There's more to Alnwick than the castle and gardens

PUBLISHED: 09:30 12 December 2011 | UPDATED: 20:26 20 February 2013

There's more to Alnwick than the castle and gardens

There's more to Alnwick than the castle and gardens

Community spirit burns brightly in the county town of Northumberland, as Chris Titley discovered

Some grumble that next years Olympics are for Londoners only. But dont let the people of Alnwick hear you say that. The town is already gearing up for a week-long celebration to mark the moment when the Olympic torch is brought through its historic streets on June 14 then kept overnight at an undisclosed location.

Alnwick Town Council has drawn up plans for a festival to mark the flames arrival on its way south. As it comes from Edinburgh, on its way to Newcastle, it stays for the night here somewhere. Thats got everyone enthusiastic schools, the council, all the various sporting groups, the cultural groups, said Alnwicks Mayor, Alan Symmonds.

The sponsors are also proposing a big show somewhere in Alnwick for 15,000 people, he said.

No one should be surprised that the townsfolk are already preparing for an Olympic party. Alnwick brims over with that sort of can-do attitude. Its the same spirit which has seen the town create and develop a summer music festival, eight days of song and dance which brought participants from as far afield as India and Estonia this August.

And when the town was plunged into festive darkness due to a lack of funds for Christmas lights more than 25 years ago, the community-minded residents got stuck in again. The hard work of the Christmas Lights Committee resulted in Santa and his sleigh atop the medieval Hotspur Tower, decorations hung high above the streets and a tree which is perfect for carollers to gather around.

Alnwick, says Alan, is a great place to live. And dont just take his word for it. If theres an award for niceness, chances are Alnwick has won it. The town was named the best place to live in Britain in Country Life magazine a few years back.

This year, Bondgate Within, the winding cobbled thoroughfare which leads from Hotspur Tower towards the market, was named Britains best shopping street in the Google Street View Awards.

Alnwick is special in that its the county town of Northumberland, said Alan. It is a good town for tourists, with the garden and the castle and the countryside.

There are some good restaurants here. All the food is locally sourced. We are surrounded by farms which breed animals that and I hate to say this to the vegetarians taste absolutely first class. Theres good lamb, good beef, good fish, good shellfish, theres an oyster farm further up the coast.

Alnwick has some wonderful shops too. These include the fabulous Barter Bookshop. Readers could easily lose a day or two in what was the towns railway station, exploring the vast stock of secondhand books. Theres something for everyone, from the shelf of Beano annuals for the fun lover to rare first editions kept in locked cabinets for the serious collector. Sit in front of the open fire in the old waiting room, coffee in one hand and book in the other, and its easy to understand why Alnwick is considered the best of British.

The Victorian station is just one of Alnwicks many distinctive buildings. On the corner of the aptly named Narrowgate is a slimmed-down former savings bank with high windows and distinctive turrets. Alnwick Town Hall, owned by the freemen and dating from the 1770s, has a handsome clock face, and hosts important events like the beer festival.

Of course one building dominates the town. Alnwick Castle has been guarding a crossing on the River Aln for a millennium or so. Its home to the Duke of Northumberland, and the Alnwick Garden next door, created by the Duchess, is said to be Europes most ambitious project of its kind for years.

By any standards, the castle is a spectacular fortress. Over the years its provided a backdrop for everything from two Harry Potter films to Rowan Atkinson TV comedy Blackadder. No wonder its a huge visitor draw.

It brings tourists and money to Alnwick although some traders would say theres not enough interchange between the visitors to the castle and the garden, and the town itself, said the Mayor, Alan Symmonds.

But we seem to get a lot of visitors in the town. The connection between Harry Potter and the castle is very well marketed by the people who represent the Duke.

Youre never short of something to do in Alnwick. As well as the music festival theres a popular food festival every September.

The independent shops and bustling Saturday market offer many an hour of enjoyable browsing. The Bailiffgate Museum provides a charming tour around local history, including a gloomy recreation of a coal mine which the kids will love crawling through. And the Alnwick Playhouse is an arts centre for the whole community, with exhibitions, music, films and drama.

Alan is involved in Rotary and various other charitable ventures and wouldnt want to live anywhere else. The one thing that comes out time and time again is how generous the people of Alnwick are in supporting such things. Its a very pleasant place to live.

If there were an Olympic medal for community spirit, Alnwick would strike gold every time

The print version of this article appeared in the December 2011 issue of North East Life

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