Alnwick, October 2016
It’s a beautiful drive through Northumberland countryside to the town of Alnwick which is, of course, most famous for its castle: the main purpose of my visit here today. However, the book-lovers of Northumberland come to Alnwick for another reason and I was delighted that I arrived early and had some time to kill in Barter Books. Barter Books is an old train station which has been converted into a huge second-hand book store containing the original station tearooms and a reading room complete with sofas and open fires! It’s a perfect retreat for any bookworm and even if you’re not an avid reader it’s a lovely place to stop for a coffee.
Quotations hang above the rows and rows of bookshelves which fill the old building and from one end of the shop a section from Milton caught my eye. It was apt to be reminded of Milton’s words (above) which have been immortalised in the hymn Jerusalem, for nowhere is the poet’s vision of England’s green and pleasant land more evident than in the spectacular landscape surrounding Alnwick Castle.
After tearing myself away from the bookshelves (a blessing for my bank balance) I made for Alnwick Castle just in time for the ticket desk to open. Before heading to the castle proper I first took a turn around the gardens. It was just before Halloween and the weather was fittingly oppressive, looming grey clouds cast a shadow over the poison garden and added to the spooky atmosphere created by the discovery of ghosts and ghouls around every corner.
I was shown around the poison garden by a distinguished gentleman whose entertaining anecdotes about the garden’s numerous deadly plants provided ample fuel for the imagination. After the guided tour, I briefly admired Alnwick Gardens’ magnificent tiered fountain, which was perhaps not seen to its best in the day’s gloomy weather, to the bamboo maze which conversely benefitted from the dark skies, children’s screams emanating from within the labyrinth whenever they came upon one of the ghostly figures hanging in the shadowy path.
Finding my way out of the maze with a slight sigh of relief (those dolls really were hauntingly creepy) I emerged into a charming walled garden where beautiful roses still fought against the onset of winter. Little treats around each corner, a seat beneath a bower of trees or a beautiful statue amid trailing vines, gave the impression of being in a newly-discovered secret garden which perfectly reflected the nature of English countryside.
From here I walked towards the entrance to Alnwick Castle. The short journey along this path, which was lined with ancient knarled and twisted trees, increased my sense of adventure as I looked towards the castle with a head full of history, legend and magic.
Of course, I am not the first to see the magic in Alnwick Castle, this was spotted years ago by producers from Warner Brothers who made it one of the principal sets for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the film adaptations for JK Rowling’s phenomenal Harry Potter series. It was heart-warming to see, when I walked into grounds on this blustery and cold, autumn day, a crowd of children and their parents standing on the lawn of Alnwick Castle for their flying lesson.
I wandered along the castle walls from where you get a fantastic view of the castle’s striking silhouette on one side and on the other, the sweeping vista of ‘Capability’ Brown’s landscape. Walking around the battlements and grounds and seeing the children eagerly clutching their brooms and listening with rapt attention to their berobed teachers, kindle that spark of imagination that lives in every castle which, though brick and mortar, seem to be places of legend more often than of history.
From myth to reality: inside the house I was drawn back to some semblance of reality as I was given a guided tour of Alnwick’s state rooms. This magnificent building is the family home of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland and their children, for them this is their reality although I’d imagine that concept is more dreamlike to most visitors, myself included.
You enter the castle from a courtyard where turreted walls rise around you in true gothic style and if the exterior is imposing, the view that greets you inside is no less so. The walls of the Lower Guard Chamber are lined with armour and weaponry dating from the time of Napoleon’s conquest of Europe (when the Duke raised a volunteer army, fearing the French general might invade from the Northern beaches) right back to the English Civil War.
