Hello again folks and welcome back again, never mind a huge thanks to everyone for reading, liking and commentating. I know I say this often but it really is appreciated.
After what had been a brilliant weekend which constituted the Euromeet, instituted by the sadly now departed Virtual Tourist website and which had culminated in an utterly brilliant day out on the stunning Northumbrian coast (see my previous entry for full details), my plans were literally completely fluid which is the way I like to travel.
On my previous trip to the Northeast I had decided to go to Berwick-upon-Tweed for no better reason than that I had been over the railway bridge so many times on the London – Edinburgh line, risked looking down from it’s great height (I have vertigo) to see the very pleasant looking town below and always thought I would like to go there one day and so I did. It turned out to be a great call which you can read about here.
On another occasion I was drifting around Europe and decided to go to Dijon for no better reason than I wanted to buy some Dijon mustard for a foodie friend of mine. Again it was a brilliant experience and here is the story if you are interested. Despite my utterly random travel style which some would say verges on the ridiculous it rarely plays me false and I have discovered some fantastic places that way. If you read on you’ll find out about another example which certainly did nothing to dissuade me from my particular brand of flaneuring.
In a little teaser at the end of the previous post I had said that on my last night in Newcastle my friend Sarah had asked me if I was returning to London the following morning, to which I replied I wasn’t sure and she said, “I’ll take that as a no then”. She knows me too well. When I go away supposedly for a long weekend I don’t even bother buying a return train ticket because a) I have no idea where I will end up and b) a standard return only lasts for a month which I frequently exceed so it is a waste of money.
I wanted to stay in the Northeast as I was enjoying the friendliness, the scenery, the history and, frankly, the prices which continued to amaze me compared to London. I narrowed the search down to two places, Hexham and Alnwick, as always for the most ludicrous of reasons. Hexham was chosen as one of my favourite ever bands, Fairport Convention, sang a song called the Hexhamshire Lass many years ago in the days when I did not even know where Hexhamshire was! Alnwick was chosen purely because I liked the name, how crazy is that?
I looked for accommodation in Hexham and it the little that was available was way out of my price range and mostly a distance out of town which was no use to me. I don’t know if there was a meeting at the local racecourse or if it is just a well-heeled sort of place to go but it was out of the running (no racing pun intended) so Alnwick it was going to be.
I managed to secure a room in what looked like a very pleasant B&B within walking distance of the town so I was all set but that will wait until later in the post as we are not even out of Newcastle yet and I have an absolutely wonderful place to tell you about before we go North.
The place in question is the Centurion Bar which is the station bar in Newcastle Station and, in truth, it is not the first time I have mentioned it in my posts. I am not going to re-rehearse previous statements here so please do look at my previous entry here for full details of the history but I have included a few images to give you an idea of how utterly stunning the place is.
I had a good chat with the typically friendly Geordie barman who filled me on some of the finer details of the history of the bar, most of which I knew but some of which I didn’t. Since my original piece the insurance valuation of the tiles alone has now risen to ￡3.8 million so who knows what the whole place is insured for with all it’s period fixtures and fittings, it must be a hefty sum.
I must say that the Centurion, named for it’s proximity to the nearby Hadrian’s Wall if you are interested, are amongst the more expensive in Newcastle coming in at just over ￡5 for a pint of cider but I always think it is worth it just to sit and look at the glorious surroundings. The fact that the staff are genuinely friendly rather than the usual surly bartenders you get in most station bars is a bonus.
I had already ascertained that trains to Alnwick were fairly frequent and only take about half an hour so that was no problem and I savoured my excellent pint in one of the most impressive bars I know in the UK. When I say trains to Alnwick that is not strictly speaking correct as trains don’t go there any more as it was cut out of the system many years ago although there is a fine station still extant which we shall come to later.
Instead, I was deposited in good order, not even a delay, at Alnmouth station which apparently serves the village of Alnmouth although I never even got to see it, it is quite a hike. Back to my pet subject of toponymy and obviously Almouth is the place where the river Aln empties into the North Sea whilst Alnwick, where I was trying to get to, derives from the river name and the old English “wic” which means, amongst other things a settlement. There is an alternative suggestion that “wic” is itself a corruption of the Latin word vicus which meant the settlement outside a Roman military camp. I did tell you I love this subject!
