Despite the passing of often turbulent centuries, Alnwick as Brian Spencer discovered, has managed to combine its historical past with modern living.
Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 begins with Rumour telling of Hotspur’s death and calling Warkworth Castle, which was then his home, ‘a worm-eaten hold of ragged stone’. Southerners were clearly as inaccurate then as they are now in their opinions of the North of England. No one, even after 400 years of wear and tear, could describe Warkworth in these terms. Warkworth was just one of a whole string of Border fortresses governing lands disputed by the Scots and English for centuries; Harry Hotspur was the scion of the Percy family, who ruled over the wild lands and border rievers inhabiting this part of Northumbria. This they did from their main stronghold of Alnwick Castle.
Alnwick Castle, home of the Dukes of Northumberland, the ennobled Percys, still donates a fortified section of the town. The castle we see today is the result of careful 18th century restoration, with later internal alterations in the Victorian era by the architect Anthony Salvin for the 4th Duke of Northumberland. Still looking very much as it did when the first stones were raised in the 11th century, the castle offers a warlike aspect towards potential invaders from over the border. Lifelike statues high in the battlements, carved by James Johnson can be mistaken for live soldiers: there is another statue, a modern one this time and at ground level beyond the castle gates. Fully armed, Harry Hotspur looks ready to defend Alnwick against all-comers.
Back inside the castle, which is open to the public, the richly decorated Classical interior is hung with paintings by Canaletto, Van Dyck and Titian, alongside furniture made by dedicated craftsmen. As a reminder of the power ancient Percys could exert over anyone who did not meet with their approval, there are the dank and dark dungeons to put a frisson of imagined terror into the hearts of excited children. Along with an armoury, there is an interesting museum of local remains, some of which date from pre-Roman times: the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers Regimental Museum is housed in the Abbot’s Tower.
Capability Brown landscaped the park that stretches away from the castle, northwards across the River Aln. Of the two ancient bridges crossing the river, the one from the north, upstream, offers the best view of the castle built on rising ground above the river. Decorated with a sturdy Percy lion, it is a must for anyone with a camera. Linked stretches of parkland fill the countryside to the north. Abbeylands is part of the castle park, with the scant remains of Alnwick Abbey, founded by Premonstratensian monks, but closed by the edict of King Henry VIII. Further upstream, Hulne Park lines both sides of the Aln where there are the remains of another monastic house; Hulne Priory was a fortified abbey founded by the Carmelite order of White Friars in 1240. The priory was later to become something of a pleasure garden for later Percys.
Outside the castle gate, the streets lining the centre of Alnwick are mostly stately Georgian townhouses. This is a theme that has been echoed through modern development; even the local Morrison’s supermarket has been built in an attempt to blend in with the old, and it works.
Moving away from the castle and into the town centre. A little way beyond Harry Hotspur’s statue, a curious little window overlooking the pavement outside the Old Cross Inn has rather an odd story. If you can see through the grime covered windowpanes you will see a pile of dust covered bottles. Known locally as ‘Dirty Bottles’, so the story goes, anyone who tries to tidy up the display is likely to die within the day. How true this tale might be, no landlord for over 200 years has attempted to disprove the story..
Alnwick town centre is everything one would expect of a prosperous market town, but apart from the remaining one or two butchers’ shops the Shambles is no longer thronged with the huge number that filled its narrow stinking alleys in medieval times. The town grew beneath the castle’s guardian walls, and tiny intimate squares still evoke an atmosphere of that ancient past, a past that is re-enacted each year during the costumed Alnwick Fair. Alnwick has been an important commercial centre since its first charter was granted in 1291. In a corner of the market place the stepped Market Cross looks out on to Northumberland Hall, an imposing building erected in 1826. To one side is the older Town Hall, dating from 1771.
Despite the A1 Great North Road by-passing the town, it is still a tight squeeze even for local traffic to pass through the Town Gate, the most tangible remains of a protecting wall. Fine old coaching inns line what was once the main road north, they sit alongside a well-supported theatre. Beyond them and beside a traffic island where the road divides, the railway station abandoned by the Beeching Axe, is now one of the finest, if not the finest, second hand bookshop in the country. This is a place to browse, or admire ancient first editions and rare books –there are even children’s comics of yesteryear – to enjoy and read in fireside arm chairs while sipping excellent coffee. The current fashion of printing notices beginning with ‘Keep Calm’, originated at the station bookshop when someone discovered an original wartime government poster exhorting the public to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.
Bibliophiles will not be the only devotees making for this end of town. These will be anglers making their way to the Mecca of angling. Hardy rods and reels appear from time to time on programmes like The Antiques Road Show where they can be valued in the thousands of pounds. The name of the place they are heading for is called Hardy and Company and was founded by William Hardy in the late 1800s. Makers of the finest of all fishing tackle, the company has been honoured by several royal warrants. Hardy and Company are at the southern end of town close to the point where the old road joins the by-pass; there is also a dedicated museum to the history of the firm and in particular the art of fly-fishing.
A tall stone column stands opposite the bookshop. It was built by farming tenants of one of the earlier dukes who had reduced their rents during a particularly difficult recession. One cannot but imagine what the duke thought of it all, if having had their rents cut in order to stave off poverty, the tenants could still afford to pay for this huge lump of stone.
Alnwick Castle Garden
The column marks the junction with the road to the coast. A little way along it is Alnwick Castle Garden, the brain child of the Duchess of Northumberland. Unlike great houses like, say, Chatsworth, Alnwick didn’t have the advantage of a garden which had developed over the centuries, or the gift of a garden genius like Paxton, but it did have the foresight of a modern duchess – she even persuaded the train company to stop East Coast Mainline trains at the tiny village of Alnmouth which is now labelled as ‘For Alnwick’. Because it couldn’t develop over the centuries, this garden is completely modern. Its main feature is a massive stepped fountain where the sprays are co-ordinated to operate in sequence, much to the delight of children dodging the spray. There is also a maze made from quick growing bamboo and a garden where visitors can only enter with a guide beyond a locked gate; this is the Poison Garden where everything is either deadly or producing what is euphemistically called a ‘banned substance’ – opium poppies grow in abundance alongside a specially caged cannabis plant grown under a Home Office licence; but of all the delights in Alnwick Garden it is no doubt the Tree House. This is a massive structure built across several trees, which holds a restaurant, cafes and swaying aerial walkways.
We stayed self-catering at Swansfield Stables, hard by number two tee of Alnwick Golf Course on the Rothbury road out of town. There are two apartments, one a double and the other taking six. Well behaved dogs are welcome.