Alnwick and the River Aln

Harry Hotspur and the Percys

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’.

Alnwick Castle
Alnwick Castle Photo © David Simpson 2018

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
The Hotspur gate, Alnwick 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 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.

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 De Vesci though the castle is much better known as the historic seat of the Percy family.

The Lion Bridge and Alnwick Castle
The Lion Bridge and Alnwick Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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’.

Farmers' Folly, Alnwick
Percy tenantry column or ‘farmers’ folly’ at Alnwick. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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 occupies the former Alnwick Railway Station.
Barter Books occupies the former Alnwick Railway Station. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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.

‘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.

The Dirty Bottles Alnwick
The Dirty Bottles Alnwick. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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.

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

Malcolm’s Cross, Denwick and Rennington

Across the river north of Alnwick is the village of Denwick, named from its situation in a dene or valley – presumably that of the neighbouring Denwick Burn. Nearby to the west but also north of the river is Malcolm’s Cross, a stone cross of medieval origin that was restored in the eighteenth century.

Malcolm’s 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.

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.

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 the village is noted for its annual Scarecrow Festival where villagers compete to construct the best dressed and best designed scarecrow.

Hulne Priory
Hulne Priory near Alnwick, a Victorian view

Hulne Park

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 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. The curious name Brizlee is some kind of reference to gad flies.

Edlingham Castle. Photo: ©2018 David Simpson

Eglingham and Edlingham

Near Brizlee, the River Aln is joined on the north side by the quiet valley of the Eglingham Burn which leads upstream, to the attractive stone-built village of Eglingham about four miles to the north west. The village is situated only a couple of miles from the neighbouring valley of the River Breamish. 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 is 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.

Northumbrian scenery with the Cheviot Hills in the distance viewed from the Rothbury to Alnwick road. Photo ©2018 David Simpson

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.

Whittingham

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’.

Whittingham village
Whittingham village and tower. Photo: ©David Simpson 2018

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. However, we continue west up the valley of the Aln past Eslington Hall and Eslington Park on the north side of the river. 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 at 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.

The Cheviot streams to the north of Alnham feed the River Breamish while those to the south and west feed the River Coquet near Rothbury.

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