Are you missing “Downton Abbey”? You can visit the castle where the family spent Christmas in the final episodes of the last two seasons. Are you a fan of Harry Potter? He learned to fly in Alnwick Castle, and you too can have flying lessons there. From roughly April until November, the Castle’s lavish staterooms are open for tours, while the grounds are filled with family-friendly activities like broomstick-flying lessons. Except for Windsor Castle, this is the largest inhabited castle in England. The Duke of Northumberland and his family live there in the winter. In fact, Alnwick used to be known as “Windsor of the North.”
On the other end of Alnwick is Barter Books, a widely lauded secondhand bookstore in a cavernous old train station, where the beginning of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” craze hangs: a World War II poster that was found in a box of old books. Barter Books was created by a fellow American who now runs it with her husband; the shop sees some 350,000 visitors a year. Thousands of books are there to browse and the buffet serves excellent food with an American twist. (Hint: the macaroni and cheese is to die for; be sure to get the bacon on top.) Coal fires heat the old waiting rooms where patrons dine and historic art hangs on the walls. A giant mural depicts 31 English-language writers, and another lists the names of all the people who worked at the train station. Lines of poetry connect bookshelves, and an electric train runs overhead. An ice cream parlor is a recent addition. It’s a great place to while away the hours.
Adjoining the castle and town is The Alnwick Garden, an extensive display of horticulture including a massive cascade fountain, a poison garden (in keeping with the Harry Potter theme), a formal ornamental garden, a forest of cherry trees, a rose garden, a bamboo labyrinth, and the Serpent Garden. The Serpent Garden contains a collection of sculptures illustrating features of water under various effects of physics, such as a vortex and Toricelli’s Law. The Treehouse at The Alnwick Garden is a restaurant in one of the largest treehouses in the world.
The original garden was created by the famed Lancelot “Capability” Brown in 1750 when the first Duke of Northumberland hired him to landscape the areas around Alnwick Castle. The current redevelopment, begun in 1997, has reportedly cost more than £42 million to date.
Alnwick (pronounced Ann-ick) is an old market town with just over 8,000 residents in northeast England five miles from the North Sea. Its marketplace dates back to the 12th century, the town itself back to around AD 600. It’s in Northumberland County, which has the sparsest population of people and the densest population of castles in the country. Alnwick is 87 miles south of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 34 miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne, England. That location makes it a great base for a visit to England, Scotland, and beyond to Europe; both Newcastle and Edinburgh have international airports.
Most people who come to England go solely or primarily to London. When I am back home in the U.S., people often ask me, “How was London?” without thinking that a visitor could go anywhere else. London is a great place, and though it’s far away from Alnwick by British standards (about 320 miles), one can certainly get there from Alnwick, and I would argue for basing a visit in Alnwick or another outpost over London as a main stopping point for one main reason: Alnwick is what people think England is like.
Alnwick is a quaint town by any measure, with its old stone buildings, winding streets and a town square (not exactly square, but it serves the function). The surrounding towns and countryside are equally charming. Northumberland (population roughly 320,000) is rolling hills, grazing sheep, stone cottages, rocky and sandy seashores, castles, hedges, and old pubs.
The south end of Alnwick has experienced recent growth with McDonald’s, Starbucks, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer, and Willowburn Sports and Leisure Centre, but the north, older end still displays its ancient roots.
Alnwick Castle and its environs have featured in 41 films and television shows, according to imdb.com. In addition to the first two Harry Potter films and the “Downtown Abbey” episodes, it’s in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Transformers: The Last Knight,” “Elizabeth,” “The Hollow Crown,” “Becket,” and “The Virgin Queen,” “Ivanhoe” and even “Antiques Roadshow.”
The Alnwick Playhouse is central to Alnwick’s social life and entertainment. It has been beautifully restored and reopened early in 2020, only to have to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its normal schedule features an array of entertainment, including local theater and musical productions, current films, and live streaming of opera, ballet and Shakespeare productions. Upstairs is a gallery for local art and an inviting bar, beautifully re-done in its original art deco style. Downstairs, there’s a café, plus the town’s Tourist Information Center and its library.
Alnwick first captured my heart in 2002, when I came with a group of study abroad students from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. This program has run continuously since 1981; students and faculty live, meet for classes, and dine in Alnwick Castle. Faculty teach their usual subjects adapted to add British content, and two British faculty offer courses in current and historic Britain. Almost weekly field trips take students to nearby sites like coastal castles, Edinburgh, Durham, York, Newcastle, Beamish and Hadrian’s Wall. Thousands of students have taken part in this program and had their eyes opened to the world beyond Minnesota.
I returned in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2015 with more students, and brought a group of program alumni, mostly parents of former students, in 2013. I house-sat two Christmases for an American friend here. One day, walking through the town, I had an epiphany: when I retire, I want to spend time here and have my friends and family come visit. And that’s what I did. I’ve been fortunate to come for an extended visit every year since I retired.
One result of the St. Cloud program is that Alnwick residents are quite used to having Americans around. Moreover, the town attracts many tourists, which means souvenirs and restaurants are plentiful. Lilburns, Thai Vibe, Caffe Tirreno, Market Tavern, the Treehouse, the Oaks, Yan’s, Carlo’s, and Mumbai Flavours are several of the excellent dining spots. Since Alnwick was named the best place to live in England in 2002 by Country Life magazine, quite a few people have chosen to retire here, bringing helpful skills and community interests from all over the nation.
Speaking of favorites, Alnwick pubs are gems where locals still hang out. Tanner’s Arms, the John Bull, the Fleece, the Plough, the Oaks, Alnwick Arms, the Black Swan, and Dirty Bottles are a good sampling. Prices are reasonable and people are friendly. Several offer weekly pub quizzes, a British tradition. And, you don’t have to pay a cover charge to hear music in town: the John Bull, the Fleece and Tanner’s all offer music nights with a variety of local talent, some traditional and some more varied. The excellence of local musicians is surprising. Alnwick Music Festival happens in late summer, and Lionheart Radio, a community station, plays a wide variety of tunes at 107.3 FM; you can listen via your computer at lionheartradio.com.
To be continued….