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Big Nature

By Richard Whiting

Copyright 2000 Richard Whiting

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I had known Gina since our family had moved north the previous spring. I hadn’t expected life to be too easy at a new sixth form college, and I’d been especially apprehensive about being a southerner a long way from home.

     But the very characteristics that I felt betrayed my southern-ness had made friends of Gina and myself. I waltzed unopposed into the cricket eleven on the basis that they currently had a side consisting of ten players, and Gina was a real cricket addict. Her father played club cricket for Selkirk and it turned out that she had been watching the game since she was old enough to walk. She had inherited her father’s love of the game (unusual in a Scot) and was delighted to find that our school in Berwick would once again boast a side. As I was English, from Essex and labeled myself an ‘all-rounder’, she rated me somewhere between test hopeful and, rather tenuously, probably the best cricketer Berwick Upon Tweed would see in a generation.

     Our relationship gathered pace, despite my cricketing skills not quite matching her hype. We were both aiming to train as English teachers, loved history and also to shudder uncontrollably on the terracing at Shielfield Park watching Berwick Rangers Football Club, or the Bandits speedway team.

     I couldn’t describe Gina without first saying that, like a good work of art, she somehow displays something fresh each day. Like the Northumbrian countryside, her colours vary wildly, subtly, across days, hours or fleeting moments. Her eyes are green, like emeralds in the spring, or like a sheen over the ice in winter. Her hair is deep brown, often offering a tinge of red, and cut off abruptly about her shoulders. Like the tide that rises suddenly, almost quicker than the eye can see, filling the magnificent rock-filled bay of Berwick, her temperament can at once be gushing or remote. She is offering advice, then her words often seem unable to keep pace with her heart; or she is distant, silent, and cogitative, like Lindisfarne at high tide, a beauty out of reach.

     And so it would seem, to my impartial Southern eyes, that here was a girl that could almost be said to have sprung from the soil of her native land. To Gina, such a poetic ideal would seem too neat a categorization. Her father, as I’ve already said, is a Scot staying (as they say in these parts) most of his life in Selkirk. Her mother is from Berwick Upon Tweed, where Gina’s family has lived for three years. This is a concession to Gina’s mother whose own mother has become frail and, latterly, ill. This, of course, makes Gina half Scot, half English. An interesting cocktail one might argue.


     I met Gina today, as pre-planned, on the steps of the Town Hall in Berwick. She wore, unusually for her, a solemn look that instinct taught me spelt trouble. I had seen similar looks in ex-girlfriends, moments before the ‘we’re going nowhere, Rob’, or ‘I’ve been seeing someone else,’ type of statements that had spelt foreclosure for previous relationships. But somehow this seemed different, less centered at me, more a deep and very personal hurt that I was yet to become aware, or part, of.

     ‘Oh Rob,’ began Gina, throwing herself to her feet and leaping into my arms from a step higher. ‘Hold me…please…’

     I held Gina to me and waited for her gentle sobs to subside. This was a moment for silence, for patiently waiting for her to recover her composure enough to reveal the source of her, and it seemed like this, grief.

     ‘Is it your Gran?’ I offered, trying to break a silence punctuated only by a group of squabbling herring gulls overhead.

     ‘N…no..’ stammered Gina. There was a brief silence, before she regained enough composure to meekly say,

     ‘Mum and dad.’

     ‘What’s happened, are they…’

     ‘Oh they’re fine Rob, you know nothing horrible’s happened to either of them. Well…it’s the ‘them’ actually. They’re getting divorced… They told me about an hour ago. Dad’s renting down in Spittal and Mum’s keeping the house until it’s sold. Then, Oh I don’t know, I think she’s going to rent and Dad’s away back to Selkirk. He’s been packing all morning. Rob, I don’t know what to do.’

     ‘Who are going to live with? I mean there’s college. Don’t say Selkirk Gina, please.’

     ‘They both want me to go with them. Dad says I can transfer to  an academy near him, mum says stay here, which I want to do, only I don’t want to hurt dad. His face was pure pain Rob. I think he’s fought hard to save the marriage. O.K they have rows. Everyone does, don’t they? But he looked defeated, not resigned, just totally defeated.’

     ‘Do you fancy going somewhere a little quieter?’

     ‘Perhaps, yes. I really want to eat.’

     ‘Fancy a Macs?’

     ‘Not quiet enough Rob.’


     ‘What’s that?’

     ‘When you negotiate a …’

     ‘What’s the compromise, idiot!’

     ‘Drive-thru, then somewhere quiet.’

     ‘Sounds O.K. I know somewhere we can go.’


