Thursday, 27 April 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 3: Alnwick

 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. 


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