In this series I’m writing about some of my favourite North East places. You’ll understand that I’m especially drawn to those that hold personal memories for me, or with which I have a connection. So this month I want to revisit the town that was our home for five years – Alnwick.
I was appointed Vicar there in 1987, exactly thirty years ago.
We had three young children. A fourth was born the following year. We lived in
a fine Victorian vicarage opposite the church, built by the Duke of
Northumberland in the 1840s. It was a great place to live as a young family. We
soon made good friends there whom we still see all these years later.
Alnwick has some of the best countryside in Northumberland
close at hand. On one side, the heritage coast is a short drive away while on
the other the Simonside and Cheviot Hills are equally accessible. I wrote about
Edlingham in the first article. When I went out there across the moor to take
services, I could scarcely believe that I was lucky enough to be driving around
such glorious landscapes.
These articles are deliberately not focusing on the
tourist trail. So I won’t say much about the big must-sees. Most of you will
have visited the Alnwick Garden. It came into being after we had left the town
but has certainly put it on the map when it comes to tourism. Likewise Barter
Books in the old railway station – if this vast secondhand bookshop had been
there in my time, would I ever have done a proper day’s work? The great Alnwick
Castle, the “Windsor of the North”, historically made the place what it is, the
ancient ducal town of Northumberland complete with its own Shakespearian hero, Henry
Percy, better known as Harry Hotspur (Henry
IV Part 1). Tottenham Hotspur FC is named after him because the Percy
family originally owned the land where the club was founded.
Not enough people find their way to St Michael's Parish Church. It’s
one of Northumberland’s finest. It’s situated on the northern edge of the town
at the end of the fine street called Bailiffgate: that tells you that the outer
bailey of the Castle extended to the church yard gate. In that respect it’s
similar to Durham where we went to live twenty years later. Like many
Northumberland churches, Alnwick has a fortification built on to the south east
corner, a kind of vicar’s pele that would have provided a defensive look-out against
impending attacks by Scots or border reivers.
There are hardly any churches in the county that were mainly
built in the Perpendicular Gothic style of the fifteenth century (but
there’s another near Haydon Bridge in our neighbouring parish of Beltingham). It’s dedicated to St
Michael, the patron saint of the town (a good name, that!): there’s a sculpture
of the archangel on a pant (fountain) in the town centre. The church is grand as
befits its ducal status, wide and spacious, a joy to worship in and walk round.
Inside you’ll find some remarkable sculptures on the capitals (or tops) of the
piers in the chancel, and also what’s said to be one of the finest medieval
parish chests in England.
Like Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnwick has a strongly enclosed feel
to it, thanks largely to its fortified gateway known as Bondgate Tower. You
drive into the town from “Bondgate Without” to “Bondgate Within” – here, the
word “gate” means not what we tend to think but a “street” or road. (Once upon
the time, all traffic on the Great North Road had to squeeze through this
narrow pinch-point causing long traffic jams on either side. The A1 bypass was
built only a decade or so before we arrived.)
As you wander round the centre of Alnwick, you might be
tempted to think of it more as a Georgian market town than a medieval
settlement. Many buildings date back to the eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries. The elegant Lion Bridge over the River Aln, from which you get an
unrivalled view of the Castle in Capability Brown’s landscaped setting, dates
from this period. But look carefully at the street patterns and the long narrow
burgage plots behind the buildings. They tell a story of a much more ancient
place that originated in Saxon times, even though there are no visible traces
of that era now.
Outside the town past the Church, you reach the gate to Hulne
Park. This exquisite park belongs to the Northumberland Estates (i.e. the
Duke). You are welcome to walk there (between 1100 and sunset – no cars are
permitted). A couple of miles inside you come across the lonely ruins of Hulne
Friary where a Carmelite community lived in the middle ages. It’s a fascinating
muddle of medieval and early Gothic Revival buildings. We used to have parish
harvest services and suppers there. They were good days.