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 Northumbrians 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 Hotspur 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.
The main historic streets and old routes in and out of the centre of Alnwick are Bailiffgate; Narrowgate; Bondgate (Within and Without); the Market Place; Market Street; Fenkle Street; Pottergate; Cannongate; Walkergate; the Peth; Ratten Row; Clayport and Green Batt.
The Peth leads down north towards the river (as Peths often do) and crosses the Aln via the Lion Bridge after it is joined from the west by Walkergate (sometimes historically called Watergate Street). At its south end near the entrance to the castle The Peth is joined from the west by Bailiffgate and from the south by Narrowgate which leads into the centre of the town.
At the end of Bailiffgate near the castle is Derwentwater House, a five bay house of 1796, partly hidden by trees. It was built on the site of a property belonging to the Jacobite rebel, James Radclyffe of Dilston, the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater (1689-1716) and the house passed to the Percy family in 1780.
It was home to the Duchess’s School from 1888. Although ‘gate’ in Bailiffgate refers to a ‘street’, there was a gate that once stood here across straddling the street just outside the castle. A cross once stood nearby just outside the castle itself.
Bailiffgate is the home to Alnwick’s Bailiffgate Museum and Gallery which is run by volunteers and has occupied the former Roman Catholic church of St Mary (by the architect John Green) since the year 2000. This former church dates from 1836.
At the centre of the town of Alnwick is the Market Place set within a triangle bordered by Fenkle Street on its west side with Bondgate Within and Market Street to the north and south. In Fenkle Street we find Alnwick Town Hall of 1771 built on the site of beer houses and a toll booth.
The old Town Hall is perhaps a little overshadowed by Northumberland Hall in nearby Market Street. Built as Assembly Rooms in 1826 with its distinctive surrounding arcade of arches is perhaps the most prominent townscape feature of Alnwick’s centre.
At the west end of Bailiffgate the street splits into Ratten Row and Cannongate. Ratten Row leads into the entrance to Hulne Park while Cannongate heads north west in the direction of Eglingham and Old Bewick. The name of the street should perhaps really be Canongate as it is likely named from the canons of the nearby abbey.
Near the Bailiffgate end, Cannongate is overlooked from a height by the church of St Michael which dates from 1464. Its construction was funded with support from tolls instigated by King Henry VI during the Wars of the Roses. There was significant restoration by John Dobson in 1825 and Anthony Salvin in the 1860s.
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’.
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.
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 in 1725. The innkeeper’s wife attributed his death to the bottles which she believed were cursed.
Narrowgate was once part of the Great North Road so the old bottles must have been seen by many a traveller over the years.
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.
Denwick, Rennington, Rock, Ellingham
Much of the area and villages north of Alnwick between the A1 and the coast are often missed by visitors who head east for the coast or west into the upland valleys but there are several places of interest.
Just across the River Aln north of Alnwick is the attractive village of Denwick just off the busy A1. It is named from its situation in a dene (or valley) formed by the neighbouring Denwick Burn.
A little to the east of Denwick along the road towards Longhoughton and the coast is Ratcheugh Crag, a whin sill outcrop topped by the curious Ratcheugh Observatory. This castellated curiosity is essentially a folly perched on a site that was carefully chosen for its extensive panoramic views. The folly was built around the 1760s to the designs of Robert Adam for Henry Percy, the first Duke of Northumberland.
About three miles from Denwick across Rennington Moor to the north is the village of Rennington. It is thought to be named from Raegnwald, one of the carriers of St Cuthbert’s coffin in Anglo-Saxon times.
Today Rennington village, which has an extensive village green, is noted for its annual scarecrow festival where villagers compete to construct the best dressed and best designed scarecrow. The village church, dedicated to All Saints dates to the nineteenth century and the village pub is called the Horsehoes Inn.
A mile north of Rennington is the curious, attractive and interesting village of Rock a place-name which simply means ‘by the rock’. There is an outcrop called Rock Nab nearby, though this is to the west of the A1 near South Charlton.
Rock village is in a relatively quiet setting and almost hidden away along a lane off the main street is the village church, a small lake and the nearby Rock Hall. Rock church, dedicated to St Philip and St James is medieval, dating to the twelfth century with its Norman west front.
The church faces out to the Rock Hall or Rock Tower as it also known, situated on the site of a manor house dating to the fourteenth century. The present Rock Hall is of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In the thirteenth century the manor or township of Rock was held by a William de Rok as a tenant of William De Vesci. It was later held by the Tughalls, Swinhoes, Lawsons, Salkelds and Proctors. Its owners in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were the Bosanquets including a Charles Bosanquet whose monument of 1850 can be seen inside the church. The hall is a private residence.
A couple of miles north of Rock are Fallodon Hall and Doxford Hall. Fallodon Hall near Christon Bank, to the west of Embleton is a red-brick eighteenth century mansion. The hall was associated with the Grey family and was the birthplace of the famed prime minister Charles, Earl Grey (1764-1845, see Howick). Grey was of course principally remembered as the instigator of the Reform Bill and is commemorated by the famous monument in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Fallodon should not be confused with Flodden Field, the famous battle site near Wooler, much further to the north. In medieval times Fallodon was held by the Lucker family and later by Alnwick Abbey. The present hall is a private residence but the gardens are occasionally open to the public. Doxford Hall to the north west of Fallodon is now a hotel but was originally built as a mansion house in 1818 by the Tyneside architect John Dobson.
