Walking through a town filled with boarded shops, clouded glass and closing down signs is never going to make a place appealing.
It seems like a loud and clear message that you’re in a ‘has-been place’ or a ‘dying town’.
Yet maybe we’re reading the message wrong?
Berwick-upon-Tweed, like many towns, hosts a number of empty shops. Roughly 23% of the high street retail premises were empty as I wandered around recently.
It has fallen victim to retail parks luring businesses to the outskirts, shrinking national chains, and empty shops too large and rent too high for smaller shops to maintain.
Yet maybe it’s better to call Berwick a survivor of all of this?
Its busy side-streets happily prove this destructive narrative wrong.
If you can’t feel the buzz on West Street from the beautifully kept storefronts, just chat to the owners. Shopkeeper Abbi Kewin runs Puddles, an independent lifestyle shop. This is her first time ever owning a shop and she moved specifically to Berwick to do so. It all started while visiting Berwick, where she fell in love with the town and the cobbled look of West Street.
In the back of her beautifully curated shop there is even a small workshop room for artists. A sign of the town keeping up with the times. She chats excitedly about all the stores on West Street, it’s a testimony to the West Street community where everyone’s success is celebrated.
This is not the only street thriving, with Bridge Street remaining as busy in the evening as it is in the day. Berwick has an incredible arts scene too, including an upcoming literary festival in October and the imminent upgrade of the Maltings Theatre.
Berwick is not dying. In fact, it’s going through an exciting change.
Even so, the high street doesn’t mirror this.
Our shopping habits have changed and what we need from our town centres has shifted.
Town Council member Graham Brown, a former social housing director, chairs the Town Centre Working group. Despite how it may feel, he says: "There’s a creeping regeneration that may not yet be visible."
A year and a half ago, Graham emailed 15 landlords of empty shops on Berwick high street. Inspired by colourful decals in Newcastle he hoped to fill Berwick’s blank shop windows with vibrant images.
He and the Town Centre group were given a small grant from the council and were enthusiastic that for such a simple project it could make a big difference.
Graham says: "You have to work with what you have and some of these shops may stay empty long term." He hopes that bettering the appearance will increase people visiting the town centre. If the town is more inviting, businesses are more likely to occupy the shops creating more employment opportunities: "Improve the look, and economic regeneration will follow."
A year and a half later, only four out of 15 landlords have replied. It’s disappointing. A project that costs the landlords no money or time. Which benefits them too.
Yet, like everyone else I spoke to, Graham still seems optimistic. He feels after the newest decal, more will follow.
He also knows that this project alone cannot fix everything. The Town Centre group would love to put more trees on the high street, rearrange benches and start more complex projects like improving the roads. His ideal high street? A hotel occupying one of the larger spaces, other shops split in two for smaller businesses, a few bars, restaurants and affordable housing above the shops.
There are also plenty of existing shops to celebrate on the high street.
The independent shop Serendipity has just reached 10 years on the street, with a recent location move to another high street spot. A group of artisans formed the Serendipity cooperative in order to sell their work all in one shop. They are extremely proud of their 10-year success in a unit that would otherwise be too big, if they didn’t share and take it in turns to run.
Every single shopkeeper I spoke to, wanted to cheer-on their shop-keeping peers. Whether it was ‘How lovely that row of shops by the Seagull’s Nest now looks’ or the delight they all expressed about the opening of Derrants, a new homeware store.
Above Serendipity is an Airbnb, a sign of the ‘less visible regeneration’, starting above many of the Berwick shops. While it would be lovely to see some social housing, it feels like a step forward: repurposing redundant stockroom spaces that, in some cases, have stood empty for 50 years.
Change is always scary. Especially when a change can on the surface feel so negative. Yet, it’s time we drowned out the voices telling us our towns are declining and ‘not what they used to be’. The communities are very much alive and their accomplishments are vast. They’re not dying but evolving.
Header Image: Graham Brown outside a building he's keen to improve with a window decal.