So let me now tell you about Alnmouth station which I was going to describe as being in the back end of nowhere but it is truly way beyond that. I looked all round and could not see a single human habitation in any direction and not a soul to be seen at the station. I know I was the only person to get off the train and nobody had boarded, nor was there a soul waiting to board a Southbound train (quick Crosby and Nash reference there), the image below gives an idea.
Whilst I saw absolutely nothing I did hear a rooster / cockerel crowing loud and insistently and whilst it was not unpleasant as I love the country I specifically remember thinking “You stupid bird, are you not meant to do that at daybreak as it was now well into the afternoon. The rural atmosphere was only added to by the presence of a charming little bird box on one of the poles. Whilst all this was very charming it was not going to get me where I needed to go so that had to be sorted.
I looked around and saw a sign for “bus” pointing up a hill so I slogged up there and after a bit of a search I found a bus stop which indicated that there would not be one for some time, this place really is not a major transport hub so I decided to go to the station even though it had looked worryingly closed from the other platform and which brings me back to a point I made earlier in this series. There was absolutely no provision made for the mobility impaired, no footbridge, certainly no lifts and the only way from one platform to the other was to hump your way up that hill, cross a road bridge on quite a busy road with a fairly narrow pavement (pavement which proved to be difficult with even a small pullalong suitcase. After that it was down another hill to arrive at the station proper which was indeed closed.
I have just had a look at the LNER website and here is a cut and paste from it.
Staff Help Available
Monday – Friday 06:40 – 18:15
Saturday 06:40 – 18:15
Sunday 10:20 – 21:00
This is a lie, nothing more and nothing less. The place was firmly locked up and not a member of staff to be seen (another blatant lie on the website). The information about accessibility is, to say the least, disingenuous. Another quote from the website.
“Level access to platform 1 from Station Car-park, access to platform 2 from council car-park also level. Lifts available 24 hrs”. What this really means is there is level access if you have a vehicle.
If there are lifts as the website claims, they must have been designed by snipers because I was damned if I could find them they were so well camouflaged and I certainly saw no signs.
The only vaguely redeeming feature of the station house was that it had a number of taxi numbers displayed on cards in the window. I tried one, no reply. I tried a second, similar result. This was getting a bit tedious now. The third call eventually produced a response and he said he was doing something but could be there in 30 – 40 minutes, that will do. I got the impression he was not a full time taxi driver and it was certainly not a proper firm. I suspect that he was a one man operation with the appropriate licence who did a bit of taxiing on the side.
In fairness to the guy he turned up when he said he would and after I had watched a train or two passing by and had a cigarette outside and I told him where I was going. No problem, he knew it and away we went. During the journey I appreciated why they needed a spur link to Alnwick, it is a fair old trek which I could have managed in my younger days carrying a heavy Bergen and a rifle but in 2022, not a chance. It had nearly slaughtered me getting across the bridge. How times change.
My driver was fine but I was told a day or two later that there were very few cabs in the Alnwick area and did he ever play on his relatively monopoly position. I have been speaking a lot in this series about how very inexpensive the Northeast is but taxis round Alnwick are most certainly not. I cannot remember exactly what he charged me but something in my hindbrain is saying £14. A journey of comparable distance in fairly central London would have cost me less and he wasn’t even negotiating traffic as it is not that busy there. Presumably I was not the first stranded traveller he had picked up due to the vagaries of the utterly broken rail system in the UK and I doubt I will be the last.
He did, however, deposit me safe and sound to my abode for the next leg of my already extended trip. The “ very pleasant B&B” I teased you with at the top of this post far exceeded the description externally at least. It is called Eveanna (why I have no idea and I very stupidly managed not to take an image of the exterior) but you can see it here on their website, it is stunning. Apparently it was built as a hotel for the very nearby Alnwick Station but was never actually utilised for that purpose. It was subsequently turned into three residences.
