Hello again and welcome once again one and all. I do hope you enjoyed my previous post about the gorgeous town of Alnwick which was really growing on me as you have probably guessed if you have read my previous entries. I realise that by my usually verbose standards it was fairly short which I am sure my regular readers were very glad about.
Having had to move out of my excellent B&B I had re-located to the equally comfortable (and considerably cheaper) Youth Hostel in the town. Even with my limited range of mobility I knew there was still much more to see and do about the town and I intended to do as much as my health allowed. If you care to read on, we’ll go for a walk although it did not happen this day which just quickly degenerated into a pub crawl but I have no problem with that and do not consider it at all wasted time. I met some lovely people and really got a feel for the place.
About the only constructive thing I did was take an image of the Bondgate which is also known as the Hotspur Tower or Hotspur Gateway and yes, we are back to our old friend Sir Henry Percy aka Harry Hotspur who has such an influence all over the County of Northumberland and beyond. There is even a Premiership football (soccer) club in North London, which is hundreds of miles away, called Tottenham Hotspur although the name probably owes more to Shakespeare’s character in Henry IV which was based on our Northumbrian friend so it is a definite link. This particular feature of the extensive town defences was completed c.1450.
The reason I took the image was because I was wondering if the van driver was going to make it, it was extremely tight. I was sure he probably would as he presumably does it frequently and indeed he sailed through it with no problem.
I took a bit of a slow amble round the town just taking images of random buildings, the architecture here really is rather impressive. You can see a couple of examples above.
One building I rather liked is nowhere near as old as many of the pretty ancient buildings in the town dating only to 1846 and was commissioned by Hugh, 3rd Duke of Northumberland, yet another Percy. It is the Roman Catholic Church of St. Paul and is in the Gothic style which I rather like and which was very much in vogue for ecclesiastical architecture in the Victorian era. It is to the design of Anthony Salvin. Sadly it was not open when I visited but I have researched it and, as always, if you look closely enough you will find something.
Salvin was a notable architect of his time and his other commissions included Moreby Hall in Yorkshire and Scotney Castle in Kent but he was perhaps best known as a restorer of old castles due to his encyclopaedic knowledge of old buildings. Amongst his many restorations he included Norwich Castle, Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, several parts of the Tower of London including the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, Windsor Castle and the nearby Alnwick Castle. Despite suffering a stroke he continued working until he was 80, dying two years later.
Another interesting fact is that the building seems to have been quite ecumenical over the years as indeed the whole town seems to be, everyone seems to rub along quite nicely. Whilst the building was originally Anglican they moved out following a re-organisation of their Diocese and the Roman Catholics took over the building which was consecrated for worship according to their beliefs as recently as 1982. To this day there are many inter-denominational activities and I cannot help thinking that if there had been this level of tolerance when I was growing up in Belfast in the 70’s things might have been a whole lot better.
The sun was by now well over the yardarm and for me that means only one thing, time for a pint and there is certainly no lack of choice in Alnwick. I suppose this is why the standard is so high because if you are not good you just won’t survive. My choice today was the Market Tavern where I had been previously but inexplicably did not tell you about at the time, presumably because I had no images as reference and I really to rely on them to remember what I have done.
The website boasts that the Market Tavern is a steakhouse, cocktail bar and pub of which I only involved myself in the latter as I was eating very little and I really don’t do cocktails and it was excellent. The main steakhouse is upstairs and I did not go for a look but the bar itself, which I believe was recently refurbished, was very comfortable and certainly managed to retain a pub feel.
I have mentioned many times that any establishment, be it bar, restaurant, accommodation or whatever is only as good as the staff and the staff here are absolutely brilliant, they are a right bunch of jokers and I mean that nicely. They are extremely efficient but when they are not actually serving drinks they keep up a constant stream of friendly banter with the customers and it really does add to the atmosphere of the place.
Whilst I would happily have stayed there all afternoon there was something I wanted to do as it was my last day in Alnwick and I was in a mood to be productive so off I set again.
En route to my next stop I passed the main Gate of Alnwick Castle which is as far as I intended to go for two reasons. Firstly, because of the nature of the grounds and the ancient castle itself there is only limited access for the mobility impaired, a group I now very regrettably must include myself in. Secondly, the admission prices are frankly eye-watering with a single adult running at £19:50. I know that a place like this does cost a lot to keep up but the current Duke is currently estimated to be worth £425 million (2020 figures), having added £26 million in the previous year which makes him richer than the Queen! With admission prices like these I am not surprised. I contented myself with an image of the Castle walls and gate and headed the short distance to where I wanted to be.
Where I did want to be was the Bailiffgate Museum which I had heard was very good. If the exterior looks like a church that is because it was, in fact it was the church the Roman Catholic community used until the re-located to the current location as discussed above.
I went in and spoke to an extremely friendly and helpful lady regarding accessibility and she informed me the entire building was accessible with a lift to all floors and plenty of places to sit down, which sounded good to me and she even offered to look after my bag if I wanted, better still. At a very reasonable £5 admission I would be able to see everything so, as teachers used to set as essays, compare and contrast with the Castle. OK, I know they are incomparable in terms of scale and historical importance but I reckoned I had the best of the deal.
