The last time I went to Alnwick was way back in ancient history. So when my son and his GF suggest we go out for the day all the way up to Northumberland to visit this historic town, I find myself jumping at the idea. Why ever not FGS?
It’s a pretty hefty drive from Ilkley in Yorkshire, where I am staying, but luckily Drystan is doing the driving while I sit back in style in the back of his Megane, chauffeured up the A1 past the Angel of the North – which is only visible from afar nowadays since this iconic sculpture is mostly surrounded by trees that are many times larger than when it was first unveiled many years back.
The Angel, near Gateshead, was designed by Antony Gormley – a 20 metres tall, 200 tonne steel sculpture with wings measuring 54 metres across. Work began on the project in 1994 and cost £1 million. It was finished on 16 February 1998 and has aroused controversy ever since. According to Wikipedia, the sculpture is known locally as the 'Gateshead Flasher'.
Alnwick is one of those towns that was built within a city wall with various portals dotted around, such as this one at Bondgate.
The first thing that most visitors to the town come across is one of the most iconic book shops in the whole of England. Barter Books is a second-hand bookshop which attracts over 200,000 visitors a year and is one of the largest second-hand bookstores in Europe.
You find it in the Victorian railway station, which was opened in 1887 and was in use until the closure of the Alnwick branch line in 1968 by the infamous Dr Beeching. Barter Books was opened in 1991. Their name is a good indication of their modus operandi – customers can bring in old books and exchange them for credit against future purchases, though, of course, standard cash purchases are also available.
Actually it’s a lovely, fascinating building inside, even if it doesn’t immediately strike the eye from the outside. The railway station was designed by William Bell in 1887 and at 32,000 sq. ft, was designed to make an impression, since Alnwick is the seat of the Dukes of Northumberland and in the 19th century they wanted to impress visiting royalty.
There’s a model railway running over your head as you wander along the assorted book shelves which have been separated into subject areas. There are three large murals, a café located in the old station buffet and numerous restored station features.
Book turnover, the owners proudly boast, is around 3,000 per week.
Around the main room you find over forty glass cases containing some of the more interesting antiquarian books, such as this Babar book …
and that’s one of the real pleasures for me – I’m afraid I have enough grey hairs to actually remember when these books were commonplace. There’s even a couple of first edition Narnia books locked up for safe keeping that I also have sitting on my book shelf back in Ilkley.
One of the best murals is of famous English language authors, painted by a local artist, Peter Dodd. At 38' x 16' it depicts some forty life-size writers from 1800 onwards, such as Austen, Hemingway, Keats, Stoppard and Orwell. Apparently it took two years to create, and it draws the requisite number of oohs and ahhhs from most visitors passing through the shop.
But we haven’t come to Alnwick just to visit the bookshop, beguiling though it undoubtedly is.
No, what most people come for are the gardens and castle. Now, I was last here over a decade ago and in those days there were grand plans to resurrect the old derelict gardens which had been lying unloved for so long. But today that dream has come true, thanks to the tenacity of the present Duchess of Northumberland.
The gardens had a long history under the Dukes of Northumberland, but fell into disrepair. The first garden was laid down in 1750 by the first Duke, who employed Capability Brown to landscape the parkland adjoining his castle.
The third Duke was a plant collector who brought seeds from all over the world, and he even raised pineapples in hothouses. In the middle of the 19th century, the fourth Duke created an Italianate garden featuring a large conservatory, and by the start of the next century, the gardens featured yew topiary, avenues of limes and large swathes of flowers.
But during World War II’s ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign, it was all turned over for food production. It was closed as a working garden in 1950 and with the ensuing austerity of that decade, the garden rapidly fell into disrepair.
Half a century was to pass before the present Duchess – Jane Percy – started the Garden’s resurrection in 1997. She brought in Belgian designers Jacques and Peter Wirtz to ensure that each individual garden within the overall concept was cutting edge in terms of both design and technology used.
As you enter, the first thing you are struck by is the Grand Cascade which is the epicentre of the Garden. It reminds me of a mini-Chatsworth, which must surely be where some of the inspiration for it originated. Running north to south it forms a dramatic centrepiece, immediately catching the eye and drawing one in.