There were a few steps up leading to a charming garden where I was subsequently to sit a few times enjoying a smoke and generally feeling happy with the world. Beyond that was a door with no apparent signs of life but it was open so I went in, still puffing and panting a bit and called out a hello whereupon the owner, a delightful chap as it turned out, came down the stairs. He checked me in and showed me to my room which was another bit of a trek as it was a garret (attic room) and seemed to be up an interminable number of stairs.
The journey, however, was worth it as my single room was absolutely delightful as the images show and had everything I needed which isn’t actually a lot. I decided to have a quick lie down to recuperate and there were two reasons for this. Firstly, I needed the rest and secondly, the day which had been dull and overcast to start with, had degenerated into a full blown rainstorm as you can see in the image below of the rain running down the dormer window of my room.
When the rain subsided and I could breathe relatively easily again it was time for my first foray into Alnwick which was a bit of a wander but not insurmountable whilst unencumbered by kit. I also “marked” a few places where I could sit for a rest if required on future trips. This is sadly the way I have to operate these days and what should have been a ten minute walk turned into more like half an hour but that is just the way things are now. I am getting used to it mainly because I have no option or else I would never go out my front door!
Obviously I was searching for a pub and the first one I came upon was the Plough but, horror of horrors, it was shut. Then I happened on Hardy’s Bistro which looked way too posh for the likes of me so I pressed on. The reason I have included the two images above is not so much to illustrate the premises involved but rather to demonstrate the architecture. As I was to find out during my stay the majority of the old architecture in the town seems to be constructed of the same type of stone which is a lovely beige colour. My knowledge of geology is minimal and I do not know what it is so I am going to take a wild guess at sandstone. If any of my readers can enlighten me I would be most grateful and will amend this entry accordingly with due accreditation.
By this time I really did need a rest and I sat myself down on a public bench on what is one of the two “main” streets in town. I know I am often critical of local authorities, and with good reason I think, but I believe in credit where it is due and I really must commend whoever is responsible for the street furniture in Alnwick as there is certainly no shortage of benches for the weary to have a sit down.
As I was catching my breath my attention was drawn to something just across the pavement from me. It was an old-fashioned telephone kiosk but painted blue rather than the traditional pillar-box red. I had to investigate and you can see the results above. It was no longer being used solely for telecommunications but rather had been converted to a food larder by the good folk of Alnwick Mutual Aid, a charity formed in early 2020 in response to the pandemic.
Sadly, not everyone is as philanthropic as those of Mutual Aid and the larder had to be temporarily closed in early 2021 because some of the local yobs had stolen some produce from it and used it to criminally damage a nearby retail premises. I really don’t know how some people’s minds work, or more accurately why they don’t.
Whilst I was on my feet I took the opportunity of walking a bit further and soon taking an image of the Pottergate Tower, which you can see above. The Tower was originally part of the medieval defences of the town although the structure you see here only dates to 1786 and was built to the design of Henry Bell. It originally had a spire on it but this was removed in 1821. Believe it or not, you can actually stay in this lovely building as it is now a self-catering holiday let which looks gorgeous on the website although the steep, narrow stairs would prove a problem for me now.
I was enjoying my little hobble around Alnwick but I still had not had a pint so it was time to rectify that but before I did I had to take an image of this fine bronze of Sir Henry Percy aka “Harry Hotspur” who I mentioned in a previous post. It is an impressive 14 feet high and is the work of Northumberland sculptor Keith Maddison who was commissioned to produce it to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Percy family’s presence in Alnwick in 2009 and was unveiled by the current Earl of Northumberland the next year.
The sculptor had a slight problem as there are no pictorial representations of Harry when he does not have his visor down so nobody knows what he really looked like. Help was at hand however in the form of Earl George Percy, a direct descendant who offered to sit so it is actually his face you see here.
Come on Fergy, the afternoon is wearing on and still no pub, get it sorted. Fortunately there was such an establishment just across the road in the form of the Dirty Bottles, a fine old structure believed to have been built in the 17th century. I know this is an odd thing to call a pub because such establishments normally trumpet their cleanliness so here is the story.