     Gina slipped her hand in mine. Her eyes dried sufficiently to reveal a ring of red around each, as if she had bled for her pain. We walked to my car without words, but with much understanding.


     Just out of Berwick, shortly before you enter the A1, lies the drive-thru Macdonald’s restaurant. Having slipped my money to the cashier behind the hatch, she returned in short time with our meals. A quick fumble through the gears, and we were away, toward that Great North Road.

     ‘Right, here.’

     We entered the A1, North.


     ‘Not quite, no.’

     ‘Not too fast or you’ll miss the turn.’

     ‘This one?’

     ‘Yes. Just drive to the brow of the hill and pull in to your right.’

     The hill was incredibly steep. The car laboured up towards what I was sure would be a summit with some reluctant-sounding engine noises. I found the turning and pulled in.

      ‘Welcome to Halidon Hill.’

      ‘What a place!’

      ‘Scene of a battle, 1333, between the Scots and English and now a local beauty spot by day, courting spot by night!’

      The hill was a viewing point. Below the town of Berwick lay like a model with the Tweed estuary glinting in the sun. The Royal Border Bridge looked like a toy train accessory, the red roofed houses adding a neat contrast to the rolling green hills that folded and unfolded around the meandering Tweed like crumpled velvet. Away in the distance, the Farne Islands lay peacefully by, Lindisfarne even more mysterious in it’s obscurity. And looking over it all, like a friendly giant on his haunches, the mighty Cheviot, king of his range, blue tinged and magnificent.

     ‘It’s beautiful here isn’t it?’

     ‘I shouldn’t want to be up here in an easterly squall.’

     ‘Believe me, it’s magnificent, even when the weather isn’t good. I’ve watched thunderstorms arrive over the Cheviots and drop down onto Bamburgh village, pass over the Castle and away over the Farnes into the sea. All the time Halidon was bathed in sunlight and Berwick in half shade. Made me wish I could paint.’

     ‘Do you get up here a lot?’

     ‘Good place to think. Essays, exam stress, men! Oh yes, and warring parents.’

     Gina’s eyes became distant again.

     ‘So, what are you going to do? I mean, where will you stay?’


     ‘You’re going to have to make a choice and that isn’t going to be easy. Still, it’s only until University I suppose, and then we’re out of parents’ hair for good.’

     ‘That’s a good six months away Rob. And I still have to choose which one to stay with at the end of each semester. I want to stay here, in Berwick. Berwick is home. It’s beautiful. It’s where my friends are. It is, for some reason, me. But the thought of leaving my dad, even for six months and even if I stay with him after every other semester ends…I don’t know. Where do I belong?  Am I English like my mother because I want to stay in Berwick? Am I Scottish because I was born there, because my dad is a Scot? Could I adapt to life in Scotland? It’s not far away, but… Oh I just don’t know. It seems like the first big decision of my life. Like childhood has ended and I’m in at the deep end…choosing between my parents; choosing between two nations; having to decide to which parent, or nation I belong. I just don’t know where to turn.’

     ‘Can’t you just spend equal time with each? Compromise.’

     ‘I could. But I need to settle the question of who I am. While I divide myself between those two I will remain a product of them. I need to find myself. An identity. Do you know, if I had to represent my country at anything I’d be completely lost. Even my football team lets me down. A side that is in England playing in the Scottish league! Some help!’

     ‘You’re over-reacting. You’re a lovely person. You don’t need clear definitions or labels to be yourself. Just let it surface naturally.’

     ‘ Look. This is really important. To me. Once I was a child. A product of an English mother and a Scottish father. But they were one thing. My parents. Now they’ve split. They are two things, separate identities, but who am I in all this? I need to know Rob. I really need to know.’

    I looked once again down upon Berwick. I could see it’s little red and white lighthouse at the mouth of the Tweed, where salmon poachers sat casually by the mooring rings on the jetty, casting drift-nets, waiting for southerly winds to fill them, and then their pockets. Down there where seals bobbed up above the water, where, even up here, you could see the white of swans massing in the estuary. A town worth fighting over, a town that had changed hands between the English and the Scots some thirteen times. A town that had once spent a period of uneasy neutrality. A town resembling Gina in beauty and cross-border turmoil.


     When the food, to be kind to this American cuisine, was finished, I looked at a still silent and distant Gina and said

     ‘ Let’s drive.’


     ‘I don’t know. Follow the river inland perhaps. See where it takes us.’


     It took us, in a peaceful afternoon of flashing, sweeping sunlight escaping from under white cathedral-like cloud, deep into border territory. We made first for Horncliffe, a tiny village on the Tweed boasting a beautiful chain suspension bridge that links England to Scotland, or if you approach it as we did, through Fishwick, Scotland to England. Beneath the bridge the Tweed flowed over a shallow, stone filled bed.

