The notion that the Curfew Bell has been rung since the Norman Conquest is somewhat ludicrous as, if the town existed at all, it would have been very small. There had not been any Anglo-Scottish dispute at this time so no need to enforce any curfew and the first defensive walls had not been built at this time.
Since the 12th century (if not before) Berwick has been a military town. The first defensive walls were begun in 1296 after Edward I took the town. Eventually, the Elizabethan walls were built between 1558 and 1570.
The Ancient Statutes of the Towne (dated 1560) state:
“if there be any person that maketh any affraie at any of the gates of the said towne… at such tyme or season as the watch bell is ringing or the watch is setting or afterwards that night untill the watch bell be discharged in the morning…”
The “watch bell” is undoubtedly what we refer to as the curfew bell. The Statutes were basically standing orders for the garrison. That these were written in 1560 does not mean that similar rules were not in place long before. Indeed, they are referred to as “ancient”, suggesting they are a revision or reinforcement of much earlier rules.
The town was locked down until 1815. Basically, only a King’s messenger or doctor might pass through the gates after 8pm. Dr Fuller describes in 1799, the severe inconvenience of the practice.
“The ancient practice of shutting the gates in garrison towns during the night, to the great annoyance not only of the inhabitants within the gates, but also of those in the suburbs, besides to the public at large, still prevails here…
“Physicians, surgeons, and midwives are exempted, as also persons coming for them; but neither gentle mens’ carriages, post chaises, carts nor saddle horses, are allowed to pass through the gates during the time they are commanded to be shut.
“If a person, upon his first coming up to the gate, quarrels with the guard, the greatest importunities afterwards for admission will more than likely be of no avail. Even medical people returning from the country, and though exhausted by fatigue and the want of sleep, are sometimes detained for a long time at the gates. On some such occasions, the sentry insists that the person is using a fictitious name, and he will not even open the wicket to inform himself whether it is so or not, either by looking at his passport or his person.
“It sometimes happens, when they grant this indulgence in a rage, or in a state of intoxication, that they let go the great wooden bar of the gate, the consequence of which may be either the death of the rider or his horse. We know of several persons who, owing to that circumstance, have made narrow escapes at these gates.
“As for instance, two young girls were dispatched in great haste in the night time, from Castlegate, to request of the author to give his instant attendance in case of danger. When arrived at the Scotch Gate, they told the urgency of their mission to the centinels and strongly importuned them for immediate admission into the town; but, in place of instantly complying with their request, they detained the girls at the gate for more than half an hour, sometimes opening the wicket and again shutting it against them. The consequence was, that before he could reach the place to which he was sent for, a stout male child had suffered death for want of skilful assistance, and the poor mother of it had a near escape with her life. Had he arrived at the house fifteen minutes sooner, the child might have been easily saved, and the very imminent danger into which this poor woman was brought, by this delay, prevented. These are not all the evils that arise from this etiquette of the garrison.”
Today, the Curfew Bell still rings every Wednesday at 8pm for thirteen minutes.
The idea of having a race around the old walls in Berwick was begun in the mid-1970s by David Campbell who trained local runners in Berwick. David was involved in the A.A.A. and asked some of the top runners in north east England and Scottish Borders if they would be interested.
The Running Of The Walls took place in September. It started at Palace Green then along Silver Street to Bridge Street. Then the long climb up Bankhill on to the walls. A complete circuit of the walls led back to the Palace Green. The race was over five laps, a total of six and quarter miles. In 1980, Berwick Harriers had taken over the Running Of The Walls races and over the next few years more races were added to the programme, with juniors, women and veterans taking part in a programme of eleven races. By this time, David had passed away before seeing his idea become one of the largest events on the British road race calendar. By the late 1980s there were 1200 runners competing in the races.
Some very well known runners, who have competed at international level, competed at this event over the years, including a young 17 year old lad called Steve Cram won the youth race in 1978.
However, by the mid-1990s, the programme was reduced to three races with less runners coming to Berwick. The race committee were having problems with sponsorship, so in 2002 the race committee regrettably decided after 29 years to bring this famous event to a end. After the abandonment of the Running of the Walls races, a 10K run along the riverside was organised, but this too proved unpopular and so ended after three years.
The Curfew Run was started in July 1996 by keen runner and then Chief Executive of Berwick-upon-Tweed Berwick Council. The inspiration was from Chariots of Fire—the quadrangle run while the clock strikes 12—and so the idea of running the walls with the curfew bell tolling was born. It was originally organised by Berwick Town Council assisted by Berwick Harriers and for the last three years has been organised by Tweed Striders.
The course is approximately 1.3 miles long and the course record was set in 2015 by Nathan Cox in a time of 6:05!
Tweed Striders was formed in July / August 2013, a rebranding of Berwick Harriers AC which had started in 1888.
An award-winning micro pub in Bridge Street, The Curfew, is named thus as it closes early (at 9pm)
My thanks to Tweed Striders and the Forgotten Berwick FB community for the information regarding the running.