Riverside Meeting 1 – Paxton-Berwick

The boat is late. The tide is touch-and-go. Hot weather has dropped the levels in the Tweed and the Paxton-Berwick shuttle is waiting for safe passage.

We’re five miles inland on the river at Paxton House, among landscaped gardens, fields of sheep, a tractor mid-harvest over on the English bank. A seaboat in this calm farmland idyll seems unlikely, almost alien. But here she comes, On a Promise, a yellow-white skiff skippered by David Thompson, fresh from the port at Berwick. David has a quick catchup with the netsmen and then it’s off down the widening Tweed to the sea.

Martha Andrews, Paxton curator. Image © Kate Foster

Martha Andrews, Paxton curator. Image © Kate Foster

The crew for the first Riverside Meeting: Kate, visual artist, Sandy, musician, Jane, theatre maker, Claire, dance maker, Bridget, poet, Jules, playwright, Cath, textile designer, Michael, venue manager, and Janet, a crime writer scouting for likely murder haunts.
Martha Andrews, the Paxton curator, fills us in. Paxton is one of only two netting stations left on the River Tweed, from its heyday of around 80. George and Jo Purvis run a small commercial fishing operation – the rest have been bought out for ‘the rods’.

Netting at Paxton

Netting at Paxton. Image © Michael Scott

George spots a change of wind, the ripple of salmon heading upstream. Reading the river, its subtle signs. The rowboat heads out in a wide loop, the nets splashing cork by cork from the boats. As the team pull the net in, the corks dip – a sign of a catch. Once landed, the fish are rushed to the anaesthetic-tub and tagged by Tweed Foundation. Ronald Campbell’s industrial strength stapler plants a yellow plastic cable in the fish’s side. The groggy fish comes to in oxygenated water and is ferried back to the Tweed.

Dr Ronald Campbell of Tweed Foundation tagging a salmon

Dr Ronald Campbell of Tweed Foundation tagging a salmon. Image © Michael Scott

Ecologist Melanie Findlay is an otter specialist. A nearby bridge looks a likely spot. Sure enough, otter spraint. It has an earthy, metallic smell. Kate makes spraint-marks in her notebook. We hear about Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed, and compare with sycamore, ground elder, sea glass… will today’s scourges also be transformed by time?

Ecologist Melanie Findlay at Paxton

Ecologist Melanie Findlay at Paxton. Image © Michael Scott

On the boat, we pass the abandoned shiels of the netting industry, some just roofless ruins, some renovated as holiday retreats. At some point, our lips start to taste of salt.

Rounding the last meander, we see the bridges of Berwick as we’ve never seen them before. From low in the water, passing beneath the sleek A1 concrete, the Victorian railway arches, the ancient pink sandstone, it’s as though history unfolds. Two territories, one each bank, connected and divided by a river.

Someone mentioned the word ‘rival’ derives from the Latin for river. ‘Rivalis‘ – ‘an adversary in love’. Neighbours in competition. Maybe our forebears once stood on the bank each side? Waving, shaking fists, and then rowing across, bartering fish, grain, daughters.

Arriving at Berwick. Image © Claire Pencak

Arriving at Berwick. Image © Claire Pencak

Bridges, Berwick

Bridges, Berwick. Image © Michael Scott

Bridges, Berwick. Image © Michael Scott

Bridges, Berwick

Sheep and swans from the Paxton boat

Sheep and swans from the Paxton boat. Image © Michael Scott

Tweed shiel and salmon lookout.

Tweed shiel and salmon lookout. Image © Michael Scott

George Purvis laying nets

George Purvis laying nets. Image © Michael Scott

Paxton netting team

Paxton netting team. Image © Michael Scott

on a promise: Riverside Meeting at Paxton


field drawing © Kate Foster

We watched the nets being laid out across the tide, learning that some fish ‘cheat the net’.


field drawing © Kate Foster


What, I wonder is the N for, on the coble’s stern?


field drawing © Kate Foster

N … for Norham? The coble’s fishing port?We talk to a bailiff.

The possibility is raised that it is labelled N because the boat always swings North – just like a magnet.

We talk to the boat owner.

N, for Ned. No, NET.

That’s to say it’s registered to fish, in legal hours


photo © Kate Foster

Another boat arrives, I am excited: we will sail with the falling tide, on brine, to Berwick-upon-Tweed.


field drawing © Kate Foster

I can’t help noticing how big the sheep are, in England.


field drawing © Kate Foster

Sport not Profit, a notice on our vessel remarks. Swans, herons, cormorants. Our youngest crew member is disappointed that nothing pink is visible on the banks.


field drawing © Kate Foster


field drawing © Kate Foster

So many shiels that need saving! Ninety six altogether on the river we are told: some are just a pile of stones though.We also learn about the bridges: the by-pass bridge built in 1885. The concrete cast bridge from 1935. The railway bridge, the longest in its day in 1850 – opened by Queen Victoria. She thereafter closed the curtains in Newcastle as she travelled by (because refreshments at that station made her late for her Berwick bridge appointment).  And a much much older bridge, built by an early King, who was afraid that the tide and wind would prevent his return to London.

We ourselves land, in sunshine and calm seas.

Artists’ Paxton Netting and River Trip – 10th Aug

Calling Borders artists! Would you like to join a Riverside Meeting at Paxton, followed by a Tweed boat trip on the new Paxton-Berwick shuttle service?