Around the corner the style changes completely as you come to the Palazza entrance. In the mid-19th century, inspired by his travels around Europe, Algernon Percy, the 4th Duke of Northumberland, remodelled the fairy-tale Gothic interiors of the castle to resemble a Venetian palace of the Italian renaissance. Up the Grand staircase is the Upper Guard Chamber. From floor, a magnificent mosaic modelled on the palace of Hadrian in Rome, to ceiling, intricately carved, painted and gilded with 24-carat gold in a design copied form the Vatican, this room provides a perfect entrance to the artistic splendour of Alnwick’s state rooms. The walls of the Upper Guard Chamber display a formidable collection of artworks, from Van Dyck to Canaletto and Claude Lorrain, a collection which continues to impress throughout the castle.
From here you enter the Ante Library which is perhaps most notable for containing three portraits by Titian. The next room is the Library, a stunning space full of warm light reflecting off the beautiful oak bookshelves which cover the walls of the entire room. I think what is perhaps so wonderful about this room is that while it is almost jaw-droppingly grand, it still manages to feel cosy. As well as 14,500 books dating from as early as 600 years ago, the Alnwick Library also contains, sofas, a TV and a drinks cabinet as it is used by the Percy family as their sitting room. It’s nice to know that this lovely room is being used and appreciated and that the books on the shelves here are not just for show.
Moving on I found myself in the evocatively-named Saloon where I was impressed by the remarkable fireplace with figures of stern-looking Dacian slaves guarding it at either side, these shining white statues were carved from the same Carrera marble from which Michaelangelo fashioned his David.
Passing through the Saloon I came to the Drawing Room, a lush room of red and gold which contains two incredibly valuable pieces of furniture with a fantastic history. Either side of another carved marble fireplace (this time with caryatids at each edge) stand two unique pietra dura (decorated with images made from precious and semi-precious stones) cabinets. They were made by Florentine craftsman, Domenico Cucci, for King Louis XIV of France but were later removed at the behest of Madame de Pompadour who reputedly did not like them and bought by the 3rd Duke from a London furniture dealer. The most remarkable fact about them is that they are the only two original pieces of furniture surviving from the palace of Versailles.
Also in this room is a painting by JMW Turner which the 4th Duke bought at an auction when Turner was still a young and relatively unknown artist. As a rule Algernon Percy did not buy English art but made an exception for this piece because he liked it so much – evidently he was a man of very good taste!
The last room on the tour of Alnwick’s state rooms was perhaps my favourite of them all, purely for the effect it has upon the senses. The high walls of the grand dining room are hung with intense green silk wallpaper and enormous mahogany dining table forms the centrepiece of the rooms and each wall is home to huge portraits in magnificent frames of the Percy family throughout the ages, all of which combines to produce an environment of extreme opulence. It wasn’t just my senses that were thrilled by this room, it also captured my imagination.
As I was leaving the dining room, having asked my excellent guide, Pauline, to explain to me the significance of an encased document (it turned out to be the death warrant of the 7th Earl, signed by Queen Elizabeth I herself!) one last thing caught my eye. In another glass case, glinting from the far corner of the room, was a gleaming gold sword, encrusted in jewels and bearing this inscription:
The Gift of His Majesty King George IV to High Duke of Northumberland his majesty’s representative at the coronation of his most Christian Majesty Charles X King of France 1825
I said before entering the castle that it was a return to reality, in fact the whole time I felt myself teetering on the brink, walking the line between the known world of every day and another of wild fancy. This one object was enough to send me, happily, plunging back into the realm of fantasy, conjuring the tales of Alexandre Dumas of daring chivalry, Machiavellian villains and British Aristocracy caught up in sensational intrigues at the French court.
Before leaving, I couldn’t resist a peek at Alnwick’s famous treehouse on my way out. Yet another magical string to Alnwick’s bow, the treehouse is a brilliantly playful place to grab a coffee, sitting among the boughs while children run across the rope bridges and climb the towers. There’s even an enchanting restaurant, lit by fairy lights, which is so well designed it seems to have grown out of the tree itself.
From the stories of wicked deeds in the poisoned garden and witchcraft and wizardry on the lawns, to the lives of kings and queens in the castle and a treehouse right out of a childhood fantasy, a visit to Alnwick feels like stepping into an English fairy-tale with a new and exciting chapter at every turn!