At the end of last year, D and I escaped the kids for a night and visited Alnwick, a market town in Northumberland, north England.
Did you know it’s possible to see the northern lights (Aurora Borealis) from parts of England? The Northumberland coast is one of those areas, and Alnwick is just a little way inland, making it an ideal base for gazing into dark, dramatic skies. It’s a quaint, historic town, with lots of interesting nooks and crannies.
So if you fancy some star-spotting in a place that’s still relatively unspoilt, I’d recommend Alnwick. It also has plenty more to offer both families, and travellers without kids.
Here are six reasons to visit Alnwick:
Alnwick Castle – aka Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films – closes for winter, but when we visited it was bustling with Halloween-themed activities: wand making, potion brewing and broomstick training were all on the menu for families that weekend.
The castle is set in beautiful grounds – the northern side was designed by 18th century Northumberland-born landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and it has been in the Percy family for over 700 years. The current owner Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland, lives with the Duchess in the castle, and for the seven months of the year they open their doors to the public. Inside Alnwick Castle you can see a grand collection of art and furniture dating back hundreds of years.
A family ticket to Alnwick Castle is £39; or £14 per adult, £12 per child. It’s free for under-5s to enter, and discounts apply if you book online.
The Alnwick Garden was also owned by the Percy family. It’s now ben taken over by a charitable trust, after it was renovated in 1997 by Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland. It’s home to several impressive water features; you enter in front of the cascade (seen in the picture above), and can then meander through different landscaped zones. We arrived too late to visit properly, but I was sorry to miss the poison garden, where you can see poisonous and intoxicating plants (just don’t let your kids nibble those leaves…..)
A winter family ticket to Alnwick Garden is £21.50; or £7.70 per adult, £4.40 per child. It’s free for under-5s to enter, and discounts apply if you book online.
It was a chilly day when we visited, so the roaring open fire in Barter Books‘ front room was a welcome sight. The cavernous bookshop is set in what used to be Alnwick’s Victorian train station, and once you’re past the cosy front room, it does still have the feel of a terminus, with a toy train rattling on tracks above your head, and stack after stack of second-hand books.
D and I could both quite easily have spent the day here. Browsing is encouraged, with seats laid out in each room (the space devoted to children’s books has bean bags and toys). It’s a fascinating place, set up like a shrine to reading matter; quotes have been plucked out of books and displayed on top of the rows, leading to a fascinating display of rare and valuable books. Oh, and there’s a cafe, on the old station platform.
Arts and Culture
As if that wasn’t enough mental stimulation, there’s also an arts centre. The Alnwick Playhouse is home to live and live-streamed theatre and music (like opera from New York’s Metropolitan, or National Theatre performances), as well as films for adults and children.
The countryside surrounding Alnwick is stunning. It’s close to the Northumberland National Park, which together with Kielder Water and Forest Park makes up Europe’s largest international Dark Sky Park, and is officially the best place to go in the UK to get a clear view of the night sky.
As well as stars-spotting, open space enthusiasts can enjoy walking in the North Pennines, the second largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England and Britain’s first UNESCO European and Global Geopark, or even venture north to the Cheviots, a series of hills on the border with Scotland.
Food and drink
Alnwick has a decent spread of pubs (bars) and cafes, serving breakfasts and lunches. If you’re looking for something a bit special, the Alnwick Garden Treehouse restaurant has a decent menu of local fare, including dishes like chicken liver parfait, venison burger and Alnwick Garden gin cocktails; or Turnbull’s of Alnwick sausages for the kids.
Be warned: it’s difficult to get an evening reservation. We visited on a Thursday (during half-term) and the restaurant was fully booked a good six weeks in advance. Instead we dined in the afternoon; the treehouse has a separate cocktail bar if you miss out on an evening slot.
Outside, the Treehouse is a rickety-looking mass of wood and stairways; inside, it’s strewn with twinkly lights and has a hushed feel. You can go upstairs and look at the castle from a viewing tower, although it was closed on the day we visited.
Where to stay
We were invited to stay at the Bondgate Boutique hotel, conveniently located in the centre of Alnwick; I’ve posted about it here. Next door was the Plough Hotel and restaurant, where we ate a slap-up breakfast, and enjoyed a couple of drinks in the evening. It’s recently been refurbished and the families we saw at breakfast seemed to be enjoying their stay.
Alnwick is slightly off the beaten track, but that all adds to its charm. It’s located off the A1, almost exactly half-way between Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and the Scottish border. Trains run directly from London to the nearby seaside town of Alnmouth; these take around three hours and 40 mins.
Have you been to Northumberland?
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