Alnwick Castle in the spring

Harry Hotspur and the Percys

Alnwick is one of Northumberland’s most historic towns and is a rather handsome town too. Pronounced ‘Annick’, the town grew as a crossing point on the River Aln and its Anglo-Saxon name ‘Aln-Wick’ simply means ‘farm or trading place on the Aln’.

Throughout its history Alnwick was very much a ‘border town’, with an important castle and extensive town walls. The main reminder of the old walls today is the medieval Hotspur tower, a narrow arched gateway that straddles Alnwick’s main street causing a slight historic inconvenience for modern traffic.

The main street is Bondgate which changes its name from ‘Bondgate Without’ to ‘Bondgate Within’ as it passes through the arch into the town centre. Hotspur Tower dates from the fifteenth century and commemorates the name of that famous warlike member of the Percy family, Harry Hotspur.

The Hotspur gate, Alnwick from Bondgate Within. Photo copyright David Simpson 2018
The Hotspur gate, Alnwick from Bondgate Within. Photo © 2018 David Simpson.

Harry Hotspur features in Shakespeare and was noted for having a bit of a speech impediment that was supposedly emulated by the Northumrbrians resulting in the peculiar burr sound of the Northumbrian dialect. Descendants of Hotspur, incidentally, owned land at Tottenham Marshes in London where the football club, whose first ground was situated there, are said to have been named in his honour.

The tower was one of four gateways in and out of Alnwick, the others being Clayport Gate, Pottergate and Narrowgate.  Pottergate Tower is however, a later rebuilding of the original and dates from 1768. The name has nothing to do with that other Harry now so closely connected with Alnwick.

Scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed in the grounds of Alnwick Castle most notably the famous quidditch match. Many tourists visit the castle to give the sport ago. It’s a very successful enterprise that has managed to get off ground and has probably seen the number of visitors soar, though rarely (if ever) in the literal sense.

Alnwick Castle

Alnwick Castle, sometimes referred to as the ‘Windsor of the North’, is arguably the best medieval castle in northern England. It dates from the eleventh century and its construction was begun by a Norman family called the De Vescis though the castle is much better known as the historic seat of the Percy family.

Alnwick Castle and the Lion Bridge. the lion is the sumbol of the Percys. Photo: David Simpson
Alnwick Castle and the Lion Bridge. the lion is the symbol of the Percys. Photo © 2018 David Simpson.

Northumberland’s association with the Percy family began on the  November 19, 1309 when Henry De Percy bought the castle and barony of Alnwick from Anthony Bek, the Bishop of Durham, who had acquired the land from the De Vescis.

In 1377 Henry, the fourth Lord Percy, became the first post conquest Earl of Northumberland, a title that was held by the Percys until the seventeenth century. The present Duke of Northumberland still bears the Percy name.

The first gardens at Alnwick were laid down in 1750 by the 1st Duke of Northumberland but over the years had fallen into disrepair. The spectacular redevelopment of the Alnwick Garden was instigated by the Duchess of Northumberland in 1997 and is now one of the town’s most beautiful attractions with the newly created cascade forming a centrepiece.

Other big draws in the garden are the enormous treehouse and of course the Poison Garden which contains some of the most deadly species of plants locked away behind an ominous gateway that warns ‘These Plants Can Kill’.

The Farmers’ Folly

One of the most imposing reminders of the Percy family in Alnwick is the 83 ft high Percy Tenantry Column which is known locally as the Farmers’ Folly. The column, designed by the Newcastle architect David Stephenson was constructed in 1816 and lies close to the southern end of the street called Bondgate Without. It is one of the first sights to greet the visitor to Alnwick from the south.

Legend has it that the 2nd Duke of Northumberland (a Percy) lowered the rents of his agricultural tenants by twenty-five per cent to help them through the period of agricultural depression which followed the Napoleonic Wars.

It is said that the tenants were so grateful to the Duke that they erected the great column in his honour – topped of course by a stone statue of the famous Percy Lion which had been the emblem of the Percy family for centuries.

But the story is that the Duke, far from showing gratitude for the monument to his honour was more interested in the fact that his tenants had been able to raise the money for the monument. His reaction was to raise their rents once again – the story is however only a legend.

The column stands outside the former Alnwick railway station of 1887 which has been home to the rather wonderful Barter Books book store since 1991.

The dread of Scottish kings

Not far to the north west of Alnwick castle are the extensive grounds of Hulne Park, where there are the remains of both a priory and an abbey. The grounds were mainly landscaped by Capability Brown and feature some of his finest work in his home county.

At the entrance to the park is the William the Lion stone, which marks the point where that king of Scotland, was captured while besieging Alnwick in 1174. He was not the first Scottish king to fall unlucky at Alnwick, for less than a mile to the north of the town near Alnwick’s Lion bridge is Malcolm’s Cross, marking the place where King Malcolm Canmore, (1057-1093) was killed during an invasion of England.

‘Dirty Bottles’ and Titanic’s sister ship

As an important coaching stop on the Great North Road, between London and Edinburgh, Alnwick had a good share of inns for the traveller. Today many of these remain, including the Old Cross Inn (now called ‘Dirty Bottles’) in Narrowgate which is famous for the dirty bottles in the window. The dirty bottles have been here for two centuries since the day the innkeeper died while placing them there.

Dirty Bottles. Photo copyright David Simpson 2018
Dirty Bottles, Alnwick, Northumberland. Photo © 2018 David Simpson.

Superstition has it, that whoever tries to move these dirty bottles, will be cursed with bad luck and the widow of the poor man who put the bottles in the window claimed that whoever touched them would be sure to die soon after. Since that day the window has never been cleaned and the bottles have remained untouched.

Another of Alnwick’s well known inns is the White Swan, within which we find the lounge ballroom from the `Olympic’, sister ship of the ‘Titanic’. The huge room was rescued from the ship when it was scrapped at Wallsend on Tyne. It has been beautifully restored and installed in the inn with all its fittings.

White Swan Alnwick, Photo David Simpson copyright 2018
White Swan Inn, Alnwick, Photo © 2018 David Simpson.

Visit the Castle website

Visit the Garden website


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