Tag: Northumberland

Alnwick Castle, Northumberland

Alnwick Castle, Northumberland

The History

The first part of Alnwick Castle was built in 1096.  The Percy family has owned and lived in the castle since 1309.

A bit of an aside for my fellow fans of Tudor history:  When Anne Boleyn first caught King Henry VIII’s eye, she was romantically involved with a Henry Percy.  In fact, they were betrothed, although Henry failed to ask permission from his father and from the king before popping the question.  Young Henry’s father (the 5th Earl of Northumberland) did not find Anne a suitable match for his heir.  In fact, he considered her the daughter of a mere knight, not a member of the nobility.  He refused to give his permission for a marriage between Henry and Anne, and called for Henry to return home to Northumberland at once.  Henry packed up, headed home, and left poor Anne at court with a broken heart.

The current (12th) Duke of Northumberland, Ralph Percy, has held the title and land since his elder brother’s untimely death by drug overdose at age 42. The current Duchess of Northumberland was responsible for the renovation of the beautiful Alnwick Garden, which also draws thousands of visitors each year.

The castle is big – in fact, Windsor Castle is the only inhabited castle in the UK larger than it.  It is impressive from the moment you approach the main arch:

alnwick castle filming location for harry potter movies northumberland

Passing through to the outer bailey, it seemed even bigger.

alnwick castle filming location harry potter movies hogwarts

The castle offers many tours with varying themes, as well as activities in which visitors can participate.  We took the “Alnwick Castle in Film” tour, which highlighted the various ways we have seen this castle before. (Quite a few, as it turns out!)

The Filming Locations

Alnwick Castle’s inner courtyard served as the courtyard of Nottingham Castle in the 1991 film, “Robin Hood:  Prince of Thieves” starring Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman.  Fun fact:  There is a very ornate exterior light in the courtyard that does not fit the medieval time period of the film.

alnwick castle northumberland filming location robin hood prince of thieves

In the courtyard shots, the film crew covered the light to conceal it from view.  However, when Robin and the priest fought and the priest jumped out of the window, they had to show him having fallen into the courtyard below.  In that shot, you can see part of this light peeking out from under the brown cloth meant to obscure it.  Just look for the green spikes at the bottom of the screen when the camera cuts to the priest’s lifeless body on the stones below.

More recently, Alnwick Castle doubled as Brancaster Castle in the final season of “Downton Abbey.”  Lady Edith’s love interest, Bertie Pelham, inherited the property and the title Marquess of Hexham.   Here you can see the cast in the library.

alnwick castle northumberland library downton abbey filming location

And another shot of Bertie Pelham and Henry Talbot in the Dining Room.

alnwick castle northumberland dining room canes filming location downton abbey

The collection of canes on the left side of the photo is stunning.  The handle of each cane is an intricately hand-carved animal. The level of detail was amazing!

In the first two Harry Potter films, Alnwick Castle was the filming location for many of the Hogwarts scenes, including Quidditch practice with Madame Hooch.

alnwick castle northumberland filming location harry potter movies quidditch practice

alnwick castle northumberland filming location harry potter movies hogwarts

But these are not the only appearances Alnwick Castle has made on film.  It has also served as a filming location in the first Blackadder series starring Rowan Atkinson, the movie “Elizabeth” starring Cate Blanchett, and the Shakespearean miniseries “The Hollow Crown” starring Tom Hiddleston.  There are many others as well.  You can read the whole list on the Alnwick Castle web site by clicking here.

The State Rooms

After we went on the filming location tour we toured the State Rooms.  By far, the library was my favorite. I could have spent hours in there, just looking around. I saw a multi volume set of The State Papers of Henry VIII on one shelf. What I would have given to be able to look through them!  There were two floors of non-stop bookshelves – about 16,000 volumes in all.  If I lived there, I doubt I would ever leave the library!

Other rooms were almost as impressive.  I particularly liked the brilliant green wall covering in the Dining Room, and the impressively set, very long table.

alnwick castle dining room northumberland

The Grounds

The grounds of the castle were also enjoyable. The famous British landscape architect, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, was responsible for their design.  He did such a marvelous job, one Duchess of Northumberland ordered the removal of a connecting wall of the castle because it interfered with her view of the landscape.

alnwick castle northumberland

We had a lovely day at Alnwick Castle and Alnwick Garden.  Highly recommend this for history buffs, film enthusiasts, and families.