     ‘You can see how easy the river was to ford.’ I said.

     ‘And why it was useless as a real border,’ observed Gina

     ‘But beautiful all the same. Worth fighting over.’

     ‘It has to be one of the most peaceful places on earth. And beautiful, yes. I wonder who would claim the bridge if the border battles started again.’

     ‘It wasn’t built in those days Rob.’

     ‘No, but it has its two halves in separate countries. It isn’t one thing or the other. I like the idea of sharing all this beauty. It tells you that borders are man-made; that nature evolves across miles according to geological history rather than human upheaval. You might as well ask the salmon down there what country they belong to.’

     We drove on towards Coldstream and crossed another beautiful arched bridge that took us back into England at Cornhill-on-Tweed. From here Gina had a definite idea as to our destination. We drove through the sleepy village of Branxton and pulled into a small car park at the bottom of a steep hill.

     ‘Another battle sight, Rob.’

     ‘Those steps will keep us fit!’

     ‘Come on then, I’ll race you.’

Gina was leaning on the information board when I finally reached the top of Flodden Hill.

     ‘This was where the last battle between the English and Scots took place on Northumbrian territory. Just over there. 10,000 Scottish and 5,000 English deaths. Even James IV was killed.’

     ‘You’ve been here before?’

     ‘Yes, and I can read! Look.’

     ‘So the bodies, including the King, were taken down…there to the church. St. Peter’s. I’ll tell you what, that’s a small building for so big a morgue.’

     ‘It’s incredible up here Rob. Tranquil. How could 15,000 people have died here?  I can’t reconcile all those deaths with the landscape. It’s just so impossible to believe.’

     ‘ I guess the landscape is bigger than human history. Like I said at the Chain Bridge. The wars were just a transitory phase. The blood, the scars, the bodies are all gone. The nature of the place remains somehow, untarnished.’

    ‘Yeah, Rob I know what you’re saying. Nature is bigger than man. Do you know my dad used to bring us here? Said that his ancestors from Selkirk came down here to fight the English. He was proud of it, like it could all begin again tomorrow. Mum used to laugh at his marrying an English girl, but he claimed Berwick rightfully belonged to the Scots so she was only technically English. Stupid really, but I sometimes wonder if he was joking. He used to quote some poem about Flodden.

     Frae every cleuch and clan

     The best o’ the braid Border

      Rose like a single man

      To meet the royal order.

Something like that, anyway.’

     ‘You know, Gina, you stand here and realize the history and wonder why anyone could still have partisan feelings. The inscription on the cross says ‘To the brave of both nations’.’

     ‘Well, that’s dad. Just winding us up probably. Getting my childish mind to understand history.’

     Gina stared at the quiet arable land in front of us. The ornate church of St. Peter’s stood peacefully away in the village. From here James IV had been taken to Berwick. Lifeless and cold. We would take our tea in the neo-Flemish splendour of Kelso and return to Berwick ourselves, to carry on with our young lives.

     ‘You know, Rob,’ began Gina, hesitatingly, ‘ the people here, in Northumberland I mean, well… they just go about their lives like they always have…birth, school, work, death. That kind of thing. Everyone just eking out a living the way people always have. Before battles, and since. And it’s the same over the Scottish border, the Welsh border and the world over probably. Where cultures are similar there comes a point where they blur, if not merge. Like here. But the landscape survives, as you say. What is England? What is Scotland? Where does this landscape begin and end? I…I don’t feel English…or Scottish. I do feel… I do feel something though…’

     ‘In what way?’

     ‘I feel I have an identity.’

     ‘Since this afternoon?’

     ‘Since always.’

     ‘But this afternoon has uncovered it?’

     ‘Yes…Yes Rob it has. I’m the child of two nations. Two nations with a history. Two nations now at peace. Even if my parents aren’t. A product of ordinary human lives, regardless of nationality. I can, like this landscape,’ here she swept her hand around the horizon, ‘ survive the battles that go on around and about me. I really can. And what’s more, I don’t need a monument, I can stamp my own identity around the world.’

     ‘So your identity. Can we give it a name?  A name that fits your, and this area’s, big nature?’

     ‘Yes Rob,’ she said, looking across Flodden field,

     ‘I’m a Northumbrian.’



     And so it was, with an identity, which knew no borders, only the landscape and its beauty, that Gina went forward to the challenge of her world. We moved into a flat near Halidon Hill from where we visited our respective parents. Even Gina’s parents ceased their marital battles as time eased by. It was almost as if the countryside had recovered the peace once again.


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