It’s probably true to say that this is the most ambitious new garden created in the United Kingdom since the Second World War, with a reported total development cost of £42 million. Its first phase of development, which opened in October 2001, involved the creation of the cascade and initial planting of the gardens; and it was in this condition that I first saw it.
The Cascade is gravity fed – just like in Chatsworth – and every so often as the sustaining tanks fill up, a display of fountains comes into play, soaking the kids who play chicken or Russian roulette running between the on-and-off water shoots.
As we pass through the Venetian gates at the top of the Grand Cascade we reach the Ornamental Garden which really is a joy to the eye. At its centre is a little pool that runs into the rills that run throughout the Garden. Beds of roses and delphiniums are edged in box, while cut flower species grow with annuals and bulbs alongside small fruit varieties.
The deep blue of the delphiniums is beautifully set off by the sharp starkness of the thistles…
… but for me the best of all are the huge swathes of roses in all varieties and colours.
These pictures just can’t do them justice.
and they are simply crying out for the coming of smellavision to the internet, whenever that will be…
One of the disappointments for me is the maze, which admittedly is beautifully crafted from bamboo – now so thick you simply cannot see through the walls adjoining the pathways. I make two turns and already find myself in the centre. Has it been designed for three year olds? Or am I just super-intelligent, I ask myself. (Answers on a postcard…etc etc!)
There are a couple of dovecots in the Ornamental Garden which look at first as if they are standing there all forlorn and alone; but closer inspection reveals some white birds who are waking up and eventually strut their way out onto the ledges.
Emerging from this area, though, you soon come across covered walkways. I remember when they were just iron skeletons. But now they have taken on a life all of their own.
Water is a central feature of the gardens and there is a variety of fountains and water features, such as this inside-out fountain…
I’m sure there must be a special name for this kind of fountain which is really a dribble rather than a fountain. But somehow I don’t think ‘dribbler’ would be an appropriate name!
Here’s another dribbler which the daring can try to walk through without getting soaked…
And this gravity fed fountain only erupts every 15 minutes or so, with the kids running in and out of it daring the gods to get them wet before they are finally trapped inside. A nearby board explains that a pool on high ground overlooking the Serpent Garden overflows to fill up the sculpture through underground pipework. The water rises in the transparent tubes until it is level with the surface of the nearby pool and then a pneumatically powered valve below ground opens to release the hydrostatically charged water into a circular manifold that feeds ninety jets. When the jets have all but died, the valve closes allowing the system to fill up again and the cycle to continue.
This vortex sculpture is meant to represent vortices in nature, such as tornadoes and black holes, wherein the water creates a vortex as the forces of water pressure, air pressure and gravity make it move into a downward spiral.
There are other things to see as well, such as a poison garden, opened in 2005, containing plants such as cannabis and opium poppy as well as some more dangerous substances.
The year before, one of the largest treehouses in the world was opened containing cafés and restaurants. It covers a whopping 6,000 sq ft – that’s 560 sq m to you and me!
There’s also a peach tree garden which bursts into life twice a year with blossom and ground tulips; but today it is pretty underwhelming and we walk straight through it.
Below is a little lake which again is somewhat underwhelming, save for a Chinese-style duck house!
Another favourite place is the pavilion and visitor centre, opened in May 2006 with its barrel-vaulted gridshell roof. It can hold up to 1,000 people and features cream teas – oh yummy – once you have called their bluff over their advertised gluten free offerings. But the gluten-loaded scones are worth gluttonising over …
Mind you, the café makes up for this by being incredibly helpful when it comes to advising you that butter actually contains milk.
Well satiated we soon get a clue as to our next port of call…
Unfortunately my Parseltongue is a little rusty these days, but it’s not difficult to find the right direction to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, alias Alnwick Castle.
Alnwick Castle is the seat of the Dukes of Northumberland, and was built following the Norman conquest. Nowadays it receives over 800,000 visitors per year, helped in no small measure by fans of Harry Potter hoping to see the only Quidditch pitch in England. Alas, they are invariably disappointed.
