Alnwick: Gateway to the beautiful Northumberland Coast

June 22, 2022
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AFTER HADRIAN’S WALL and the Sill, I headed north up the east coast of Northumberland to Alnwick, a small but, once again, really historic market town.

Alnwick is about 50 km (30 miles) north of Newcastle by road and has a population of just over eight thousand. It was once a staging post on the main road from London to Edinburgh, before the coming of the railways.

The trains that run between London and Edinburgh via Newcastle pass by to the east, through nearby Alnmouth. Alnwick is, however, on the A1 intercity motorway, so it is still an important road stop.

In the map below, Alnwick is indicated by a red pin just west of the Northumberland Coast AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).

The location of Alnwick (red pin) and the Northumberland Coast AONB in relation to Carlisle and Newcastle. Map data ©2022 Google. North at top.

Here’s a photo of Alnwick’s central marketplace by night.

Alnwick Marketplace on a winter’s night. Photo by Andy Armstrong, 21 January 2006, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

As you can see from the map above, I had to drive around the outskirts of Newcastle to get to Alnwick. Newcastle is a fine place to spend time, by the way.

Unfortunately, Newcastle wasn’t on my itinerary this time around. I was due to meet up with relatives in Dundee in a couple of days. I wanted to check out the Northumberland Coast AONB and therefore had to give Newcastle a miss. Alnwick was to be my base from which to explore the AONB.

I’d long wanted to see puffins, those famous, most quintessentially British seabirds with the big stripey bills, capable of holding a great mass of fish to bring home to their chicks, which live in burrows in various high and inaccessible spots that predators can’t easily get to.

‘Puffin (Fratercula arctica) on the cliff above The Wick (Y Wig) on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales. Approaching its burrow with a mouth full of lesser sand eels (Ammodytes tobianus)’. Photo by Charles J. Sharp of Sharp Photography, 20 June 2021, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Even in remote New Zealand, we have several varieties of seabirds that are also seen in Britain: wandering species of the sort that range far and wide on the ocean wave.

But not puffins, which belong to a family of birds called auks, the Northern Hemisphere equivalent of the penguins of the Southern Hemisphere. The puffin looks a bit like a penguin, and another variety of auk called the razorbill looks even more like a penguin.

The one big difference is that all the surviving species of auks can fly. This makes it possible for them to nest in high and inaccessible spots, whereas penguins, which can’t fly, are more vulnerable outside their stronghold of Antarctica.

I’d heard that the puffins were nesting at this time of year and on this stretch of coast. And that was why I came to Alnwick and the AONB.

Puffin festival notice, seen at Barter Books in Alnwick

To get to Alnwick I drove through a couple of towns at the southern end of the AONB: Warkworth, which the New Zealand town of Warkworth is probably named after, and Alnmouth. These were beautiful seaside resorts.

What I found out at the youth hostels was that you can’t book at the weekends, but that if you knock on the door, there is usually a vacancy. I got a vacancy in Helmsley that way. And that was also how I got into the YHA in Alnwick.

I took advantage of the free car parking at the YHA, where I was staying for the night.

It always pays to think strategically about where you are going to park if you are driving around Britain. Otherwise, you might have to shell out a fortune if your accommodation does not have free car parks.

In an earlier post, I mentioned a great GPS-based app called Waze that helps you to find car parking sites, avoid road hazards, and remember where your car is parked. You enter the position of the park into the app when you are parked, and then it leads you back.

Alnwick turned out to be an excellent base: a destination in its own right.

I had met a guy in Helmsley, called Alan, who told me where to go in Northumberland. He had told me that Alnwick was a nice town. Indeed, it is.

An information panel which shows the downtown, and also Alnwick Castle and the Alnwick Garden

Downtown Alnwick. Note the path leading up to Barter Books (of this amazing shop, more below).

One of the many places to stay

Another view of the bustling downtown

Although Alnwick is only a little place, it turns out that lots of famous people have come from the town. People such as the mediaeval knight Harry Hotspur, or Hotspur for short: a major character in the plays of Shakespeare, after whom the Tottenham Hotspur football club is also named.

