Alnwick is one of Northumberland’s most historic towns and 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.
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 that is 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 this popular sport a go so the Harry Potter connection has seen visitors soar, though perhaps rarely (if ever) in the literal sense. At least as far we know.
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 De Vesci though the castle is much better known as the historic seat of the Percy family.
Northumberland’s association with the Percies began in 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-Norman ‘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 (a duke rather than an earl) but over the years they 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 Alnwick’s most beautiful attractions with the fantastic water cascade forming the centrepiece.
Other big draws in the garden are the enormous treehouse and of course the famous ‘Poison Garden’ which contains some of the most deadly species of plants. They are 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 has 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 popular and rather fabulous Barter Books book store since 1991.
Barter Books is an attraction in its own right. The store, founded by Stuart and Mary Manley includes open fires where you can curl up and begin reading a book before you purchase while a model train runs around on the bookshelves overhead.
In 2005 the bookstore launched a print run of the famous ‘Keep Calm’ posters based on the wartime poster of which the store had an original in their possession. It became one of the most popular sales items ever and resulted in countless imitations. The logo is now one of the most widely recognised product slogans, featured on everything from mugs to mouse mats.
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 (which was actually a friary). 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 several 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 from the unfortunate day the innkeeper died while placing them there. The innkeeper’s wife attributed his death to the bottles which she believed were cursed.
Superstition has it, that whoever tries to move these dirty bottles, will be cursed with bad luck. The widow 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 elegant lounge ballroom from a ship called the ‘Olympic’. This was the sister ship of the ‘Titanic’ and the huge room was rescued from the ship when it was scrapped at Wallsend on Tyne. It was beautifully restored and installed in the inn with all its fittings.