Alnwick is a sleeping beauty of a market town

PUBLISHED: 08:33 26 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:16 20 February 2013

The Grand Cascade at Alnwick Garden. Picture courtesy of Alnwick Garden

The Grand Cascade at Alnwick Garden. Picture courtesy of Alnwick Garden

Think of Alnwick and your thoughts will most probably turn towards gardens and ancient castles. However, there is far more to this quiet market town, as Steve Newman discovers

Haunted pub windows and echoes of the Titanic vie for your attention in Alnwick along with the original jail, still with its bars. Remnants of monasteries and abbeys suddenly jump out of the fabric buildings around you.
Once and without challenge the county town of Northumberland, Alnwick today faces the challenge of Morpeth, just down the A1, for this rather important distinction. There are some who will tell you that Morpeth is welcome to it, given that Alnwick enjoys a greater sense of tranquillity and grandeur these days, but its a debate that rumbles on and is unlikely to be resolved easily.
Alnwick has a series of passageways leading off the main streets that wind their way up to the old heart of the
town and if you really want to find the old Alnwick I suggest you start by exploring these.
The market dates back to the 1200s, and over this period of time it has had a series of market crosses. The current market cross is known as the Town Cross, the place for proclamations to townspeople. A weekly market has been held in the square for over 800 years and today the market is held twice a week, on Thursdays and Saturdays.

The square is also the centre of Alnwicks activities. In the summer an International Music Festival and the Northumbrian Gathering are held here. The square has had a chequered history, serving as a bus station in 1930s and as a car park for much of the later part of the 20th century. Occasionally, at 8 oclock at night, the curfew bell is rung out 20 times across the square from the town hall as it has been for centuries.
If you want to visit somewhere that captures the history of the town and the surrounding area, I would strongly recommend you visit the museum in Bailiffgate. It really is an excellent example of a thriving modern museum with interactive displays, fascinating collections and a full programme of diverse exhibitions.
I do love Alnwick, said curator James Hetherington. I moved here from London 15 months ago and the contrast could not be greater. People are so friendly and welcoming.
Salmon and trout fisherman the world over have reason to be grateful to Alnwick as the town is known as the producer of some of the finest fishing rods via Hardys and Greys, who manufacturer rods here. Other exporters of international sporting products are not so well known, such as Andrew Hodgson who runs, Sportsworld in the centre of the town.
We run our internet sportswear business from here, says Andrew. We export team wear across Europe. Weve been here since 1987, although I grew up in the area and Alnwick itself is a very sporty town. Theres an excellent, thriving rugby club and cricket club and we sponsor local groups in and around the town. Alnwick is a perfectly lovely example of market town we get a lot of tourists coming in but our local people are very loyal and we repay them whenever we can.
Alnwick was long a favourite stop for the stage coaches as they journeyed to Edinburgh and has its fair share of old coaching inns. One of these is The Olde Cross so called because it has an upside down cross of the de Vescis, the castles Norman owners, on the front wall. The cross is upside down, suggesting it was looted from Alnwick Abbey when the building was renovated.
To many local people, though. it is known as The Dirty Bottles. These are said to be cursed, after a Victorian landlord dropped dead after placing the bottles in the window. Legend has it they have remained on view in the window untouched ever-since, although people will tell you they have been moved once or twice since then.
One of Alnwicks grandest coaching inns was the The White Swan still standing in all its glory. Inside it has remnants of a later far more luxurious age of travel. Here you wild find intact the Second Class Dining room of the SS Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic.
This link with travel from an earlier age is continued at Alnwicks Victorian railway station where you will find Barter Books which, with over 8,000 sq ft and over 350,000 books on display at any one time, is one of Britains largest second hand bookshops. It is said that the reserve section where books are waiting to be collated in to the shop is probably bigger than most 2nd hand bookshops itself
The Dukes of Northumberland have long had a close relationship with the town. Perhaps this is shown no more so than on the war memorial where Northumberland, Ninth Duke of has no special place but is listed in alphabetical order with all those who gave their lives in the 2nd World War. But it is still the castle and the Alnwick Garden that draws people here. Often referred to as The Windsor of the North it did not come in to possession of the Percys, the current Dukes family, until 1309 and it remains the principal seat of the family to this day.
The castle we see today, however, is not entirely medieval, having been updated and thoroughly renovated from the 18th century onwards and this modernising trend has continued with the appointment of a new Chief Executive Officer of Alnwick Castle and The Alnwick Garden.
To me Alnwick is a sleeping beauty, says Christian Perdrier, once of the Disney organization. I love it. I have been in my post for seven months since leaving Dubai and I have a house in the town. It is unspoiled, a medieval town still and the people are very warm and generous and everyone has made me
feel welcome.
We should be marketing Alnwick in the same way as Paris is marketed. You dont go to Paris to visit one thing - you go to visit them all. It should be the same here but without losing this beautiful medieval setting.
The walls of Alnwick no longer circle the town but it possible to follow their route even today. In fact, the side of Bondgate still shows the scar where the walls butted up to it. The only other
gate still standing is Pottergate rebuilt in the 18th century at the western end of the town.
The two church towers of St Michael, rebuilt in 1470 and 1781, and then again in 1863, and St Paul, built in 1846, stand out against the roof tops. These two churches still figure in Alnwicks life when teams from the two parishes play the annual Shrove Tuesday football match in the pastures below the castle. Originally the goals were the two
bridges that cross the Aln but now two six feet high hales are specially built for the occasion.
So this then is Alnwick, a medieval town trapped in the 21st century. We can only hope and pray that the planners let it remain so.

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