About a mile north of Doxford Hall is the hamlet of Preston in which we find the prominent Preston Tower and just to its north west, the village of Ellingham. Preston Tower which is open to visitors, originally consisted of four turrets though it now has only two. It has been compared by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner to Langley Castle in South Tynedale but on a smaller scale.
Built in the 1390s, the tower’s medieval owners included Guiscard de Harbottle who was killed at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513. Half of the tower was demolished for building materials after 1603 which resulted in the loss of two of the four turrets. The clock which faces out from both walls of the tower was installed in 1864.
The village of Ellingham (‘Elling-jum’) to the north west of Preston Tower is just east of the A1 and about 7 miles north of Alnwick. In fact the village is a little nearer to Bamburgh than it is to Alnwick.
Ellingham village consists of neat stone houses and a quaint village pub called the Pack Horse Inn. The nearby Ellingham Hall, now a wedding and corporate venue, was once the seat of the Haggerston family and although dating from the seventeenth century it was much restored following a fire.
The Haggerston family were noted Catholics and a private Catholic chapel connected with their hall survives. In Elizabethan times the Haggerstons sheltered Catholic priests in secret tunnels hiding them from the pursuing Protestant authorities.
Over on the west side of the A1 from Ellingham is Wandylaw and a wide area of sparsely populated moorland stretching west to Ros Castle and Chillingham. Staying closer to this immediate west side of the road to the south are the nearby villages of North Charlton and South Charlton.
These two places are both in the parish of Eglingham (a village to the south west) rather than in the similar sounding Ellingham. Charlton Hall over on the east side of the A1 near Doxford once belonged to Ralph Hodshon Cay (1758-1810) of Lintz in County Durham who was married to the artist Elizabeth Liddell (1770-1831).
Malcolm’s Cross to Hulne Park
Heading back towards Alnwick, just north of the town and west of the A1 from Denwick is Malcolm’s Cross. Situated just off the B6341, this stone cross of medieval origin was restored in the eighteenth century. The cross commemorates the death of Malcolm Canmore (Malcolm III), King of the Scots who lost his life here at Alnwick during an invasion of the north, on November 13, 1093. The original cross, thought to be medieval, was restored in 1774.
Malcolm was killed at the hands of the forces of Robert De Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland. He was apparently tricked by Mowbray’s nephew, Arkil Morel. The king’s body was taken to Tynemouth and then buried in the newly established Norman priory church there. There is some debate as to whether his body was later returned to Scotland.
Over the road just south of Malcolm’s Cross are the ruins of the medieval chapel of St Leonard’s Hospital. It was built for the protection of King Malcolm’s soul, sometime between 1193 and 1216.
Aln is a river-name of Celtic origin, dating to the time of the ancient Britons and of course gives its name to Alnwick. East of Alnwick the river flows beneath the A1 and continues on towards the sea which reaches at Alnmouth, passing the villages of Lesbury and Hipsburn on the way.
Heading in the other direction following the River Aln upstream to the immediate north west of Alnwick, the valley setting is dominated by the extensive and beautiful landscaped grounds of Hulne Park. Hulne would seem to be a variation of the name ‘Aln’. Much of the park features woodland and was landscaped by the famed Northumbrian-born gardener Lancelot Capability Brown, who hailed from the village of Kirkharle to the west of Morpeth.
At the Forest Lodge entrance to Hulne Park is the William the Lion stone, which marks the point where that king of Scotland was captured besieging Alnwick in 1174. It seems that King Malcolm wasn’t the only Scottish king to run out of luck at Alnwick.
As the river passes through Hulne Park it provides a setting for two ruined abbeys that both lie on the north side of the Aln. Nearest to Alnwick are the remains of Alnwick Abbey, a foundation of the Premonstratensian order established in 1147 by Eustace Fitz John and his wife Beatrice, who was the daughter of Ivo De Vesci. Little remains except for the prominent abbey gatehouse.
Further upstream are the more extensive ruins of Hulne Priory (in actual fact a friary) of the Carmelite order of White Friars. It was established in 1240 by Ralph Fresborn on land granted by William De Vesci. The site was chosen due to the apparent similarity of a nearby hill to Mount Carmel from which the order took its name.
On the south side of the river on the mentioned hill is Brizlee Tower, erected in 1781 for ornamental reasons, probably to the designs of the first Duke of Northumberland. Like the Ratcheugh Observatory near Denwick, it is essentially a folly. The curious name Brizlee is some kind of reference to gad flies.
Eglingham and Edlingham
At Brizlee just north west of Alnwick, the River Aln is joined on its north side by the quiet valley of the Eglingham Burn which leads upstream, to the attractive stone-built village of Eglingham (pronounced ‘Egling-jum’) about three to four miles north west of the confluence.