Alnwick Castle in Alnwick, Northumberland NE66 1NQ.  Telephone +44 01665 511 100.  The castle is open late March – late October.  Hours vary.  Check the web site or call for more information when planning your visit.

Vindolanda and Chesterholm Museum at Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland

Vindolanda and Chesterholm Museum at Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland

The weather was less than ideal when we traveled to Hadrian’s Wall. Cold, wet, cloudy… pretty miserable. I say that up front because it is quite possible that the weather affected my mood. Between the bad weather and my general lack of interest in the ancient time period, I wasn’t very excited about our visit. But Hadrian’s Wall was on hubby’s bucket list, so we went.

Standing in front of a wall built nearly 1900 years ago that is still standing is a pretty remarkable experience.  Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of a wall in order to defend against possible invasion by Scotland in AD 122.  It was 84 miles in length, separating the Roman-conquered England from Scotland. Along the wall were three major forts and many smaller camps.

Caveat Emptor: There is a combination ticket you can purchase that is good for admission to the Vindolanda site and the Roman Army Museum. The museum located at Vindolanda is the Chesterholm Museum, not the Roman Army Museum. They are two different entities in two different locations. Sadly, I did not discover this until I began writing this blog post; the woman in the information center/ticket counter/gift shop did not mention it to me. (Perhaps she would have if I had bought my tickets from her, but I had pre-purchased online, and showed her my combination tickets upon arrival.) So while I paid for admission to the Roman Army Museum, we never got to see it because we mistakenly thought we already had seen it.  Oh well.

Chesterholm Museum

We started in the museum, since it shared the same building as the information center and we were already there.  The first display we saw was several dozen shoes like this one.

vindolanda-hadrian's wall roman sandal chesterholm museum northumberland

Of all the shoes in the museum, and the thousands not displayed, there is only one matched pair.  I was amazed at how intricate and lovely this one is.

You may wonder how a nearly 2000 year old leather sandal could show no signs of deterioration or decay. There soil at Vindolanda is “anoxic” or lacking oxygen.  This condition prevents degradation of both organic and non-organic materials. A little farther down, you’ll see photos of metal items that are shiny and in great condition.  Those same items may have rusted or disentegrated completely if found elsewhere.

Beyond the shoes, reminding us of the military presence at the site, is a display of spears and other weapons.

vindolanda-hadrian's wall chesterholm museum roman spears northumberland

We saw a chamfron (headgear for a horse) that was still in one piece, and ambled into a larger section of the museum which seemed more focused on everyday life for the Romans in England, and less on the military aspect of life at Vindolanda.

Vindolanda digs have unearthed dozens of Roman coins.   Can you imagine the prestige of opening a small pouch and pouring out just a couple of these?

vindolanda-hadrian's wall roman gold coins chesterholm museum northumberland

One of the more interesting items at the museum is the gladiator glass.  This expensive, imported glass bowl had a design of gladiators painted around it.  The two pieces were found about 60 feet apart – one in 1992 and the other in 2007.

vindolanda-hadrian's wall glass-jar chesterholm museum northumberland

We saw separate rooms full of plastic tubs.  One room had bones, one had wood, one had pottery… all just waiting to see if this piece fits with that piece.  I imagine it’s like having a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, throwing the box in the air while the wind is gusting at 25 mph.

My favorite part of the museum was the ladies items.  There were glass beads for jewelry, rings, pins, and so on.  There was even this wig:

vindolanda hadrian's wall northumberland chesterholm museum wig

The sign informed us that it was made of moss hair (whatever that is) and was likely used to repel insects.

Next to the wig, we saw a dozen or so combs recovered from the site.

vindolanda hadrian's wall roman combs chesterholm museum northumberland

Vindolanda’s biggest discovery and claim to fame, however, is a collection of 752 wooden writing tablets. They are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain.  These tablets record official military matters as well as personal messages to and from the people who lived there. One of the tablets is an invitation to a birthday party held in about 100 AD.  It is perhaps the oldest surviving document written in Latin by a woman.  The tablets are at the British Museum, but you can still see images and translations of them at the Chesterholm Museum.