Before I saw a single exhibit I read a notice on the wall explaining about the museum and it made me even happier I had come here. The entire operation is a community project and run by volunteers, receiving no Government funding and relying on grants from charitable organisations, donations, admission prices and merchandise, I think it is a brilliant concept.
The more I travelled round the museum, the more I learned as they are not confined to keeping the museum going but also engage in all sorts of projects in the local area including an extensive oral history project. This involves them going around “in the field” and making audio recordings of people relating their stories for posterity, often in dialect which is at times incomprehensible to the outsider.
In these days of globalisation when our rich language is being eroded at a rate of knots it will be of great value to future generations. I will never understand why young people today want to talk like American urban street criminals! As a very quick example, when I learned to speak proper English the word sick meant being unwell and now I am told it means something that is really good. How? Why?
Of the museum itself I have nothing but praise. For a supposedly “amateur” operation everything was presented in a very professional way and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think my favourite exhibition was called “Summer by the Seaside” which traced the history of that quintessentially British pastime and bearing in mind Alnwick is less than five miles from one of the most stunning coastlines in the UK it was very appropriate. I spent so long enjoying the Bailiffgate that when I checked the time time so I thanked the staff profusely, collected my bag and headed off in search of another pint and it was there that I met my first pub disaster!
I saw a lovely old pub called the Black Swan and the door was open so I got as far as the doorstep and immediately something was wrong. There were dustsheets on the floor and a look in showed workmen busily engaged in their various trades. Oh dear. This was a bit of a shame as it is a Grade II listed building by Historic England and has some history attached to it notably concerning Robert Burns the “national poet of Scotland”. When he was not composing verse and bawdy songs his day job was as an Excise officer and when his duties brought him to Alnwick he used to stay here.
Another thing I found a little confusing was that although the pub was called the Black Swan the rather attractive stained glass windows depicted a white swan so what was all that about? Incidentally, there is also a White Swan establishment in town. I did ask about later and someone suggested it was one of the heraldic devices of the ubiquitous Percy family but I can find absolutely no evidence for this.
The Black Swan was a setback but by no means a disaster in a town like this and so I limped along slowly to the Blue Bell Inn which I mentioned in a previous post and promised to describe so here goes.
It is an excellent pub which has been recently refurbished, taking advantage of the pandemic hiatus in normal business and a very good job they have made of it. It retains a good old-fashioned feel when so often rfurbs are an excuse for needless modernisation, minimalist decor and a total loss of character although they have succumbed to the increasingly ubiquitous fairy lights but they are not intrusive.
There are bookshelves full of old books but perhaps my favourite feature is the pair of extremely comfortable wing-back chairs either side of the fireplace which was obviously not in use at this time of year. There is a very large room out the back which is used for various functions and the whole premises extends quite a way back which makes it a lot larger than it looks from the outside. A lovely place.
I shall return now to my earlier point about any establishment only being as good as the staff and, in a town (indeed region) with super-friendly bar-staff this place really excels. On previous visits I had been speaking to the landlady who was an absolute delight and whose name, with my awful memory, I shamefully cannot remember. I also had a great chat with one of the bar-staff who originated from Northern Ireland, the country of my birth, so we had much to discuss. On this evening the landlady was not serving and was observing her domain from the comfort of a chair so we had another great chat about this that, everything and nothing.
With my intake of liquid the inevitable happened so I excused myself and went to use the facilities. On the way back I paused for a quick look at one of the bookshelves as I just cannot resist books either old or new and one in particular caught my eye. It was a fairly slim hardback volume published in 1949 on the subject of how to run a restaurant so I picked it up for a quick look.
Looking back into the bar I could see that the landlady was not in her seat so I brought the book back with me. I certainly was not going to be rude and read in company but I had a quick skim through it and it was fascinating and a publication very much of it’s time in immediate post-war Britain. Having subsequently read it you certainly would not be able to write it nowadays. It lists the problems with foreign staff particularly targetting the Italians for some reason although I suppose we had been at war with them only four years before.
As for the suggested menus they are so dated and would make any of the many Michelin starred chefs we have in this country now throw up their hands in horror. Spicing was more or less restricted to pepper and perhaps a small grate of nutmeg in some of the desserts. The selection of spices available in even the most modest supermarkets today would have utterly baffled the 1949 chef although in those days there were not even supermarkets never mind spices.
Anyway, the landlady returned so I closed the book and told her of the small amount I had read and how interesting it was whereupon she did no more than tell me to take it with me. I asked her how much she wanted for it and she refused all payment explaining that they had bought a job lot from some charity shop of books they were never going to sell to be used purely as decoration. What a lovely lady.
Th last thing I should tell you about the wonderful Blue Bell is what you can see in the image above which will mean little to anyone not a cider drinker in the UK. It is Woodpecker which was arguably the most popular brand here before cider became so popular and largely adulterated with all kinds of fruit juices and the like. It is still available in cans and supermarket bottles but I have not seen it on draught for literally decades, I did not know they still did it, so that was the choice for the day.
I left relatively early for me as I had to get back to the hostel and sort something out, that something being where was I going to be sleeping the next night. I know it sounds ludicrous but that really is the way I travel. I reached a decision after a while, checked public transport times, booked a room and then headed off for an early night in my comfy bed.
I am not going to tell you what I decided on as you know the drill by now. If you want to find out or even if I made it there, you’ll just have to stay tuned!