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Alnwick Castle: From Norman Fortress to Renaissance Retreat

by Teri Foster Gray

Alnwick Castle Built just twenty years after the Norman Conquest, Alnwick Castle tops a hill overlooking the peaceful pastoral landscape designed by Capability Brown. That peace was hard-won, as Alnwick was built as a border fortress and remained so from its founding until the unification of England and Scotland that came with accession of James I. Even then, conflict continued. Escaping Lancastrians took refuge in the Postern Tower and escaped across the Aln (pronounced "Allen") via the small door now used by the current Duke to take his dogs for their morning romp. The devoutly Catholic Thomas Percy, younger brother of the 6th earl, took up the cause of Mary Queen of Scots, as did his son and namesake, the 7th earl. Both died for it. The 8th and 9th earls fared little better. Both were imprisoned. Time, and a staggering £30,000 fine paid by the 9th earl, healed all, and the 10th earl was chosen as guardian for the orphaned children of Charles II.

The Percy family's record of service to England is second to none. The first English Percy came to England with William the Conqueror and died on the First Crusade. Four generations on, Richard de Percy was named one of the 25 barons charged with overseeing the provisions of the Magna Carta. The list continues through Harry Hotspur, a battle veteran at age eight, knighted for valor at age 11, and subject of Shakespeare's play Henry IV, and George 9th Duke, who died in World War II. Percys have served as generals and Lord High Admiral, governess to Queen Victoria, (Charlotte Florentia, wife of the Third Duke) and on the Medical Research Council. Along the way, they have found the time to amass a collection of paintings by Gainsborough, Canalletto, Titian and other masters, the vast quantities of porcelain on display in the dining room, the Aubusson tapestries that line the chapel, and a two-story library full of rare books, while improving the castle (the first Duchess had the curtain wall torn down and the River Aln move 100 feet east so she could enjoy the view), benefiting the local community, and excavating artifacts from sites as distant as Egypt and Pompeii and as nearby as their own moat.

Alnwick Castle

Algernon, 4th Duke, a patron of the lifeboat movement, set up a coastal weather station in the library with information reported daily to help insure the safety of local fishermen. When he decided to refurbish the castle in the style of the Italian Renaissance, rather than import Italian craftsmen, he brought Anton Leon Bulletti to Alnwick to supervise the work and established a school of woodcarving to train local workers to produce the ornately carved doors, shutters and ceiling panels. The castle reflects all this. You can tour the formal dining room, drawing room, and library, where along with objects of historic and artistic importance, one sees subtle reminders that this is a private residence: the flat screen TV tucked in an alcove in the library, a Simpsons chess set in the drawing room, thirty feet from one of the ebony cabinets made for Louis XIV. (Yes, Homer is king and Madge is queen.)

Tours of the grounds begin every 40 minutes starting at 10:30 AM. The last starts at 3:40. Be sure to explore on your own, as well--two museums are within the castle grounds. The Antiquities Museum in the Postern Tower, opened to the public in 1826, is devoted to archaeology and holds specimens ranging from mosaics from Pompeii to fragments of prehistoric Northumbrian Rock Art and Hadrian's Wall. While more extensive collections of Roman artifacts are displayed at other museums, the Duke's Museum gives the best overview of the archaeology of Hadrian's Wall. Each of the excavated Roman forts has a display devoted to the individuals who studied and cataloged it, but here you will find the threads tied into a more complete narrative.

Alnwick Castle

As you tour the castle, various parts will seem oddly familiar. An enterprising lot, the Percys have been known to rent the castle and its grounds to filmmakers, and various bits have served as backdrop in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, Elizabeth, Harry Potter, and any number of BBC historical epics.

The Fusiliers of Northumberland Museum is in the Abbot's Tower. In addition, the Constable's Tower exhibits equipment belonging to the Percy Tenantry Volunteers, who served during the Napoleonic Wars; the dungeon in the 14th century South Tower holds a moaning waxworks prisoner; and there is a small display of antique transportation devices ranging from the ducal coach to bicycles, sedan chairs, and a wheelchair near the café.

If you have children, be sure to take them to The Knight's School, where they can dress in medieval garb and participate in activities designed to teach them about the realities of medieval life. (Parental supervision required.)

Alnwick Castle

10 (or More) Things to Do Around Alnwick

Alnwick CastleThe time to visit Alnwick (and please pronounce it "Annik") begins on the last Sunday in June, when the week-long Alnwick Fair kicks off. The Fair, costumed procession, roast ox sandwiches and all, is heaven on earth for Medieval re-enactors. Bring your chain mail and surcoat, by all means, but please leave your sword at home.

While in Alnwick, visit the restored Alnwick Garden, the Duchess's project, which has been wildly successful since its opening in 2003, and the Bailiffgate Museum, in the former St. Mary's Church, which specializes in the history of the Border Country. (You will get a 20% discount on your admission if you show your Alnwick Garden brochure.)

Beyond Alnwick - To the South:

From Alnwick, south on B6341 to Rothbury.

At Rothbury, ten miles southwest of Alnwick, you can visit Cragside, the Victorian mansion of William, Lord Armstrong, an immensely successful engineer, arms manufacturer, and inventor. This house, designed by Richard Norman Shaw, was completed in 1884, and is the first house in the world to have been lit by hydroelectric power.

From Rothbury, south on B6341, then right on A696 to Otterburn.