Hotspur came from the Percy family, who live in the nearby Alnwick Castle. He is commemorated by a statue in the town.

The statue of Hotspur in Alnwick

From an information panel by the statue

Another famous local was George Biddell Airy, one of the most eminent scientists of Victorian times.

G B Airy in 1883, shortly after his retirement as Astronomer Royal, by John Collier. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

There was no statue of Airy in town. Yet Airy’s impact on the course of human events was probably greater than that of Hotspur, whose main claim to fame is that he managed to hack away at a few Scotsmen, Frenchmen, and Irishmen before getting killed in an English civil war himself.

Historically speaking, there have also been a couple of Battles of Alnwick, in 1093 and 1174 respectively. As usual in these parts, they were both fought between the English and the Scots.

It seems as though every town in Britain has an interesting history and has produced famous people to boot. Though I suppose if a town has existed for as long as Alnwick, which dates back to about 600 CE, that’s time enough.

Alnwick is a Geordie town, culturally speaking. The locals all seemed to be really, really friendly, more so as it seemed than folk from the south of England, which is more pressured.

In the old market square, there was a restaurant called the Pig in Muck. I haven’t been into it but the name caught my fancy!

I would have gone to Alnwick Castle, which is a famous filming location (e.g., Harry Potter), and the beautiful, nearby, Alnwick Garden as well. But the descendants of Hotspur, who still live in the castle, were charging nineteen pounds fifty for a casual adult visitor. Even Alnwick Garden cost fifteen pounds ninety-five on the same basis. I thought these attractions were outrageously priced and decided to give them a miss. After all, once you’ve seen one castle … and I’ve certainly been to a park before.

And then I came to a really neat bookshop called Barter Books, which is a good place to browse around if you want something free to do. It’s like a warehouse: it’s enormous! It is one of the largest secondhand bookstores in Britain, in fact, even though Alnwick is just a little place.

The shop is called Barter Books because you can swap books for credit as well as buy them with money. Barter Books is also famous as the place where the iconic World War II Keep Calm and Carry On poster turned up in the year 2000.

A sign pointing to Barter Books, and other attractions

Open every day!

Inside Barter Books. It is actually a converted train station.

A Diego Rivera-type mural inside Barter Books

Oddly enough, the poster was seldom used during the War and everyone forgot about it, till one day Stuart Manley, one of the two co-owners of Barter Books, found a copy amid a pile of old books. Here is a video I made while strolling through Barter Books, which even has a fireplace. You can catch a couple of glimpses of the famous poster, still the original one that Mr Manley found I believe, along the way.

The rain was torrential. I walked around, and then took refuge in a café next door to Barter Books. I met a woman who told me that I could walk for free along a path close to Alnwick Castle, and that that was where Rowan Atkinson had ridden his horse in the famous opening scene of the first series of Blackadder.

And so, I took some photos from this spot.

Alnwick Castle, with a curious cow, from the place where you could walk past for free. As you can see, the weather was terrible while I was in Alnwick. Sunshine is not guaranteed at any British destination.

I also met a lot of English people holidaying around their own country, and that’s one thing I really like about travel right now. There was a woman who had come back from Morocco, buying a property in Brighton.

Others were still getting over Covid restrictions and associated financial difficulties, and problems of not being able to see each other. Thus, another woman I met was broke. Her boyfriend had had to move to London for work. He was in the music industry and she didn’t really trust him, being stuck back in Whitby herself.

I went to a local supermarket and did my own cooking with the ingredients I bought.

The next day, I decided, I would go to the Farne Islands just up the coast, which include a seabird sanctuary where puffins, razorbills, and other species nest. I also checked out the tides for getting across to the famous Holy Island at Lindisfarne, accessible via a causeway, which floods at high tide. Both the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne are in the Northumberland Coast AONB.

That will be the subject of my next post.


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