When it comes to selling the attractions of train travel there are few better ways of winning over the public than showing a sleek high speed locomotive snaking over the town’s imposing Royal Border Bridge.
And viewed from the train, Berwick itself with its Elizabethan walls, tightly packed old houses and narrow wynds looks the image of a picture postcard fortified town.
Head into Berwick itself, however, and the reality is somewhat different. Like many market towns the length and breadth of the country, it’s not in the best of health.
The main shopping area around Marygate is littered with empty shops as high street names and local independent traders alike have fallen by the wayside.
Berwick is a town desperately in need of an injection of life.
Thankfully work is underway to turn around the Border town’s fortunes. This autumn will see a host of festivals taking place across Berwick aimed at bringing more people to the area. It sees the organisers of the food, film and media and Frontier music festivals joining forces for the first time.
The season will kick-off between September 6-8 with the Berwick Food and Beer Festival. Organised by Berwick’s Slow Food group, the event is now in its sixth year and has been gaining in popularity.
A showcase for local food producers as well as a celebration of the region’s cultural and food heritage staged around the town’s Georgian Barracks, the festival is more than just a great day out for the thousands who now flock to be a part of it, however.
It has a street value that goes way beyond the producer stalls and chef demos.
A survey carried out during last year’s festival for Northumberland County Council found that just over 50% of visitors had come to Berwick especially for the event.
They spent on average £20 a head with between £50,000 and £75,000 worth of business conducted. Of the 50% who purposely attended, 20% stayed the night in the town bringing in an extra £20,000 of revenue.
The survey also estimated that 47% of visitors went shopping elsewhere in Berwick and 23% had a meal.
But perhaps most importantly, in terms of the spin-off benefits, up to 98% of people who attended said they had a good time and were planning on returning to Berwick.
Not bad for a festival which costs £10,000 to stage and generates over £100,000 of economic activity.
No wonder the town’s hospitality and retail businesses have embraced it.
And no wonder other ailing towns have seen that food is more than just fuel to power the mind and body.
Handled in the right way, food festivals and farmers’ markets are good for local economies, farmers, consumers and the environment.
They encourage people to spend money which circulates locally, to shop at other local businesses, provide an outlet for local produce and maintain local employment.
It’s a win-win situation based around something we all love: eating.
Today and tomorrow will see the first North Shields Proper Food and Drink Festival taking place in Northumberland Square in the heart of the town.
A free to attend event, there will be more than 80 artisan food and drink stalls plus hot food to enjoy in an outdoor picnic area alongside entertainment and a licensed marquee.
Organised by Mark and Shelley Deakin of the Hot Stuff Chilli Company – the people behind the North East Chilli Festival – it is building on the success of North Shields’ Victorian Christmas Market which will this December celebrate its 15th outing.
John Fleet, town centres manager for North Tyneside Council, is forthright about his hopes for the Proper Food and Drink Festival. “We hope people who have never been to North Shields will be impressed by the square, will explore a bit further and will hopefully spend money elsewhere in the town.”
He knows it works for the Victorian Christmas Market, in which food has become an increasingly important element over the years.
“It doubles if not trebles the footfall in the Beacon Centre compared to any other December weekend. We know that between 20,000 and 30,000 visitors come for the two day Christmas market and we know that stall holders like it as we have a 70% re-booking rate.
“We have very high hopes for the Proper Food and Drink Festival. We know that the location works well and the businesses in the area are very supportive as they recognise the benefits that holding such an event will bring to the town.
“It is tough on the high street and the town needs to have events like this so we can showcase it to people who might not normally come to North Shields. When Mark Deakin originally came to see us he had suggested using the Fish Quay but we wanted it in the town centre to try and cash in on the interest it would generate.
“Northumberland Square is a bit of an unsung jewel in North Shields’ crown and isn’t used as much as it should be. We hope that once people see how attractive it is they will be encouraged to explore and spend elsewhere.”
It’s a ploy that Berwick has used to good effect with its food festival. Graham Head is chair of Slow Food Berwick-upon-Tweed.
He says: “If I speak to the bed and breakfast people they are frightened of sending people into the town centre as there are lots of empty shops.
“But the festival draws people into the nice parts, and if they like it then they go away with a positive attitude thinking it’s a great place because they have had a good time and bought and eaten lots of nice food and drink made by people who care passionately about what they do.
“Hopefully those people will then set out and explore the rest of the town.”
This year the food festival is doing its bit to actively encourage people to go beyond the barracks. A food heritage treasure hunt has been developed using a special mobile phone app to “get people into the town and spending money as well as at the festival,” Graham says.
“Economically we want this festival to be as beneficial as it can be for Berwick. We know the combination of food, drink and entertainment draws people in and encourages them to spend.”
The organisers haven’t rested on their laurels either and have ensured that year-on-year there is always something fresh to draw visitors back. Apart from the food trail there’s an all new bigger and better beer festival which has been sponsored by Berwick-based Simpsons Malt, and a dedicated street food area.
Further south, Alnwick Food Festival this year celebrates its ninth outing on September 21-22. Nearly 35,000 people were attracted to the market town last year by the mix of food, a beer festival, cookery demonstrations and the appearance of celebrity chef Jean-Christophe Novelli.
Festival director Karen Larkin estimates that in the last eight years the free to attend festival – which was borne out of the foot-and-mouth crisis - has pumped an astonishing £3-£4m of extra cash into the local economy.
“The first year it attracted between 15,000 and 20,000 people and the numbers have grown steadily since then.
“The festival now brings people from all over and I hope they look at the town and think ‘wow, what a fantastically vibrant place,’ and how they’d love to holiday or even live here.
“I know there are people who stay in accommodation and book it again for the following year.”
It’s great for both the traders and local producers (and as many as possible are from the surrounding area) too. “We had a baker last year who sold over 2,000 loaves of bread in one weekend,” Karen states.
Up to £400,000 of business is done over the weekend.
The festival costs around £35,000 to put on but more than fulfils the task of selling Alnwick to a wider audience.
Jean-Christophe Novelli will again be making a guest appearance this year and to keep the event fresh a street food section which will be open until 10pm has been added along with a mobile farm bringing the country to the town.
Karen says: “There is always a real buzz about the weekend; everybody loves the food festival.”
North Shields Proper Food and Drink Festival is on August 31, 10am-7pm and September 1, 10am-5pm in Northumberland Square, North Shields. Free entry. Artisan producers from across the North East, Yorkshire and Scotland alongside cooking demos. www.properfoodanddrinkfestivals.co.uk
Berwick Food Festival, September 6-8, Georgian Barracks. Producers’ market, cookery demonstrations, animal farm, Slow Food Cinema, music, beer festival, street food, hog roast and heritage food trail. Adults £2 and children under 12 free. Tickets include entrance to the festival and free admission to all the barrack’s attractions and museums. www.berwickfoodfestival.co.uk
Alnwick Food Festival, September 21-22. Over 70 stalls selling food, drinks and cookery essentials in the Market Square, full programme of chef demos in Northumberland Hall, street entertainers, roving chefs, Alnwick Beer Festival, and special guest Jean-Christophe Novelli. www.alnwickfoodfestival.co.uk