Explore northern England, Northumberland and the border town of Alnwick and step back into English history.
The northern reaches of England are often ignored as visitors to the United Kingdom speed from the bustling crowds of London to the historic ramparts of Edinburgh. Yet just a short distance from the A1, the main national north/south motorway, there is another England; a scenic land of winding roads and interesting villages.
Wandering through the Northumberland market town of Alnwick (pronounced ‘Annick’), and along the cobbled streets it is surprisingly easy to visualize Hotspur leading his troops down these streets. Sir Henry Percy (1364-1403) was better known as Harry Hotspur the quick-tempered knight immortalized in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Part I. His bravery and hotheaded courage were also literary fodder for Sir Walter Scott in his “Waverley” novels.
Despite the crowds of tourists, the medieval town surrounds you with such a strong historical identity that the modern world becomes the faint ghostly presence, the traffic barely a murmur of sound against the clatter of hooves and hoarse battle cries. English arms against Scotland’s Clans, Lord against Laird, Tudor against Plantagenet, and Royalist against Roundhead, Alnwick’s past echoes down through the ages.
Restaurants and Pubs
Along the main thoroughfares of Narrowgate and Fenkle Street, timber-framed buildings lean against their stone neighbours and side streets angle off at odd intervals that could only have made sense to medieval workmen. There are smoke-darkened pubs that have served thirsty travellers for centuries while others are newcomers that offer sidewalk seating and nouvelle cuisine. The Old Cross Inn in Narrowgate boasts a window filled with dusty old bottles. Legend has it that the bottles have been sitting there for over two hundred years due to a curse that anyone who touched the bottles will die. Sceptics insist that the superstition is the invention of imaginative Victorian advertising, barely one hundred years old but who would want to test their theory.
Hotspur no doubt caroused in the local taverns and quaffed beakers of local ale but today visitors have the opportunity to taste test Lindesfarne mead and Alnwick rum.
Alnwick Festivals and Shopping
Art galleries, antique shops and tea rooms cluster around the medieval market square and occupy buildings that once housed hostelries, tailors and bakeries. Many activities for the annual Alnwick Fair; a costumed medieval re-enactment, take place in the square, as do the International Music Festival and the weekly Farmer’s Market.
Just outside the original Alnwick town walls, the Victorian railway station is now home to Barter Books, one of the largest second-hand bookshops in England. The station’s size was a reflection of the importance of visitors to Alnwick castle. Royalty often arrived by train for weekend visits or parties.
The strangely named, Bondgate Within, is a wide shop lined street that leads to Hotspur Tower. The squat stone tower once formed part of the defensive wall around the town. With much of the wall salvaged for building material over the centuries, the tower and its gate form one of the few sections that remain. It divides Bondgate Within from Bondgate Without although a modern traffic light now controls the direction of the Medieval Gate’s single lane. Beside the main gate, a smaller gateway for pedestrians, tunnels through the wall. On a busy holiday, traffic can be slow and frustrating as it funnels through the stone vaulted gate and onward to the parking lots for Alnwick Castle and Gardens.
The massive walls of Alnwick Castle dominate the skyline and yet it is so deeply rooted within the town’s core that every lane appears to end at the castle walls. Visitors wander where battle cries once echoed as troops assailed this bluff above the River Aln and blood was shed in the fields now planted with golden daffodils.
The architecture of Alnwick castle has changed from its 11th century origins as a Saxon castle. Round, octagon and square towers jut from the walls that wander along the crest of the bluff, each a reminder of many centuries of building and renovation. Now the second largest inhabited castle in England, after Windsor, it is home to the Duke of Northumberland. It is open to the public and offers tours, children’s activities and many special events.
Just Down the Road
Touring the castle and the beautiful English gardens can be done in one day but the town and the area surrounding Alnwick offer so many interesting side trips that a week could be easily filled. With Alnwick as your home base, you are in an ideal location to explore the Scottish borderland. Sparsely populated Northumberland boasts scenic views and little traffic. Country roads wind through the rolling countryside of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, where deep valleys shelter small villages and isolated farmhouses.
Dunstanburgh Castle is close by and a leisurely drive to the north will take you to Holy Island and Lindisfarne. The monastic settlement, famous for its illuminated manuscript, is accessible by a causeway at low tide. Hadrian’s Wall with its Roman history is just to the south, to the west are Northumberland National Park and the Cheviot Hills and on the east coast, miles of golden sand beaches are waiting to be explored.
Alnwick, its castle and the wild beauty of Northumberland provide a glimpse into history and a contact with figures from the stories and legends of England and Scotland. It is easily accessible from Newcastle upon Tyne or Edinburgh and the perfect objective for a day’s outing but you will want to stay longer.
The inns, Bed and Breakfasts and cottages in the area provide a broad range of accommodations. Restaurants and inns boast of their local fare and prize-winning cuisine. There is so much to see and do in the Alnwick region, you may find yourself returning again and again to this enthralling corner of the British Isles.