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About A Week: Alnwick

Alnwick Castle looks like a castle ought to look, says Peter Hinchliffe.

Add a dash of Harry Potter to a glorious Capability Brown landscape, stir in buttresses, battlements, gilded state rooms…and what have you got?

Alnwick Castle, the fortress home of the proud Percys, Lords, Earls and Dukes of Northumberland.

Alnwick looks like a castle ought to look. One glance at its stern stone towers and your imagination conjours up the clash of embattled steel, the swish of arrows fired with deadly aim, the thunder of canon.

If Alnwick had never existed a Disney cartoonist would have had to invent it.

The Percys have been there since 1309. The castle was their fortress home during wars against the Scots.

Read the family’s history and you get a distinct feeling that warfare for those medieval lords wasn’t just a matter of seizing and holding land. It was a hobby.

Henry, the Second Lord, would probably have a slice of fried stag for breakfast, pace lackadaisically from courtyard to keep, then announce to his wife, “I’m bored love. I think I’ll go off and bash the Scots again.’’

When not pursuing their favourite sport of hounding the Scots Henry and his son, another Henry (what else?), went clattering off on their chargers to fight in France.

The 9th Earl (1585-1632), yet another Henry, was not interested in hunting down humans. He studied chemistry and astronomy and was known as the Wizard Earl.

Ralph Percy, the 12th and current Duke of Northumberland, educated at Eton and Oxford, trained as a land surveyor. Highly appropriate, for he looks out from his castle onto a sumptuous rural landscape. Trees, fields, a river…and not a single pylon or telephone pole to irritate the eye.

Ralph’s behaviour would have bemused the early Earls. Alnwick was built as a fortress. Castles are there to keep folk out. Yet at 11 am everyday the gates and doors are thrown open and any Tom, Dick and Harry is allowed in to view the state rooms.

That includes Harry Potter. Scenes in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone were shot at Alnwick Castle.

The new wonder is the Castle’s millennium garden - “one of the most unusual and spectacular public gardens of the 21st century’’. The centrepiece is a grand cascade. Water floods down from a great height, through miniature lagoons, squirting up in surprising, shirt-wetting, computer-controlled sequences through 120 jets.

There are more plants than one individual could ever shake a watering can at, including a thistle as big as a tree.

The millennium garden is a wondrous creation. Unfortunately one essential ingredient is missing. Peace and quiet. On a sunny summer’s day humans buzz noisily along its flowery paths like pollen-starved bees.

The Duke and his advisors should consider limiting the numbers admitted to the Alnwick garden on certain days. True plant-lovers would willingly pay a premium entry fee.

Alnwick Castle must have seemed a reassuringly secure dwelling place for the noble Percys, yet it isn’t located on some isolated crag. Slip out of the “back door’’ and you are straight into the market town of Alnwick. And what a canny town it is!

A fine town in a fine county. Northumberland is England’s best-kept tourist secret. If more folk discover its beauties County officials may have to start putting up Keep Out signs at certain times of year.


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