Eglingham should not be confused with the aforementioned Ellingham to the north of Alnwick or the village of Edlingham to the south. Only a couple of miles to the east of Eglingham is the neighbouring valley of the River Breamish and the village is situated on route to the A697 and Wooler, further to the north west.
The village church which is dedicated to St Maurice is said to have been built on the site of an earlier church founded by Ceolwulf, the King of Northumbria who reigned 729-737 AD.
Eglingham is thought to take its name from an Anglo-Saxon called Ecgwulf but as with many places containing Anglo-Saxon personal names we know nothing about the individual. Eglingham Hall, in the village, is part Jacobean and was visited by Oliver Cromwell as the guest of its then owner, Henry Ogle, during the Civil War.
In the moors just south of Eglingham, the Ringses Camp is a prehistoric circular contour earthwork with ramparts and traces of hut circles. Other prehistoric settlements can be found scattered in and around neighbouring Titlington, Titlington Mount, Titlington Wood and Titlington Moor all to the south and situated between the Eglingham Burn and River Aln.
A little over two miles south west of Brizlee, the Aln is joined by the valley of the Edlingham Burn on the south side. The village of Edlingham (untypically for Northumberland pronounced Edling-ham’) is situated about three miles along the Edlingham Burn valley. Edlingham means ‘the ham (or homestead) of Eadwulf’s people’. It is a name that demonstrates Anglo-Saxon roots but the village church, dedicated to St John, is Norman.
Like Eglingham (six miles to the north), Edlingham’s church is thought to be located on the site of a church founded by King Ceolwulf of Northumbria. In the 1680s, the village was inhabited by a Margaret Stodhart who was supposedly a witch but it seems that this poor lady simply suffered at the hands of idle gossip, speculation and hysteria.
North East of the church we find the ruins of Edlingham Castle, an extensive pele tower established by John, son of Wealden in the twelfth century during the reign of Henry II. There is a good view of the castle from the Rothbury to Alnwick road (B6341) and this road also offers splendid panoramic views of the Northumberland countryside from Corby’s Crags just to the east of Edlingham.
Returning north to the confluence of the Edlingham Burn and Aln are the villages of Abberwick and Bolton which are respectively situated on the south and north sides of the river.
A couple of miles up the river to the west the Aln passes beneath the A697 which at this point follows the course of the Roman Road called the Devil’s Causeway. Nearby, a mile to the south of the river traces of a Roman fort of unknown name have been found at a place called Learchild. This peculiar name dates from long after the Romans and means ‘Leofric’s slope’.
Another mile along the River Aln to the west we reach the village of Whittingham, which gives its name to Whittingham Vale, the term for the upper dale of the River Aln.
Whittingham (from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Hwitta’s People’s homestead’) is divided into two halves by the River Aln so that it almost seems like two villages.
The village church, on the north side of the river, is dedicated to St Bartholemew and dates from the Anglo-Saxon era but little remains from that time as it was almost completely rebuilt in 1840 by the architect John Green. Over on the south side of the river, there is a small village green and a medieval pele tower that was restored in the 1840s.
Whittingham has long been noted as the site of a fair, an event of much merriment for the local farming populace:
Are you going to Whittingham Fair,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme;
Remember me to one who lives there,
She once was a true love of mine.
Tell her to make me a cambric shirt;
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme;
Without any seam or needlework,
For once she was a true love of mine.
The above song is one of a number of variants of a well-known English ballad. The best-know of these is undoubtedly the version known as Scarborough Fair.
Callaly Castle to Alnham
To the south of Whittingham we find the extensive Thrunton Wood and Thrunton Farm where a notable Bronze Age discovery, the ‘Whittingham Sword’ was once found. Close by to the west is Callaly Castle which has been described by Nikolaus Pevsner as “One of the most interesting and varied houses of Northumberland.”
It is essentially a thirteenth century pele tower that was extended as a mansion house in 1676 and 1835. In early times the pele had belonged to the Callaly family and later belonged to the Claverings who lived here from the thirteenth century until the nineteenth century when it was acquired by the Brownes. Castle Hill, in the woodland just east of the castle is the site of a prehistoric fort.
Just over a mile and half north of Whittingham is the village of Glanton at a half way point between the valleys of the River Aln and the River Breamish. Now we continue west up the valley of the Aln past Eslington Hall and Eslington Park on the north side of the River Aln. The hall dates from 1720 and was built by the Liddels of Ravensworth who also resided at Ravensworth Castle in the Team Valley near Gateshead. Eslington Hall stands on the site of an old border pele tower associated with the Eslington, Haselrigg and Collingwood families.
Continuing west along the valley, neighbouring farms and hamlets include Yetlington, Little Ryle and Unthank (one of a number of places of this name in the region) before we reach the little village of Alnham. Here near Alnham on the edge of the Cheviot Hills, the River Aln commences its journey to the sea.
The village church of St Michael at Alnham is mostly Victorian replacing an earlier church of around 1200. There is a tower house, a former ‘vicar’s pele’ in the village and there was once a castle in the village still remembered in the name of Castle Farm. Castle Hill to the west of Alnham is the site of a prehistoric camp.