An exciting vision to find new use for old Barracks

Rather like the Oxford of Inspector Morse, the novelist Peter Ackroyd in one of his books describes London as a place of multiple murders, in and around a group of 18th century churches.

Friday, 14th December 2018, 2:10 pm
Berwick Barracks parade square, home to the KOSB regimental musuem, and Berwick Museum and Art Gallery

Ackroyd’s detective’s name is not Morse, but Hawksmoor: coincidentally, each of the murders happens in the environs of the six churches designed by the 18th century architect Nicholas Hawksmoor.

The churches are St Alfege, Greenwich; St George, Bloomsbury; St Mary, Woolnoth; St Anne, Limehouse; Christ Church, Spitalfields, and St George-in-the-East.

Berwick Barrack Gates Picture by Jane Coltman

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Hawksmoor was undoubtedly Sir Christopher Wren’s most distinguished pupil and his style was unique. Influenced by primitive Etruscan architecture, as seen in Perugia and other towns in Tuscany, there is a strength and individuality, which consistently marks off Hawksmoor’s work. Blenheim Palace also owes much to Hawksmoor’s talent and genius. 

Now why all this focus on London churches when we are all living in North Northumberland? The answer is that one of Hawksmoor’s most monumental secular buildings is the remarkable Barracks, close to Holy Trinity Church and the great defensive Elizabethan walls in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The Barracks are one of the ‘seven wonders of Berwick’ – maybe we can list the other six some other time?

In 1715, the Jacobite rebellion, which aimed to place Prince James, the Stuart claimant onto the English throne, sent shock waves throughout England.

Morale and living conditions amongst the troops were very poor, as was discipline: debauchery and drunkenness were rife. The construction of a large-scale barracks offered the opportunity to give the men proper accommodation and a context in which to be drilled and trained.

The Barracks in Berwick were probably the first purpose-built barracks to be constructed in England. Berwick remained a key defensive focus.

So in 1718 work began on building what became the largest and most architecturally ambitious barracks in Britain: it was pioneer work.

For many years, it was assumed to be the work of Sir John Vanbrugh, the chief architect of Blenheim and, closer to home, of the splendid mansion at Seaton Delaval. It is certain that the main essence of the design we now know as the Barracks was from drawings by Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Hawksmoor himself never travelled to Berwick to oversee the construction, nor indeed did he ever see the finished product, which was completed in 1721.

The two main blocks, to the east and west, with their enormous and forbidding stepped gables (much in the Etruscan tradition) are classical Hawksmoor. The gateway wing to the north may owe something to Vanbrugh. The southern ‘clock block’, completing the square, dates from 1739.

Since those early days, there have been further additions and refurbishments.

The present adjacent Gymnasium, for example, was built in 1901, replacing an earlier 19th century structure: by then, physical fitness, alongside discipline and training, was a crucial component in the soldier’s personal armoury.

Interestingly enough, as early as 1856, there was talk of selling the Barracks for some other use. The increasing fear of a French invasion in the late 1850s, however, assured their continued use.

It was not until a hundred years later, in 1964, that the then inhabitants, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, finally marched out of the Barracks, leaving them empty and requiring a new use.

Ever since then, it has been a case of ‘four military wings in search of a role’.

Of course, the Barracks have not been left entirely without use.

Following the death of Sir William Burrell, who had lived locally at Hutton Castle, most of the remarkable artefacts he had collected were brought together in Glasgow’s stunning Burrell Collection (now undergoing a refurbishment itself), but he gave a modest number of objects to Berwick’s Town Museum and Art Gallery, now housed in Berwick Barracks.

Similarly, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers made part of the Barracks their regimental museum.

The Gymnasium houses contemporary art exhibitions of international repute arranged by Berwick Visual Arts.

But this has been insufficient to occupy the whole compass of these vast buildings.

As one of ‘the seven wonders of Berwick-upon-Tweed’, the Barracks are a crucial potential resource for the continuing renewal of the town. 

In pursuit of this broader vision, work to secure the site’s future is now under way, led by English Heritage and other organisations on the site, supported by Northumberland County Council, Berwick Town Council and many other local partners.

Their vision is to create a landmark tourist attraction in the town, telling the exciting story not only of the Barracks, but of Berwick and the wider Eastern Borders beyond.

The aim would be to welcome people into the Barracks’ stunning parade ground, free of charge, offering them thereafter several different points of interest – what some pundits rather miserably describe as “attractions”.

An enhanced regimental museum, more space to display the Burrell exhibition, and for occasional exhibitions, an exciting programme of events, alongside excellent catering facilities and venues for hire – all these are among the proposals under development.

As we approach Christmas, let us imagine a large Christmas tree as a centrepiece in the parade ground, with a series of activities for both children and adults alike – maybe even including a detective element seeking out the true marks of Hawksmoor?