When we finished touring the museum, we headed back out into the cold drizzle and walked up a hill to get to the Vindolanda site.  People lived in the area from as early AD 80 to some time in the 5th century.  Initially, the buildings were wooden, but by the time the mid-4th century rolled around, the Romans used stone, and it is that which remains for us today.  It was impressive in size, but I guess that’s to be expected for one of the major forts held by the Roman Empire.

Much of the site’s remains from the 4th century were left exposed so you can see both military and village buildings, from soldiers’ dormitories to the mausolea.

This is part of the principia, or headquarters building:

vindolanda-hadrian's wall northumberland headquarters building

And this is the mausolea:

vindolanda hadrian's wall northumberland roman mausoleum

You get the idea.  Lots of low rock walls outlining different sized squares and rectangles.  However, this was a surprise:

vindolanda hadrian's wall northumberland child's grave roman

The sign says:  “In the summer of 2010, the remains of a 9-11 year old child was discovered here in an unmarked grave dug through the corner of this barrack room.  The child was buried shortly here sometime after AD 213 and the before the middle of the 3rd century.”  Hmm, sounds sketchy.  (Read more about this potential murder from 1800 years ago here. Talk about your cold cases!)

Another interesting spot had rectangular stones standing upright at fairly evenly spaced intervals:

vindolanda hadrian's wall northumberland hypocaust

I did not see any sign for it, but I found out later that it is  a hypocaust – a heating system.  The Romans would used short pillars like these to elevate the floor of a building.  Rather than have a fireplace in their living quarters, they would have a fire burning and hot air/smoke circulating underneath the floor.  The pillars allowed the air to flow under the floors freely and heat the room above without any smoke entering the room.

Pretty brilliant, I’d say.  If the day we were there was any indication, heat was a very important necessity!

I tried to imagine what this place looked like when it was inhabited. I am not great at visualizing things, but I did find this drawing to help me along:

vindolanda then hadrian's wall northumberland

Even though the weather was miserable, and this period of history holds no interest for me, and I got gypped out of seeing the museum I paid extra to see, the ruins and museum provided a window into the daily life of Roman Britain.  It is a must-see for anyone with an interest in the Roman Empire or Ancient Britain.

Also, archaeology students should definitely look into visiting – you can even apply to participate in a dig on the site!

Vindolanda and the Chesterholm Museum are in Hexham, Northumberland NE47 7JN.  Telephone +44 (0)1434 344277.  Hours vary by season, so call or consult the web site when planning your visit.



Alnwick Garden, Northumberland

Alnwick Garden, Northumberland

I almost didn’t buy the combo ticket that would allow us to tour Alnwick Garden along with Alnwick Castle.  I thought that the castle would be more than enough to see, and reasoned that we have plenty of fancy gardens to see on this side of the Atlantic.  In fact, it was only an accident that I ordered the combination tickets when I made my online purchase.

However, that being said, it was a happy accident.  The Alnwick Garden was quite enchanting, and it ended up being one of my daughter’s favorite things we did on our trip.

The first thing you see when you enter through the main entrance is the aptly named The Grand Cascade.  It is big, it is loud, and it dominates the garden.

alnwick garden grand cascade fountain northumberland

Surrounding the Cascade fountain are tunnels of greenery which lead up to the top of the fountain.

Alnwick Garden tunnel northumberland

But the most famous feature at The Alnwick Garden is not the enormous cascade fountain, but its Poison Garden.  This garden can only be seen by guided tour, and is kept behind a set of locked gates.

Alnwick poison garden northumberland

Each of the nearly 100 plants behind these gates is poisonous in some form or another. The Duchess of Northumberland created the garden, in part, to educate the public about the dangers of illicit drugs.

The garden includes cannabis as well as other lesser known plants used to produce a high. One such plant is Angel’s Trumpet (brugmansia), which is stunning to look at but deadly to ingest.

Alnwick garden poison Angels Trumpet northumberland

Our guide told us of some unfortunate soul who drank a cup of Angel’s Trumpet tea and ended up cutting off his tongue and his penis.  Yikes.

Just as lovely, but also deadly, is the autumn crocus (colchicum autumnale).