Otterburn, the site of Henry Hotspur's defeat of James, Earl of Douglas in 1388, is marked by a stone cross about a mile north of Otterburn village, on A-696.

From Otterburn, take B6320 south, approximately 10 miles to Bellingham.

In Bellingham, ("Bellingjum" to the locals) visit the medieval Church of St. Cuthbert, designed with a stone roof to fire-proof it against border reivers, and the Heritage Center, which focuses on the Reiver period. From Bellingham, any number of hiking and biking trails, including the Penine Way and National Cycle Route No. 68, lead to outdoor activities and spots of historical interest.

From the Bellingham Heritage Center, go west. Drive carefully, as you will share the road with Regional Cycling Route No.10 for most of your route. The Kielder Castle Information Center is approximately 16 miles.

Kielder Water is man-made, and of relatively recent origin, but just north stands Kielder Castle, the 1775 hunting lodge of the Dukes of Northumberland, now open to the public and housing a Visitors Center and a bike rental. Along the way from Bellingham, stop in at the Pheasant Inn, which dates from the early 17th century.

From Kielder, you can go north approximately two miles to the ominously-named village of Deadwater at the Scottish border or retrace your steps to Bellingham, then follow B6320 south to Chesters Roman Fort to begin exploring Hadrian's Wall. (See story on Hadrian's Wall.)

To the North:

From Alnwick, take B1340 north. At Littlehoughton, follow the sign to Craster. (B1340 turns left. You will go straight.) Bus service is available from Alnwick.

Dunstanbergh Castle, a brisk walk from the fishing village of Craster, displays the ruins of a 14th century castle.

From Craster, take the coastal route north. The road will rejoin B1340 in approximately 2 miles.

Seven miles north of Dunstanburgh, Bamburgh Castle dominates the coast, a brooding pile atop a formidable basalt cliff. First fortified by the Celts, then the Saxons, it served as the capital of Anglo-Saxon Northumberland. Abandoned, fallen into ruin, it was purchased by Lord Armstrong (he of Cragside fame) in 1894 and transformed into a turn-of the-century imagining of a genuine castle. It now functions as a museum which houses Lord Armstrong's collection of Faberge eggs, a painting by Jan Brughel the Younger and, in the basement of the Keep, a collection of suits of armor and other military antiques.

Continue north on B1340 to B1342, right on A1. Follow the signs to Lindisfarne.

Lindisfarne Continuing up the coast, about eight miles north of Bamburgh, one finds the Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, reachable only at low tide. (Tide tables are available at all Northumberland tourist offices.) Founded by St. Aidan in 634, the monastery became a center for evangelism, scholarship, and art. The renowned illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, now on display at the British Museum, were created by the monks there.

The monks deserted the island in 875, retreating before the Vikings, and the structure stood abandoned until the Benedictines reclaimed it in 1082. It never regained its former eminence, however, and was vacated again during the Dissolution. What is left of the priory is from the Benedictine period, with a few incised stones on display in the museum the only remnant of the original monastery. While there, do visit Lindisfarne Castle, a moldering ruin when Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life magazine, purchased it at the turn of the century. His deep pockets, and the talents of architect Edward Lutyens, transformed the place into a Edwardian holiday home, which honors the spirit of the original 16th century structure.

Continue north on A1 to A1167 to Berwick-upon Tweed.

Military history buffs will want to visit Berwick-on-Tweed at the Scottish border to see the effect of the invention of artillery on fortification design. The city ramparts, built by order of Elizabeth I, who feared a Franco-Scot alliance and invasion, are not tall, but immensely broad and still in pristine condition. In addition to the Ramparts, Berwick is home to the Barracks Museum, the Guardhouse, and the ruins of Berwick Castle.

More Information:

Alnwick Castle
Open 23 March - 26 October 2005
Hours: Grounds 10 am-5 pm, Castle 11 am- 5 pm Last admission 4:15 pm
Admission Prices: (Castle and Garden joint prices in brackets.) Adult - 7.95 [12.00]; Concession (e.g. student, pensioner) - 7.50 [11.50]; Child (aged 6 - 15) - 2.95 [4.50]; Children 5 years and under - free; must be accompanied by a paying adult. For group rates please telephone +44 (0) 1665 511350

Cragside House
22 March - 25 September Tuesday-Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday 1-5:30
Last admission 1 hour before close.
Admission 8.50, Child 4, Family 20
22 March - 30 October Tuesday-Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday 11-7 (or dusk); also 2 November - 18 December Wednesday-Sunday 11-4 (or dusk)
Last admission 1 hour before close.
Admission 5.70, Child 2.60, Family 14; Winter Admission 2.80, Child 1.30, Family 7
Tel. +44 (0) 1669 620150 or +44 (0) 1669 620333

Lindisfarne Castle
12 March-30 October Daily, except non-Bank Holiday Mondays
Hours depend upon the tides, but always include Noon-3 pm. Last admission 30 minutes before closing.
Castle and garden: Admission 5, Child 2.50, Family 12.50; Garden only: Admission 1, Children free
Steep slopes, steps and trip/slip hazards.

Bellingham Heritage Center

Northumberland Castles

Teri Foster Gray lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and Labrador Retriever. A mild-mannered banker by day, she writes novels and travels whenever possible. Her journeys have included two years in Hawaii, six months in Europe, and the British visit that resulted in this piece. She has recently completed a novel, The Shadow Empire.
Article and photos © 2006 Teri Foster Gray
Lindisfarne Castle photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org


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