Alnwick, Northumberland

PUBLISHED: 09:52 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:49 20 February 2013

Alnwick Castle provides a stunning backdrop to a winter landscape, with the River Aln in the foreground

Alnwick Castle provides a stunning backdrop to a winter landscape, with the River Aln in the foreground

For the visitor who looks beyond the obvious attractions of one of England finest castles and most iconic gardens, Steve Newman discovers that Alnwick offers a treasure chest of history and interest

Mention Alnwick to anyone today and the chances are the first words that will cross their lips are either 'garden, treehouse or castle. Indeed, it would be almost impossible to write an article about Alnwick without mentioning all three.

The history of the town is forever linked within the walls of the castle and the Dukes of Northumberland. Often referred to as 'The Windsor of the North', Alnwick Castle, like so many others, started life as wooden motte and bailey caste in the early 11th century.

However, a walk around the town can bring out some of the hidden history of Alnwick and is a delightful way to spend a leisurely afternoon. One attraction not to be missed is the dining room of the White Swan Hotel, which has been recreated with accuracy using the actual cladding, timbers and carvings of the first class dining room of the RMS Olympic, the sister ship of the Titanic. It makes a grand dining hall today, just as it did for the affluent passengers of the great ocean-going liner in the golden years between the two world wars.

Being so close to the border, it was inevitable that Alnwick would see its share of conflict. Indeed, the Scottish King,William the Lion, was captured here while riding too close to the castle in the fog in 1174.

In a railed gap in Rotten Row to the west of St Michael's church is a stone marking the spot where his horse was killed and he was forced to surrender. William's family must have hated the very name of Alnwick as his great grandfather, Malcolm III, was treacherously murdered as he leant forward to accept the keys of the castle in surrender in 1093. That may well even have been the reason why William was attacking the castle on his way home from besieging Prudhoe on the banks of the Tyne.

Down from the castle, the Lion Bridge spans the River Aln. This area if the town is known as Walkergate as it was here the walkers trod the fleeces and hides into the river to prepare and clean them.

A short walk up the hill are the ruins of St Leonard's Hospital, founded in 1200. It was built by Eustace de Vesci for the soul of his King Malcolm and his murdered wife St Margaret. The heart of Alnwick, though, is the Market Place, formed in the 1500s with a group of buildings marking the division of an ancient track from Lesbury to the villages of Eglingham and Edlingham.

The market in Alnwick dates back to the 1200s and, over this period of time, it has had a series of market crosses. The current cross is known as the 'Town Cross' and is still the place for proclamations to townspeople today. Stretching along the south side of the square is The Northumberland Hall, constructed in 1826 by the 3rd Duke of Northumberland for use as assembly rooms that are standing on an arcade of flat classical arches. Presented as a gift to the people of Alnwick by a later Duke, these arches are known as the Shambles, as butcher's shops once stood here and the eastern end, which opens out on the street, is still called the fish market by some residents of the town.

The Market Square has had a chequered history, serving as a bus station in 1930s and as a car park up until the late 1990s. A weekly market has been held in the square for over 800 years and today it is held twice a week, on Thursdays and Saturdays.

The square is also the centre of Alnwick's activities in the summer when the Alnwick Food Festival, International Music Festival and the Northumbrian Gathering are held.

Alnwick has many surviving medieval alleyways and lanes radiating from its centre. They can provide an interesting walk in themselves as they take you deeper in to the Alnwick of the Middle Ages and quite often remnants of the abbey and earlier buildings can be clearly seen.

Yet history is never far away in this town and ready to spring back into life, a fact exemplified by Ian Linsley. Born and bred in Alnwick, Ian is the owner of the Alnwick Rum Company. 'My father started working for the brewery in the town in 1959 and I joined straight from school until it closed in 1986. I am actively looking for premises in the town to bring the brewery back. So far, our Alnwick rum, first produced in 1914 using the original recipe of South American and West Indian blends, is becoming very popular, especially with the captain and crew of HMS Northumberland.'

Ian's company also produces the Alnwick IPA bottled beer and has the rights on five other pedigree beers, all once brewed in the town although, with the power of the internet, it sells all over the UK and international sales are also 'pouring' in.

'Alnwick is a wonderful town,' says Ian, 'and I am passionate about bringing this piece of its history back home.'

In mediaeval times, Alnwick was a walled town, although changing economic situations in the Middle Ages meant the walls were never completed, and only one original gate remains, the Hotspur Tower, or Bondgate as it is known locally. The most obvious place do this is on the side of the Bondgate Tower, where the scar of the town wall is still clearly visible in the stonework.

Walking southwards, the curve of the walls becomes evident in the street pattern and you will shortly discover the pinfold. Originally, this was the place where stray cattle were brought after the curfew had sounded and a fee had to be paid to regain them.

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