Berwick-upon-Tweed is border territory. As English and Scottish forces battled over this land, the town changed hands 13 times. Today, it’s English, but with a strong Scottish accent: the senior football teams in town compete in competitions north of the border, and in the local dialect its not unusual to hear of a Scottish ‘heed’ meeting a Northumbrian ‘burl’.
But there’s no ambiguity about the defensive structures built up around this border town. Solid stone walls, formidable ramparts and, at the heart of town, an imposing garrison all pay tribute to a long military history. Today’s battles, though, are sporting rather than military on the unique football field of The Stanks.
It’s dialect name meaning ‘ditch’, descriptive of a defensive moat long-since drained. Today, it’s a patch of land in the shadow of the Brass Bastion at one end with a length of the defensive walls along one touchline. Players march onto the field through an arch – ancient gateway rather than soaring Wembley-style architectural feature – while spectators can perch on the walls surrounding the other two sides of the field or climb high onto the ramparts for a commanding view of the action.
The Stanks is very much a field of local dreams: facilities are sparse and the only regular action here is the annual Charities Cup, a long-running competition for scratch teams drawn from the pubs, clubs and businesses of North Northumberland. Played in the summer months, the cup ties into a tradition dating back to at least the First World War: the archives of the Berwick Advertiser turn up an account of Berwick Rovers playing a Royal Scots regimental team in a 1915 fundraiser for the Berwick Queen’s Nurses. “Without doubt a larger crowd has never gathered at the Stanks,” recorded the local paper, noting that “the excellent sum of £8 10 shillings” was raised off the back of a 1-0 win for the regiment.
Fundraising for health services continued into the 20s and 30s with the Berwick Infirmary Cup taking place – see this footage from 1929 – despite the threat of FA bans for ‘unofficial football’. And it wasn’t just sport: the Stanks was used to drill Berwick’s reservists and there’s an intriguing mention of ‘exhibitions of goal-scoring rather than science’ in a news story from 1919, suggesting that the field also hosted travelling shows with an educational bent.
The arts were represented too, with L.S. Lowry producing a sketch of a game at the Stanks. Unlike his more famous football picture, depicting crowds thronging Bolton’s Brunton Park, this was never developed into a finished painting; the sketch is reproduced on an information board on top of the bulwarks.
Since those halcyon days, the crowds at the Stanks have declined. The Charities Cup final might attract a couple of hundred fans who live, work and drink with the players. The 2019 edition saw a lively battle between the Free Trade Ultras and the ‘Ammies. Clawing back a 0-2 deficit, the Ultras won it in extra time to lift the cup and pocket £1,000-worth of vouchers for the upcoming Lindisfarne Festival. As defending champs, though, Free Trade fell heavily in the 2021 semi-final, losing 8-0 to Angel Alkies.
The 2019 final had a charmingly ad hoc feel, very grass roots; raffle prizes rest on the bank, a man with a loudspeaker announces the winning numbers. It’s the best of pub football, with a strong community spirit underpinning the whole activity – and played in a truly unique location that makes it a must for groundhoppers in search of a summer fix.