Roundabout ways

For an alternative view of some of the UK’s most historic cities, Stephen McClarence takes a circular stroll

If, in these cash-strapped times, you can’t afford to go round the world, you can always go round the walls instead. At least six UK towns and cities still have medieval walls where pedestrians can stride out, high above the day-to-day concerns of ground-level life below. And winter, when country walks risk mud and trudge, is a good time to explore them.

So off on the train to Uppermost England: to Berwick-upon-Tweed, whose walls gave me one of the best (though also one of the wettest) days out this year. But before our winter wall walk there, we need to stop off in at York, if only to smother ourselves in smugness about what we’ve got right here in Yorkshire.

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York’s city walls add up to the UK’s longest circuit. On a good day, a complete round-trip can be as exhilarating as a cliff-top stroll, with a tide of rooftops stretching away and church towers piercing the sky like lighthouses. It draws a satisfying circle around the town.

The circuit, it’s true, includes a couple of dud patches. Foss Islands Road and Skeldergate Bridge, where the walls peter out for a few hundred yards, don’t set the soul soaring. But every visiting photographer has taken the classic view of the Minster from the approach to Lendal Bridge. And it would be hard to match the glorious stretch from Bootham to Monkgate, with its secluded “backstage” view of the Minster and more gardens than you’ve any right to expect in such a busy city.

Debate rages in wall-walking circles (and, after all, most wall walks are circular) about whether you should do York clockwise or anticlockwise. Personally I prefer anti-clockwise, starting at Micklegate Bar with coffee at the calm, civilised Bar Convent café.

Right, to Berwick, after a quick a word about Chester, whose walls are Britain’s oldest complete circuit. They offer more varied views than York’s (the racecourse, the cathedral, back street gardens, the river, the Shropshire Union Canal far below) and at two undemanding miles, they became a fashionable excuse for 18th-century promenading.

Daniel Defoe, visiting in the 1720s, reckoned they were “very firm, beautiful and in good repair” and offered “a very pleasant walk round the city”. It was a decent summary but Henry James, following in Defoe’s footsteps a century and a half later, was all lyrical luxuriance.

The walls, he wrote, were “now sloping, now bending, now broadening into a terrace, now narrowing into an alley, now swelling into an arch, now dipping into steps...” And then he spoiled it all by describing them as “the tortuous wall-girdle of the little swollen city”. Not a line the tourism people quote very much.

James was right, though. The idea of walls containing a city, squeezing it in like a girdle or a belt, is central to their appeal. And there’s great satisfaction in completing the whole circuit and, having beaten the bounds, ending up back where you started. It focuses you on a town, making you view it as a whole.

Right, with a quick footnote that the other walled (or half-walled) towns are Conway, Canterbury and Southampton... We’re on the train to Berwick. The walls first loom into view as you sweep over the Royal Border Bridge, the great curving viaduct before the station.

They’re Elizabethan ramparts, a Borders defence against the Scots (Berwick has been batted backwards and forwards between England and Scotland more than a dozen times). They’ve survived remarkably intact, with a paved walkway that offers something interesting at every turn. And there are a lot of turns in this frontier town, full of military and maritime memories and criss-crossed by steep cobbled alleys often leading to the quayside through smugglerish arches, all rather secretive.

In light rain, I join the walls alongside the pearly grey estuary of the Tweed and pass sturdy Georgian houses that could have been shipped from Edinburgh’s New Town. Some have long gardens with apple trees and summer houses and statues of nymphs coyly lurking in the clematis. There are allotments, door posts with whaling harpoons carved on them, and glimpses of Berwick’s most famous guest, LS Lowry.

He was here from the mid-1930s until his death in 1976 and, weaving in and out of the wall walk, and striking out far beyond it, is a Lowry trail, with boards comparing drawings and paintings he based on Berwick with the same scenes today (often little changed).

As I study a house he nearly bought, the rain starts to bucket down and a Lowryesque gloom descends. It’s matched out at the seaside suburb of Spittal (lovely name) by the caption on a Lowry beach scene there: “The figures are like ghosts from holidays past, spent with his mother on the sands at Rhyl.”

I retreat from the rain to the stylish Granary Gallery, which displays part of the art collection of the industrialist Sir William Burrell. Most of it went to Glasgow, but Burrell lived near Berwick and gave 300 of so works to the town. He liked to collect tapestries, a caption points out. He reckoned they gave him more yards of art for his money.

I stay overnight at Northumbrian House, an outstanding guest house in an elegant town-centre street, and, next morning, after sharing the breakfast table with a woman who photographs fungi, I finish the wall walk in sunshine.

Past barracks and gun batteries and benches with supports like serpents with spitting tongues, are views of the town’s buildings from all angles. And past four goldfinches chirping in a bush, there’s a distant silhouette of Holy Island down the coast. And that’s what Berwick’s wall walk has got that even York and Chester can’t match: the sea.

Getting there

Northumbrian House in Berwick (01289 309503; www.7ravensdowne.co.uk) offers double rooms with bed and breakfast from £90.

For information about other accommodation and what’s on guides call 01670 622155 or visit www.visitnorthumberland.com.

Chester tourist information: 01244 351609; www.visitchester.com.

York tourist information: 01904 550099; www.visityork.org