This is the first in our series of six meetings between artists and river specialists, and it’s aimed at uncovering the hidden world of river work and making links between the arts, environmental and science communities, as well as cross art-form.

Get picked up by shared minibus from various parts of the Borders, then we head to Paxton for a riverside gathering to hear from Dr Ronald Campbell, fish biologist at the Tweed Foundation, Melanie Findlay, ecologist specialising in otters, and Martha Andrews, the curator at Paxton House. It’s a rare chance to see river netting and hear about the changing fish patterns in the Tweed catchment. Then we head downriver on the ‘On a Promise’ with skipper David Thomson to the mouth of the Tweed at Berwick, accompanied by Mel with her insights into the local wildlife. The boat can only carry 12, so please book your place soon! Deadline Fri 2nd Aug (later than on application form).

Download Riverside Meeting Paxton details here.

Download application form here.

Many thanks to Tweed Foundation and Paxton House for their support with this event.

Blessing of the Nets, Paxton, May 1st 2013

A  sound recording of the Blessing of the Nets ceremony that took place on the banks of the Tweed at Paxton on May 1st 2013.

The Paxton netting station is one of the very few fisheries still operating  this traditional net and cobble method of salmon and trout fishing.

The first catch that evening was of  two large and one smaller sea trout. The first fish is always for the Minister and this was gutted and cleaned on the river side by George.

Thanks to the  Minister Bill Landale, for  permitting this recording and to Martha Andrews, Paxton House for inviting us along.

Click here to listen to Blessing of the Nets on Soundcloud – look for the orange ‘play’ button.   

Voice: Ronnie Glass, Kelso Angling Association

River fishermen know how to ‘read’ a river to find the best places to catch trout, in the seam between turbulent and dead water.

In this audio clip recorded in Kelso by the River Tweed, Ronnie Glass, trout fly fishing champion and chair of Kelso Angling Association, explains why trout love the seam, and why fishermen go out on drizzly days.

Recorded by Jules Horne in April 2013 for Working the Tweed.

Click to listen on Soundcloud – look for the orange ‘play’ button.

Voice: David Mitchell, Selkirk Angling Club

Fishing flies are designed from the point of view of the fish – they’re meant to emulate beetles and flies, and look tasty from below the water line.

In this audio clip, David Mitchell of Selkirk Angling Club talks about different flies in his collection.

Here, he talks about the joys of trout fishing and wildlife on the River Tweed and tributaries.

This interview was recorded by Jules Horne to be part of the exhibition Where the Pools Are Bright and Deep on Selkirk Angling Club, by Scottish Borders Council Museums.

Scaling the Tweed: research drawing by Kate Foster

Upriver, salmon eggs could be hatching just now. I learn that pimples on the fish’s skin become scales with marks that register their growth pattern, like tree rings. In actuality, these are in life tiny and transparent, but to understand them I draw them large and salmon coloured.


drawing © Kate Foster

The Tweed Foundation collects scales from anglers, and accumulates data that helps interpret seasonal changes in the fishing catch. With a microscope, an expert eye might see that a salmon lived for two winters in the river, with a further winter at sea before returning to the Tweed to spawn. The wider separated bands in the blue drawing (a detail) suggest that this fish made a rapid transition to sea and began to feed well.


drawing © Kate Foster

Sometimes, there are checks in the usual pattern of faster summer growth, where the circuli stay tight and close.


drawing © Kate Foster

Very rarely, a female salmon manages to return to sea after spawning, and runs upriver a second time. The Tweed is a long river, and perhaps only one in a hundred manage this. These fish have scales with spawning marks developing from interrupted growth where scales were consumed, reabsorbed for energy to swim upstream.


drawing © Kate Foster

Typically a spawned salmon, a kelt, will die in the river and the eroded scales will document the exhaustion of the fish’s reserves.


detail of research drawing © Kate Foster

Having learnt something of what can be seen close-up, I needed to take a step back to take this in. A textbook informs me how they deserve their name, ‘Atlantic Salmon’: they are a species who use ocean currents to drift to cold subarctic waters. Rich feeding to the west of Greenland allows them to mature before returning to their home river in mating mood.


detail of research drawing © Kate Foster

Towards the end of this first lesson in scale-reading, our careful tutors say that there is currently speculation about future patterns that will be read in salmon scales. Within ten years perhaps, the north pole will be a navigable ocean, allowing passage to the Pacific.


detail of research drawing © Kate Foster

To reflect on this, I look at recently published papers. With anxiety, I start to draw icebergs on perspex – dotting out the zone that was navigable to ice-hardy ships in 1970. In my drawing the icebergs lessen over time, and tail off at 2100. I wish it was the other way up, and I could draw them more concentrated at the pole, like this:


detail of research drawing © Kate Foster

Scaling the Tweed started with a close-up view, but also is making me look further away.


detail of research drawing © Kate Foster

Acknowledgements and thanks to Tweed Foundation. Any errors text and drawings are my responsibility. The research drawing can be seen in the Robson Gallery in Selkirk (see previous post) until mid May.

Sea Trout Seminar by the Tweed Foundation

7pm, Wednesday 27th March 2013

Ednam House Hotel, Kelso

The Tweed Foundation is holding a seminar on Sea-trout.

The FREE evening seminar will explore new and recent discoveries about the Tweed’s Sea-trout.

Over the past three years, as part of a international partnership study with countries bordering the North Sea, The Tweed Foundation and others have been working to further our understanding of Sea-trout movement and stock components.