Yves de Vescy, Baron of Alnwick, erected the first parts of the castle in about 1096, in order to protect England's northern border against the Scottish invaders. It was first mentioned in 1136 when it was captured by King David I of Scotland. It was besieged in 1172 and again in 1174 by William the Lion, King of Scotland who was eventually captured outside the walls during the Battle of Alnwick.
Through his military accomplishments, Henry Percy, aka 1st Baron Percy (1273–1314), enhanced his family's status in northern England and in 1309 he purchased the barony of Alnwick. It has been owned by the Percy family, the Earls and later Dukes of Northumberland ever since.
Over the next couple of centuries, the building work at Alnwick Castle balanced military requirements with the family's residential needs and set the template for castle renovations in the 14th century in northern England. The 6th Earl of Northumberland carried out renovations in the 16th century, and in the second half of the 18th century Robert Adam carried out many alterations.
Alnwick is distinguished as one of the earliest castles in England to be built without a square keep. It consists of two main rings of buildings: the inner ring is set around a small courtyard and contains the principal rooms. As the central block was not large enough to contain all the accommodations required in later centuries, a large range of buildings was constructed along the south wall of the bailey. These two main areas of accommodation are connected by a link building. There are towers at regular intervals along the walls of the outer bailey.
The current Duke and his family live in the castle, but they only occupy part of it. After Windsor Castle, it is the second largest inhabited castle in England. Since the Second World War, parts of the castle have been used by various educational establishments: firstly, by the Newcastle Church High School for Girls then, from 1945 to 1975, as a teacher training college and, since 1981, by St. Cloud State University of Minnesota as a branch campus forming part of their International Study Programme.
And, of course, Hogwarts – which magically appeared in 2001 and lasted for ten years. You might remember these carved figures on the battlements in some of the Harry Potter films. They date back to the 14th century when there were several castles in northern England similarly decorated.
Alnwick has been used as the backdrop for numerous other films and TV series too. Who can forget Becket, made in 1964 (or to put it another way, who can remember Becket, made in 1964)? Or Mary, Queen of Scots in 1971. The 1998 version of Elizabeth was also filmed here as was the original Black Adder in 1983, starring Rowan Atkinson…
Oh, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was also filmed here in 1991.
But the marketing department knows when they are on to a winner, and it is Harry Potter’s legacy that they promote for all it is worth. Come fly with us at Alnwick Castle! the posters proclaim. Costumed witches and wizards especially welcome!
We are encouraged to ‘Join our resident wizarding professors and take part in one of our famous broomstick training sessions, on the very spot where Harry had his first flying lesson in the film production of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Master your broomstick and don't forget to take a picture of your take-off to amaze your friends!’
But if you are already suffering from Harry-Potter-fatigue, don’t think you can escape some of the other must-do-activities on offer:
Only the most courageous and worthy should dare to enter Dragon Quest.
Put your knightly courage to the test when you enter the darkness of the dragon’s lair.
Solve riddles and face a series of challenges before making safe passage through the hall of mirrors.
Will you stand your ground or quake with fear when you come face-to-face with Northumberland’s most fearsome dragon?
For those slightly older than these targeted visitors, you can also enjoy special exhibitions housed in three of the castle's perimeter towers. The Postern Tower, as well as featuring an exhibition on the Dukes of Northumberland and their interest in archaeology, includes frescoes from Pompeii, relics from Ancient Egypt and Romano-British objects. Constable's Tower houses military displays like the Percy Tenantry Volunteers exhibition, local, volunteer soldiers raised to repel Napoleon's planned invasion in the period 1798–1814. The Abbot's Tower houses the Regimental Museum of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.
One notice has me puzzled though. What, I ask myself, is the use of having a gate if it must always be kept closed? Why not just brick it up instead?
But I guess it is really no use puzzling over this conundrum; for if I learn nothing else from today’s outing it is that we should all stop worrying…
…though perhaps worryingly still, it is that we are offered no advice on how to stop worrying about the remaining 10 per cent of our worries. Hmmmm…..