Welcome to Scotland. Almost.
Alarm clocks and I no longer go well together. I set two to go off at 04h15 on Saturday morning so that I could catch a train at half-five. I set my clock-radio correctly, but I hadn’t properly turned the alarm function on, and my pile-of-cack Nokia phone (on pile-of-cack network ‘Three’) had a miniature nervous breakdown during the night and turned itself off. For reasons still unknown to me I woke with a start forty-five minutes before my train was due to leave, and hurled myself down the hill to the station while still buttoning my shirt and pulling up my flies. Luckily there was no-one around in Sheffield at that time of morning to see me stumbling half-dressed through the streets.
The passengers on the 05h29 Sheffield to Beverley were the sleepy remnants of the day before and the sleepy beginnings of the day to come. Boisterous clubbers collapsed onto the uncomfortable Sprinter seats and after ten minutes of complaints about the temperature, fell into deep sleep. At Doncaster I changed platforms and boarded the first Glasgow-bound train of the day. A once handsome HST125 formed the train, carrying a few more passengers than the last train in some additional comfort. It powered north, picking up speed as the first hints of sunlight turned the night sky progressively blue, purple, orange and blue again. An invigorating sunrise coated the rooftops of York and Durham (above).
The open arms of the Angel (above) welcomed us to Gateshead not long afterwards. This country appears to have compressed in size since I was last in Newcastle, although I spent a good three hours traveling that morning.
Rail passengers have an impressive treat when they arrive in Newcastle from the south; even more so first thing in the morning. The sweeping curve of the railway line brought us across the Tyne and presented a cacophony of different bridges downstream from us. The little table lamps of the first class coaches glinted at the far end of the train as we swung under the impressive arched roof of Central Station. In the interim between ‘GNER’ and ‘NXEC’, the train’s exterior had an odd combination of purple bodies, red doors and a thin white strip. That white strip having been applied overnight to conceal the logo of a defunct (and virtually bankrupt) train company.
We were welcomed to Scotland long before we got there, with this old defensive position handily redeployed to promote Scotland’s largest political party. It was earlier that week that SNP member of the Scottish Parliament Christine Grahame lodged a motion in Holyrood that proposed moving the eastern end of the Anglo-Scottish border “back” to its sometimes-historical position along the River Tweed. This would “return” the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed to Scotland, a country it has been part of on and off half a dozen times in the last millennium.
When I arrived at Berwick station, I found the town was still in England, although only just. Grahame’s motion has responded to a television programme about Berwick’s questionable position at the northern tip of England.
Being so far – more than 550km – from London, it seems that a majority of Berwicker’s would prefer to be governed from Edinburgh. Relocating the border would deliver free undergraduate university education, free home care for the elderly and free prescription medicine from 2011.
Berwick-upon-Tweed has some impressive medieval and Elizabethan ramparts: tall, broad barriers of stone and earth are now topped with luscious grass and punctuated by aggressively designed bastions. The town sits on the northern banks of the River Tweed, where it flows into the North Sea. The ramparts would have provided the greatest protection to invaders from the north; by comparison Berwick presents a soft and vulnerable underbelly to the south.
Perhaps this will change if Berwick-upon-Tweed switches sides and becomes Scottish once more. A new generation of earthworks and bastions might have to be constructed along the Tweed’s derelict waterfront to keep out the hoards of English students and pensioners who will form a simultaneously youthful-and-aged pincer movement on Scotland’s generous (and, as some will point out, Anglo-subsidised) social system.
Perhaps the government is ahead of ITV and Christine Grahame on this issue. A new-looking sign announces the northern-most outpost of the Home Office in an old warehouse on the Berwick waterfront. Where do I sign for a Scottish passport?