The pub has been a licensed premises for over 200 years and, back in it’s early days there were some old bottles sitting in a particular window. The landlord decided he would clear them out and began to do so whereupon he promptly dropped dead on the spot. His new widow declared that the same fate would befall anyone else who tried to move them and so they were encased behind a second window where they have remained ever since.
Originally the place was called Ye Olde Cross but the natives soon started referring to it as the Dirty Bottles which it remains to this day. The old painted sign which I discovered when I went out to the yard for a smoke bears testament to the old name. There is a heavy emphasis on food here, as must pubs require to survive these days and it is certainly one of the more expensive places in town but I quite liked it in there.
I decided to go a bit further although I did not have to go far until I came upon the George in Bondgate and that turned out to be a great find and a place I was to return to several times. I have commentated here before about how I form fairly instant opinions of both people and places, which may be a fault although I do not think so, and as soon as I stepped in the door that this was going to be my sort of pub.
The George was absolutely no frills although clean and tidy and was fairly full of what appeared to be working men, a proper local. There was live sport on the large screen TV and what later transpired to be a very comprehensive jukebox. I went to the bar where I was greeted by a very friendly barmaid (landlady?) who promptly served me up a decent pint.
Despite the efficiency of the service, she had barely had time to set my pint down on the bar before I had been engaged in conversation by a couple of guys who, upon hearing my accent, had obviously correctly guessed that I was not from those parts. They were nothing if not sociable in the George.
I would have loved to have stood and chatted for longer but standing for any length of time is no longer an option for me and there were no free stools at the bar so I made my apologies and went and sat down.
After a couple of pints it was time to move yet again. Whilst I did not know it at the time I have subsequently discovered that there are 47 licensed establishments in this town of a shade over 8,000 people, my kind of place. It proves that I still had a long way to go!
En route to my next port of call I paused to take an image of some random buildings to demonstrate how prevalent this beige stone, which I have probably erroneously chosen to call sandstone, is in Alnwick. The whole town seems made of it which is fine as it presents a very harmonious effect which I find aesthetically pleasing although I am certainly no expert.
I do like taking images of quirky little things for no better reason than they just appeal to me and the image above is a perfect demonstration of that. It is an utterly lovely bench in what I believe is the market square and is a clear nod to the extensive Viking influence in the area. Despite the utterly massive amount of information available online and my best efforts I cannot discover who was responsible for the design. I wish I could find the answer as they certainly deserve a name-check and if any of my knowledgeable readers can assist I would be most grateful.
The next pub that hove into sight off the starboard bow was the Queen’s Head Hotel so I was straight in there. I hadn’t noticed the sign on the way in but the Queen’s Head is part of the rather large Craft Union chain who recently scooped the Best Community Pub operator 2022 in the prestigious Publican Awards. It claims to be the oldest pub in Alnwick even though it is quite big inside which is not the norm for very old drinking houses and is exactly what I would expect from a CU pub with live sport on various large screen TV’s, numerous drink offers and the like but that is not what initially caught my eye.
You can see what did draw my attention in one of the images above, it was a huge Ukrainian flag attached to the bar and facing the main door so you certainly would not miss it. I do not know if the bar has any particular affiliation with that poor beleaguered country like a member of staff from there or whatever or if it was just yet another display of solidarity from the British public who seem to be completely behind them and completely opposed to the illegal and barbarous invasion from “The Bear” next door. Still, we Brits have always had a sense of fair play.
I decided that rather than go any further that evening I would sit tight as I was pretty exhausted after my exertions of the day and the prospect of a reasonable trek back to my digs meant I would need all my energy, not to mention those stairs when I got there! With a few rest stops on the way I did eventually make it home in good order for a relatively early night by my standards.
I was not too worried about the early night as I knew I had another couple of days in the town which was a prospect that pleased me as I was rapidly becoming quite enamoured with it. If you want to know what happened the next day you’ll just have to stay tuned.