Visiting Alnwick Castle and Gardens

Alnwick Castle

Alnwick Castle

Alnwick Castle has been the home of the Percy family for 700 years. When the line descended to a female, the man she married took on the Percy name so that it wouldn’t die out. The Percy family themselves have been in England since just after the Norman Invasion so they’ve been around a very long time. They were the Earls of Northumberland until the end of the 17th century and after the male line died out there, married into the Dukes of Somerset, and after a couple of generations, the Earldom was restored/created by George III in 1766 and the numbering system restarted. They were the couple that returned to Alnwick which had fallen into disuse. Sir Hugh and Lady Elizabeth Percy restored, revamped, landscaped and rebuilt Alnwick into a luxurious palace. The castle has been further renovated and restored in the Victoria era to the Italianate decor we see in many of the State rooms now. The current Duke is the 12th.

The castle has been open to the public since 1950 and is currently open to the public during the spring, summer and early fall months. The family still lives there in the winter and you can see lots of evidence of this as you tour the State rooms, where there are family photos, beanbags for the dogs to lie on and a large flat screen television in the library. The castle sees 800,000 visitors a year. I would expect some of that stems from the use of the castle for some exterior shots in the first few Harry Potter movies. There are many types of souvenirs related to the movies in the gift shop, including wands, costumes, sorting hats, “house” scarves, etc. The castle was more recently used for a Downton Abbey episode in 2014 and will be used again in the final season of the series for an episode. Those scenes included inside shots in the State Rooms. I always enjoy seeing places on television and in movies where I’ve visited!

Alnwick Castle Gardens

Alnwick Castle Gardens

Also on the estate is the Alnwick Garden, a garden with many different areas in it. Some of the sections will be nicer during different times of the year than others. For instance, there’s a large cherry tree orchard. We visited in September but in the spring, with the cherry blossoms in bloom, it would be really beautiful. Otherwise, they’re just trees so we didn’t bother.

The gardens were designed by two Belgians, Jacques and Peter Wirtz. The Duchess of Northumberland was instrumental in spearheading the project and the result is a very interesting place to wander and explore.

We checked out of our hotel after breakfast and drove the half hour or so south along the coast to Alnwick. We found a parking lot in the town centre next to the gardens and surprisingly enough, it was free! It was also nearly full so we were lucky to find a spot. The official castle/gardens parking area wasn’t too far from there, I discovered after coming home, and it doesn’t cost very much to park all day. Free is better. Since the sun was out but the overall forecast was dubious, we decided to do the garden first, just in case. The whole main garden with all the smaller sub-gardens is walled in, with an atrium style cafe at the entrance. We didn’t go through the whole thing for two reasons, one being the weather, two being that there were parts of it we didn’t think would be worth it (see comments about the cherry orchard). We were also driving back across to Manchester and we wanted to fit in the castle before heading on the road and we didn’t want to be driving at all hours.

Alnwick Castle Gardens, the "tree tunnels"

Alnwick Castle Gardens, the “tree tunnels”

So the garden, first. The main central feature is a large cascading fountain with the jets shooting from either side in timed fashion. Along the sides and top of it are what looks like tunnels made of trees which, upon closer inspection, are shrubberies or something like it, growing over a metal frame. You can walk through these tunnels and there are some benches in there as well for a place to sit. Near the entrance there’s a labyrinth made of bamboo trees and branches. We had a scoot through that and managed not to get lost in it. We passed through the rose garden but those blooms were pretty much passed their prime.

One garden we did quite enjoy was called a serpent garden. It was filled with S-shaped topiaries made of holly that curved and circled around a series of water sculptures each with frameworks of highly polished stainless steel. It’s a bit hard to explain but they were all really interesting. One of them used gravity from a pond further up a hill which fed the fountain as it filled up and poured out. Another had water flowing over the edge of a circular frame and it was as clear as glass. It was all about how water moves, relying on various aspects of physics. It was really interesting.

Alnwick Castle Gardens, the Ornamental Garden

Alnwick Castle Gardens, the Ornamental Garden

The only other part we took in was an ornamental, more formal garden at the top end of the fountain. G. and M. wanted to rest their feet for a bit and weren’t as interested in looking at flowers and plants and sculpture so they sat on the garden benches while I had a lovely look around, taking photos and looking at everything. There was still a lot in bloom but it must have been spectacular in July.

Alnwick Castle Courtyard

Alnwick Castle Courtyard

We decided that was enough and headed down to the castle. The castle walls are high but instead of a moat, there are now sheep grazing in the fields and low hills surrounding. As impressive as the castle is as you approach it from across the park, it’s even more so when you go through the gates and enter a courtyard with the cobbled stones under foot and the high, imposing walls of the keep and the inner castle walls surrounding you. You look up. Your jaw drops down. It’s not majestic as such, and not impossibly high, it just takes you by surprise.

When you enter, you’re in a room that has pretty much every inch of the walls covered in arms, armaments, guns, swords, and the like. You cannot take photos inside the castle and there are security cameras everywhere so I didn’t even risk a “Hail Mary” shot from the waist! There are guides in all the rooms, both to watch for cameras and to answer questions. They all know the history of the castle and the Percy family really well. You can ask them pretty much anything and they’re happy, and enthusiastic to talk about it all.

There’s a grand staircase to climb, with fancy plaster work, paintings and gorgeous antiques and artifacts all around you. At the top, you can look over a viewpoint into the chapel which is lovely. You then traverse through all the State Rooms including a gorgeous library that is filled with groupings of comfortable chairs and sofas, two storey high walls lined with books, walls and tables containing family photos and pictures. It looks very much like it’s still lived in and enjoyed by the family. There are drawing rooms, reception rooms, and an extravagant dining room. The paintings are priceless as is some of the furniture and we were told later by the woman in a small shop there that one pair of cabinets is the most expensive set of furniture in the world. French, one of the Louis kings, I forget if it was XIV, XV or XVI. I spied at least one Canaletto on the walls, a painter whose work I do like.

As the castle was used for Downton Abbey last year, there are poster boards through some of the rooms with photos from scenes that were filmed there, with background information and displays of some of the props and costumes, as well. You will also see some exhibits on various members of the family that served in World War I, II, and even as far back as the Napoleonic wars. There’s a small gift shop in this area but a larger one over by another courtyard where there are a couple of restaurants as well. In that area there was also a video presentation on the filming of Downton Abbey and over in an alcove is the magnificent Percy family State Carraige which was recently restored to be used for the wedding of the daughter of the current Duke and Duchess a couple of years ago.

Alnwick Castle

Alnwick Castle

Even though it was a bit chilly, we sat and had a cup of tea/coffee and a piece of cake out in the courtyard. We had a mooch through the gift shop and decided, since the clouds were descending and the rain was imminent, we would not take the extra time to see some of the smaller museums in the gates around the castle walls. They have a lot to see, including activities put on for kids (broom flying lessons!) and for families through the summer. You could spend all day there even without going through the gardens.

Another really neat place to eat, though we didn’t do it, is a tree house restaurant just outside the walls of the gardens. You can also walk through the treetops on ramps and rope bridges. We thought we better hit the road, since we still had a few hours’ drive ahead of us. All in all, though, it was a lovely day, surrounded by history and beautiful things.

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