LS Lowry painted coal-coloured canvases of working-class towns in the industrial North West. But where did he go when he wanted to get away from all that? Berwick-upon-Tweed.
From the mid-Thirties to the summer before his death in 1976, Lowry inhaled the North Sea air while sketching and painting the historic Borders seaside town. It’s impossible to tell if there was much decent weather during this near four-decade period, so dedicated was the matchstick master to grit and grey. Presumably not one to go home boasting to the neighbours about his sun tan, his painting of Berwick’s market place immortalised the spire of the 1750 Town Hall as a dark monolith under a smoking sky.
When the painting, Market Place, was sold in 2009 at Christie’s for £450,000, the owners – somewhat ironically being Cambridgeshire County Council – pocketed the gravy and announced their intentions to fund cultural activities… in Cambridgeshire.
Yet Berwick continues to profit from Lowry. Daytrippers come to see what he saw, and to find out where art ends and modern urban reality begins.
It’s easy to see how the majestic sweep of Robert Stephenson’s railway bridge, glimpsed as one approaches Berwick across the Tweed, would have appealed to Lowry’s industrial eye. But those first impressions melt away as one walks down Castlegate. Take in B&M Bargains, behold the Shoe Zone. As befits the Most Northern Town in England, there’s a damp whiff of the forgotten. Sandwiched between England and Scotland, and having changed hands between these two no less than 13 times, it feels like no one really wants to take responsibility for Berwick’s future.
Up on the Elizabethan ramparts, built to keep invading Scots at bay, the Crawley family are comparing a reproduction of Lowry’s Market Place on display with the view in front of them. Could it be that the artist, whose work was often described as “bleak”, flattered his subject matter after all? “We feel it’s a little bit unloved,” says Mum. “It could be beautiful.” The real Berwick, that is.
Broadly damning brush strokes, yes. But they beg the question: would such a rough diamond of a town, with such a unique sense of place, a ruined castle, historic defensive walls and Britain’s earliest barrack buildings remain quite so unpolished, so unvisited, if it was closer to the weighing scales of London?
“More people would come if they knew it existed,” says Simon Heald, owner of the Slightly Foxed book shop. “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.”
Slightly Foxed is at the heart of the town’s revival down on Bridge Street, where Farrow & Ball sellers and art galleries jostle for space with cafés, Fair Trade supermarkets and Scandi interiors shops.
There is a concerted local effort to semaphore to the outside world exactly what Berwick has to offer. The film festival (September) and literary festival (October) have extended the summer season and provide good reasons to get off the train between Newcastle and Edinburgh.
Across the street, William Hamilton, a painter, is enjoying a lunchtime pint at The Curfew. “I’ve worked all around Britain and you always have that nagging feeling that there’s something better around the corner. What’s around the corner is Berwick. The company is great and the buildings are great. I will never move from here.”
Which just shows that if you stay long enough in Berwick, the sun starts to come out.
Seven good reasons to go to Berwick-upon-Tweed
The stately home
Paxton House is a 18th-century Palladian stately home a 10-minute drive from Berwick, with original interiors, Chippendale furniture and a tea room.
Spittal Beach across the river in Tweedmouth might not strictly pass as Berwick to the locals, but affords wonderful views of the town, sand and also surf.
The Three Barrels is a Berwick legend but word of mouth brings locals and holidayers alike to The Curfew, a micropub selling local ales. Have a pint of Bear Claw brewed in the town’s “nano brewery”.
Berwick Barracks, built in the early 18th century and designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, were among the first in England to be purpose-built. The museum hosts an exhibition entitled By Beat of Drum which shows the life of the British infantryman. It also houses the The King’s Own Scottish Borderers regimental museum and the Berwick Museum and Art Gallery.
Stop any local and ask them where to go for lunch and they will point you in the direction of Gasparro’s. Tasty Italian dishes made with local produce.
Danish born Heidi Green sells Scandi style home wares and jewellery in her shop Marehalm. Named for the grass that grows on the coast in Northumberland and her homeland, she says: “It grows where nothing else can thrive. When we started this we didn’t know how it would go!”
The Lowry trail is an easy six-mile walk around Berwick with 18 stopping points. Information boards display a Lowry painting of the location, giving some information about the Lowry piece and how he painted it.