rich, creamy and earthy, £7.95. Portuguese white was about a fiver a glass.

A decent boozer? Barrels Alehouse (59 Bridge St): like a cross between Steeles and the Southampton Arms, the walls are a visual scrapbook of the pub’s life, adorned with hanging swordfish and carps. Try Williams, a draft Scottish lager, or an ale from the Bear Claw brewery in Berwick.

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Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Boats in the harbour between castle and priory
Magical: dramatic skies over boats in the harbour between castle and priory

The Holy Island, dating back to 635 AD, is a must. Travelling there by public transport (the 477 bus) from Berwick is tricky as you need to match bus and tide times; so make sure you don’t get trapped by the tide, as tourists often do. But driving over is a truly spectacular ride: quite desert-like, its pools of water and grasses otherworldly.

Boatsheds and the distant castle beyond.
Boatsheds and the distant castle beyond.

The bus terminates in Marketplace. Of the handful of pubs, our tip is to eat outside at the Crown and Anchor with a view over the castle and abbey, sparrows and starlings lined up on the fence, the clink of boats beyond. Simple menus abound: fish ‘n’ chips, steak and ale pie. We devoured crab sandwiches with a pint of ale.

The harbour is a picturesque mess of lobster pots, upturned boats (transformed into sheds), netting, a view over to Bamburgh Castle. Yet it was August, and we were unlucky that somewhere so remote was overrun with visitors, cameras bouncing off pot bellies, families thundering along wooden walkways. But still: the castle, built in the 1530s and restored in the late 19th Century as a holiday residence by Edward Hudson, rewards a climb.

Ancient priory
Ancient priory

At the top, views over the island are superb, big ridges of clouds, the sound of bagpipes distant. And the walled garden, designed by Gertrude Jekyll in 1911, is incongruously colourful.

Back near the marketplace, the remains of the medieval priory are superimposed like a stage set – stone, grass, sky – and were closed as part of the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. It’s an atmospheric walk around the former “bakehouse” and “brew house” – and a potent reminder of the original non-hipster meaning of words that now pepper our vocabulary.

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VicarageThe Old Vicarage is a palatial Victorian pile ten minutes’ walk from Berwick’s old town, and a moment from the harbour. Its elegant “Downton”-style 1920s colonial living room is all black floorboards, sofas to melt into, and the chink of a drinks trolley. Spacious rooms survey the ancient churchyard. Breakfast is foodie: bread’s delivered by an artisan baker who, explained our hosts, set up a wood-fired oven in his back garden; there’s home-made carrot, orange and lemon marmalade, and eggs benedict with deeply yellow yolks, creamy hollandaise. Rooms from £85. More info here.

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Getting There

Trains are direct on the East Coast line from King’s Cross and take around three and a half hours. Expect to pay upwards of £90 return. For more info on Northumberland head here.

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  • Yogi Haughton

    Lovely “wee” toon Berwick, deffo worth a visit to check out the walled outskirts and harbour. It’s the tennis town, changed hands and juristiction more times between the English and Scottish than any other other border town I believe.