Mighty Northumbrian Castles: Alnwick and Bamburgh

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Greetings everyone and spring cheer to you all, even though some woolly and wintery weather is beating against my window right now. Mother Nature - we beseech you - bring some summer to us hapless northern hemisphere residents!

With departure immenent on a suitably sun-seeking holiday (more on that shortly), I thought I'd whip up a quick entry for a recent excursion to the north east of England that Karen and her parents (Susan and Malcolm, hi guys!) were kind enough to take me on. It was a great little adventure to the English county of Northumberland, via Berwick-upon-Tweed, to see some first class examples of British military architecture and a wonderful contemporary 'English garden' that would do any grand country estate proud.

After many a joke once Susan had extracted herself from my bathroom (by cunningly disassembling the lock with a pair of nail scissors as its internal workings had disintegrated at a most unfortunate time ;-), we hit the road that leads to the east coast and the border between Scotland and England. Susan's family had come from the Berwick area, a strategic point that has seen considerable conflict between two old foes over the centuries, so it was interesting to pass landmarks such as Halidon Hill (where a significant battle occured way back in 1333) and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne as we headed south over the border.

Our eventual destination was Alnwick (pron. 'Annick') and its magnificent castle - which happens to be the second largest working castle in the UK (after Windsor) and that has been the seat of the Earls and Dukes of Northumberland for nigh on 700 years. The castle itself is a spectacle, a massive but intricately constructed fortification set amongst vast fields of blooming daffodils and the occasional thicket of old-growth woodland - all of which is still in very good repair indeed. So good in fact that it has been used as a film set for productions such as the Blackadder comedy series and the first two Harry Potter films (the most memorable scene being the Quidditch game played on broomsticks high above the grassed courtyard).

But we didn't actually come for the castle - it is the recently developed gardens that draw the crowds these days. Commenced in 2000 and with the first stages opened in 2002, Alnwick Gardens is a series of diversely-themed areas that sit within a twelve acre site adjoining the castle - all of which should be complete by 2008. It is the legacy of the Duchess of Northumberland and is now operated as a charitable trust to grant access to the public.

The centrepiece is the massive fountains of The Grand Cascade, a contemporary interpretation of the water features estate gardens have utilised over the centuries, but allowing more human interaction than its predecessors as the cool little toy tractors in the photos attest. It's the largest water feature of its type in the UK and each half an hour it switches between one of its four sequences in order to vary the showand the amount of water that passers-by may be showered with if they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. All great fun indeed.

Continuing on the water theme (very handy the day we went because it was quite a warm day) is The Serpent Garden - a series of chrome water sculptures that encourage visitor interaction to the squealing delight of the kids involved. Gravity and water pressure are used to great effect in eight fascinating and strangely hypnotic designs by a guy called William Pye. Nice.

On a more traditional note, The Ornamental Garden at the top of the Grand Cascade was also worth a look and The Bamboo Labarinth and Spiral Gardens should be interesting to engage with once they are constructed in the near future. There is something for most people here and everyone looked to be having a good time whatever they happened to be doing.

Another worthy mention is the giant multi-story treehouse - unsurprisingly one of the world's largest wooden treehouses. Unfortunately it houses an ala carte restaurant which is booked up most of the time and that limits access and the potential to gawp at the internals of the structure, but the rope bridges and wakways that surround it are fun for a circuit or three. Bounce, bounce, bounce - teehee!

One final area to note is The Poison Garden, a diverse collection of plants that have been used throughout the ages to kill or cure as needs arose. It's a guided tour which is probably fair enough considering the clumps of hellebore and nightshade within easy reach. Being early spring, a lot of the cages seemed rather empty which removed much of the menace from many of the plant's names, but the guide's anecdotal commentary as to the origins and uses of the better-known species was pretty good value. And I would never have guessed that at least two or three species of daffodils are poisonous, so if your dog looks a little contrite after chowing down on some - take him to the vet!

Alnwick Castle and Gardens are a solid day's worth of action and activity, but we still had enough time to swing by the coast and up to Bamburgh to catch a glimpse of another ancient castle structure. I learnt later that due to its unique geology, the Bamburgh Castle site has been inhabited as a fortification for well over 3000 years.

Its golden age was around 1400 years ago, when it became the seat of the new Northumbrian Kings as the migrating Anglo-Saxons (from Scandinavia) assumed power in the British Isles after the fall of the Roman empire. Bamburgh was perfectly situated on north/south sailing routes and to also govern the lowlying inland of the north of Britain with a bloody iron fist. Since then it seems to have been continually occupied and enlarged, right up to the seeing service in WW2.

The beach along here also looks better than any I've seen in the British Isles (although I must admit I haven't seen many). Wide, long and with fine light sand you could almost image a similar scene on an Australian beach sometime in the spring or autumn. Was good to get the shoes off and feel sand between the toes. Susan and Karen assured me that such fine weather is not usual for this part of the world and their visits in the past were usually a lot wetter and windier, but I'd prefer to give it the benefit of the doubt. Despite its unassuming nature, this is a really nice part of the UK, so a return visit in the summer might be in order to find out.

Next entry -> we're going to Tobago. Woohoo!
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