This Berwick tradition dating back to the 17th Century may have been cancelled - but what is the Riding of the Bounds all about?

Berwick’s Riding of the Bounds, one of Northumberland’s oldest traditions, was supposed to take place on Saturday, May 2.

Saturday, 2nd May 2020, 7:00 am

The 411th staging of the 15-mile cavalcade around the town is among the numerous events cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But what is it?

The Riding of the Bounds features up to 100 horses and riders rekindling a 17th Century tradition of patrolling Berwick’s ancient boundaries.

The cavalcade makes its way out of Berwick after receiving permission from the mayor to ride the bounds. Picture by Jane Coltman

What are the ‘Bounds’?

While some boundary ridings occur in other places in England, it is a custom that belongs chiefly to the Scottish Borders, explains local historian Jim Herbert of Berwick Time Lines.

The ‘Bounds’ refers to the Bounds of the Liberties of Berwick-upon-Tweed, the land between the border and the River Tweed.

The first description of the Bounds is in a charter created by Robert Bruce after he took the town in 1318 but this land extended only a little north of where the medieval walls stood (the Bell Tower area).

Up to 100 horses and riders can take part in the Riding of the Bounds in Berwick.

Today’s border between England and Scotland was defined in a truce ratified on May 1, 1438. However, it was not legally binding and in 1542, it was stated that the Bounds were “to be perambulated so often as to keep them well known.” This would have been carried out by the town’s garrison.

The early years

In 1603 the Union of the Crowns saw King James VI of Scotland become James I of England. In 1604, he granted a Royal Charter to the Guild of Freemen in which many of their rights and privileges that still exist today were laid down.

A common misconception is that the Riding of the Bounds originates with this Charter. In fact there is no mention of such a thing within it.

Principals from towns across the Borders also take part in Berwick's Riding of the Bounds.

Prior to this Charter, most of the land within the Bounds was common land, free for all to use – Freemen and non-Freemen alike – for grazing animals and gathering hay (hence Liberties). The Charter granted this land to the Freemen but the practice of common pasturing and haymaking continued.

This gave rise to annual land disputes and in 1605 it was decided to divide the land into defined meadows. However, this did not take place until 1608 and the burgesses were ordered to pay 6d (21/2p) for every acre of land they owned to pay for creating a boundary ditch between England and Scotland.

In 1609, the “Riding of the Bounds” to check the integrity of these land divisions and ditch took place. In the first year the Riding was completed twice, but since, it has taken place on May 1.

Traditions

The day begins at about 9.30am when the riders and horses assemble at the Barracks and prizes for the best dressed horse etc are given out. They then process down Marygate to the Town Hall where they are greeted by the Mayor and Civic Party. The Chief Marshal then asks permission of the Mayor for them to ride and inspect the Bounds. Permission is given and the riders set off.

At lunchtime there is a break at Gainslaw Hill Farm and equestrian games are played on the nearby Haugh at Canty’s Bridge. Many of today’s customs took place in the early days: The games are said to commemorate the crossing of the border by Margaret Tudor on her way to be married to James IV of Scotland in 1502.

The riders return to town about 3.30pm, where they report to the Mayor that all is well and after the horses are tended to, a well earned meal is enjoyed by all in the Guild Hall.

The ceremony has taken place every year with few exceptions such as between 1726 to 1729, when it was cancelled due to lack of funds and the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak.

A break with history

In 2017 discussions about dwindling numbers of riders, spectators and helpers (to ensure the smooth and more importantly safe running of the ride out) Berwick Riders Association with full support of the Freeman it was decided to break with tradition and hold the ride on the Saturday of the May bank holiday. This means that the date will vary slightly every year.

Although this caused some controversy within Berwick, the majority of locals were fully supportive of the change. This change has proved to be very successful.

2020 cancellation

Berwick Riders Association stated: “Following recent government advice and after in depth discussions with The Freeman and Berwick Town Council it is with great sadness that that we have made the difficult decision to cancel this year’s Riding of the Bounds and the election of new principals due to the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic.

“This decision has not been taken lightly as it is Berwick's oldest tradition but the safety of everyone is our main priority and we must act responsibly and act on the advice given and we feel it is the correct course of action at this time.

“Our thoughts are with every other border town and their committees who also have difficult decisions to make in the coming weeks and months.”

After lengthy discussions it has been decided that the current principals will remain in their positions until next year.

This means that Victoria Irwin will now become chief marshal in 2021 and the new incoming principal who would have been installed at its spring sashing ceremony will have to wait until next year.

“Although we normally keep our new principals under wraps until the sashing event we feel that it is unfair and a very difficult secret to keep for that long!

“We therefore would like to announce that Mrs Julia Szoneberg will be our Right Hand Man for 2021.

“Although no ride will be taking place this year we are still hoping to honour the tradition in some way (restrictions permitting) even if it means a very small group on foot.”

Next year’s ride will be held on Saturday, May 1.

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