As they walked up from the south to meet the river Tweed the travellers must have had some sense that they were approaching a landscape feature of real importance. Rivers were key geographical markers in early modern times, much more so than they usually are today. John Speed’s county maps, or those in Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, show rivers rather than roads; indeed, rivers are the personified speakers of Drayton’s lengthy chorographical poem. The Tweed, like the Trent and the Severn, was invested with the special significance of a boundary marker – as the Trent divided the English south from its north, and the Severn divided England from Wales, so the Tweed divided England from Scotland.
Only it didn’t, of course – or at least, not here. At the mouth of the Tweed the neatly fortified town of Berwick, a thriving port and important settlement, occupied the northern bank. It was something of an anomaly: an English town on Scotland’s side of the river, a Scottish royal burgh and county town with no county to call its own. It had long been a site of contention, fought over, besieged, sacked and rebuilt, and had been in Scottish hands as recently as the 1480s. By the time it was recaptured by English forces under Richard Duke of York – later Richard III – in 1482, it had passed between English and Scottish control more than a dozen times.
Thereafter, Berwick became a vitally important border outpost for the English crown, and vast sums were spent on its fortifications. Overseeing the garrison there was a crucial role, entrusted only to important men with good court connections. But with the demise of the Tudors in 1603, and the emergence of a new, British monarchy in the person of James VI and I, the town’s role changed again. Although the kingdoms of Scotland and England remained distinct, the prospect of conflict receded, and the need for an expensive garrison at Berwick seemed much less obvious than it had been. The town was transferred from military to civic command in 1604; by 1616, the garrison consisted only of ‘
two companies and some old pensioners,’ as a survey of crown lands put it.
And Berwick was now no longer an outpost, but an important stopping place on the main arterial route conjoining the king’s two British capitals. At the outset of James’s reign it relied on a somewhat rickety timber bridge – visible on the John Speed map above, and the route into the town taken by Jonson and his companion – which was clearly not a satisfactory state of affairs. So plans for a new, stone bridge, 50 or so yards downstream from the wooden crossing, were set in train. Construction began in 1611, and despite the best efforts of Sir William Bowyer, Jonson’s host in 1618, the project was hit by the usual twin curses of slow progress and ballooning costs. When he visited in 1620, Richard Neile, Bishop of Durham, recorded that ‘
the expenses of his Majesty’s monies rise apace, but the bridge riseth slowly‘. Nevertheless, it was substantially complete by 1624, and still stands today – 1164 feet long, 17 feet wide, and consisting of fifteen elegant arches.
Berwick is one of those places where different stages in the history of human commerce are simultaneously visible, like layers in rock. The timber bridge is long gone, of course, but the Jacobean road bridge has been joined by the grandeur of a Victorian railway viaduct, a fine mid-twentieth century road bridge, and – upstream – the functional crossing which now sweeps the plentiful traffic on the modern A1 past the town.
Berwick is still a border town. A sociolinguistic study at the turn of the century found that people from southern Scotland identified the Berwick accent as English, Northumbrian or Geordie, while people from Northumberland identified it as Scottish. In the summer of 1998, the last time that England and Scotland both reached the World Cup finals, I spent a great afternoon in a lively Berwick pub – the front room was singing Scotland songs, and the back room chanting for England. The local football team, meanwhile, play in the Scottish league, and the era of devolution has on occasion led to speculation about where Berwick’s political future lies. Rivers and bridges are such fecund sites in the topographical imaginary because they can be seen both as dividing and connecting, marking boundaries and enacting their crossing. To this extent, its history has made Berwick itself both a river and a bridge.