Alnwick garden poison autumn crocus northumberland

Oddly enough, my favorite plant in the Poison Garden was the deadly nightshade (atropa belladonna).  I could certainly see how someone could be attracted to its shiny round black berries.

alnwick garden poison-deadly-nightshade northumberland

The rest of Alnwick Garden was just as entertaining as the Poison Garden.  We traveled through a bamboo labyrinth and stopped to smell the roses.

alnwick garden english-rose northumberland

When we visited, it was autumn and there weren’t as many flowers in bloom.  I can only imagine what a stunning place it must be in spring & summer!

Our last stop was the Serpent Garden, which consisted of many different water features. In some, the water slowly trickled.  In others, it shot straight up into the air.  But in all of them, it was absolutely mesmerizing.

alnwick garden serpent northumberland

Alnwick Garden offers something for nearly every age range to enjoy.  While adults stand and marvel at the Grand Cascade, for example, preschoolers can hop on a toy John Deere tractor and scoot around the graveled walkway. Overlooking a small pond, there is a cherry orchard full of wooden swings on which to rest – an ideal spot for young and old alike who may need a break from walking.  The Poison Garden will be of interest to even the most jaded teenager, and the Fairy Tale Adventure is sure to intrigue elementary aged children.

The Alnwick Garden is on Denwick Lane, Alnwick, Northumberland, NE66 1YU.  Telephone +44 (0)1665 511350. The Garden opens daily at 10:00 am.  Closing times vary by season, so call or check the web site when planning your visit.

Keep Calm and Go to Barter Books

Keep Calm and Go to Barter Books

In Alnwick, Northumberland, there is a very large secondhand book store that occupies the former train station. It’s called Barter Books, and anyone who loves books should put it on their bucket list.

The store houses hundreds of thousands of books, meticulously categorized by genre or topic. They range from modern best sellers to books a hundred years old or more, on every topic under the sun. Boards with literary quotes span the aisles to create a makeshift archway under which you can stroll.

barter books alnwick northumberland
In addition, there are plenty of cozy places to sit and read.

Barter Books Alnwick northumberland
I loved this quote that I found in one area of the store:

beater books alnwick northumberland
There’s even a restaurant on site, so you could conceivably spend an entire day there. Seems like it could be dangerous for us bibliophiles!

But let’s not forget that the book shop is inside a Victorian train station. In a nod to the building’s history, a model train whizzes around the tops of the bookshelves in one room. You can catch a glimpse of it here, in this photo I took of the large mural.

barter books mural alnwick northumberland
The folks in this mirror look like they are having a great time, and that may be because they are all famous authors. To name a few: Jane Austen (far left, blue dress), Ernest Hemingway (center bottom, yellow shirt), Mark Twain (center bottom, white suit), Charles Dickins (top right, hand raised), and Oscar Wilde (top center, swathed in blue fabric).

But more than the books, the quotes, the train, and the mural, there’s this:

You see, without Barter Books, we might never have known about this iconic WWII poster.

In the beginning of Britain’s involvement in WWII, graphic artists designed posters for distribution to the public. The posters were to be uniform in design and morale-boosting in content. As a result, the government printed three different designs. One said Freedom Is In Peril – Defend It with All Your Might. A second said, Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory. And the third is the now iconic Keep Calm and Carry On.  The first two hung in shop windows all over Britain. The government printed nearly 2.5 million copies of the third poster, but never distributed it. They held back on releasing it; waiting for an invasion or other cataclysmic event. Most of those printed copies were later destroyed in a paper salvage campaign.

In 2000, the owner of Barter Books bought a box of books at an auction and found one of the posters in the box. He liked it, so he had it framed and hung it in the store. Customers loved it, so he made prints and began selling them. Of course, you know how the story goes from there.

Some would say it’s been done to death by mass marketing, and they may be right. But to me, the poster is quintessentially British. I often wonder about life in the UK during World War II, and how difficult it must have been. London children sent to relatives in more rural areas (if they were lucky… sent to total strangers if they weren’t), covering windows with blackout paper at night so there would be no lights to show enemy warplanes populated areas, and living with a constant fear of being bombed. I don’t think that most people in the US now would be able to keep calm and carry on the way the British did then.

In conclusion, if you find yourself in Alnwick, be sure to stop by Barter Books.  It’s a great store, and you never know what you might find.

Barter Books is in Alnwick Station, Northumberland NE66 2NP.  Telephone 44(0) 1665 604888.  They are open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm.