A Perfect Day in Alnwick

My ingredients for a perfect day out, in no particular order, are historic buildings and gardens, bookshops and tea shops.  The town of Alnwick in Northumberland offers all these and more. Alnwick Castle has been in the hands of the Percy family since the fourteenth century, when they acquired it from the Bishop of Durham, Antony Bek in 1309. The castle he bought was a typical motte and bailey castle. The showpiece and popular filming location you can see today is the product of many adaptations over the centuries, with the impressive state rooms lavishly redesigned in an Italianate style in the nineteenth century.

It’s an impressive sight, but as a medievalist I am intrigued by the story of how the bishop came to acquire it from William de Vesci, the last Vesci lord of Alnwick, who had no surviving legitimate son. At the time, the bishop of Durham was a powerful force in the region, holding secular as well as religious authority. According to which version you believe, William either conveyed the castle to the bishop in trust for his infant illegitimate son William de Vesci of Kildare, or gave it to him as a reward for his help with settling other parts of the estate on the illegitimate son. Sources hostile to the bishop  claim that he betrayed de Vesci by selling Alnwick to the Percies, but I’m inclined to take the bishop’s side.

Alnwick Castle

Although Alnwick Castle is an imposing medieval building, it’s still a family home.  It has found more recent fame as a location in the Harry Potter films, as the souvenirs in the gift shop will testify. Resisting the temptation to buy myself a broomstick I elect to explore the Alnwick Garden, which the Duchess of Northumberland has developed into a showpiece tourist attraction in its own right, complete with an ominous ‘Poison Garden.’

Time to visit the local church.  Probably built on the site of an earlier Saxon church, the Norman church was added to over successive centuries and was substantially rebuilt in the 1460s.  It is fascinating to discover two medieval tomb effigies which have survived the rebuilding.  One is believed to be Lady Isabella, widow of William de Vesci, that same lord of Alnwick who handed the castle over to the bishop.

Vesci tomb, Alnwick Church

Emerging from the church, I spend some time exploring Bailiffgate Museum, housed in a former chapel.  It is small but interesting, covering the local area from the stone age to the present with the aid of period-specific knitted mice in some of the cabinets. Aside from the woollen rodents, Interesting items include a 12th century town charter from the Vesci Lord of Alnwick of the day and the console from a Cold War Monitoring station. 

12 Century Town Charter, Bailiffgate Museum

What better place to end the visit than Barter Books? It’s a huge second-hand bookshop housed in the former railway station. I think it’s best left until last to avoid having to carry bags of books for the rest of the day, but the taxi driver who brought me from Alnmouth station told me that Barter Books seems to be as big a draw as the castle. As well as books there are comfy chairs, an excellent cafe, and model trains running around above the bookshelves.  Did I mention that I also like miniature trains?

Barter Books

Historic buildings and gardens, bookshops and tea-shops? Alnwick has them all.


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