My favourite story about Berwick-upon-Tweed revolves around the fact that some people believe the town has been at war with Russia for more than 150 years. So I was alarmed, but not totally surprised, when I heard that an attempt had been made to blow up the train station this week: the opening salvo of any invasion is to knock out the key transport links.
Berwick was founded in the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Northumbria and was annexed by England in the 10th Century. By the early 11th Century the town had become part of Scotland, only to be ceded back to England after a disastrous attempt by William I (of Scotland) to invade northern England in 1174. The town was later sold back to William by Richard I in order to raise funds for his crusade. So a pattern emerged – whereby Berwick changed nationality, either by force or by negotiation, every few decades for around 400 years.
On 17th November, 1292, Edward I (of England) sat in the Great Hall of Berwick Castle, which was located pretty much exactly where Platform 2 of the train station is now, and adjudged that John Balliol should be crowned King of Scotland ahead of Robert the Bruce. A few years later Edward II fortified the town and rebuilt the castle walls, parts of which can still be seen around the railway station. In 1314 he mustered 25,000 men from Berwick (the town now has only 12,000 residents) to join the English army which was defeated by the Scots at Bannockburn.
Having changed nationality so many times, Berwick was frequently accorded a unique status in legal documentation and when war was announced against Russia in 1853, Queen Victoria is supposed to have signed a declaration which referred to “England, Scotland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions”. When the Crimean War was ended by the Treaty of Paris, the document omitted any mention of Berwick-upon-Tweed, leading some to suppose that hostilities between the town and Russia continued.
In the absence of a formal proclamation, the Mayor of Berwick apparently met with a Russian journalist in 1966 in an effort to declare peace. “Please tell the Russian people,” the Mayor was reported to have said in Pravda, “that they can sleep peacefully in their beds.”
Which is nice for the Russians – but not so great for the residents of Berwick who were woken just before 4.00am on Wednesday by an almighty explosion which blew out all of the windows in the train station building. Having been closed for a day, the station is now operational again and southern racegoers attending the ‘Go North’ Saturday fixture at Kelso on 21st March will be able to alight there as normal.
Apparently police haven’t ruled out a Russian invasion, but they are particularly keen to find a gang of robbers who made off with a wad of notes from the cash machine in the ticket office which appears to have been at the centre of the explosion. It wasn’t me, but if it had been, I’d be putting all the notes on Rouge Vif (a graduate of the Premier hurdle at Kelso) in the Arkle Novices Chase at Cheltenham on Tuesday.