Welcome back folks to my little series about a trip I took to the North of England and I do hope you are enjoying it. I know there are a few hardy souls who read most of the nonsense I write and I thank them but if you have not begun this particular adventure from the start, you can do so here.
If you have been reading from the beginning you will know that the whole trip began with what is called a Euromeet, a concept that began with a now tragically shut down travel website called Virtual Tourist. This is an annual event which this year was held in and around Newcastle-upon-Tyne and which was hugely enjoyable but I wasn’t quite ready to go home yet. Having been deprived of travel, which is one of my greatest delights, for so long I was having a great time and being a single man with no dependents there was nothing I specifically had to go home to London for.
I had decided on Alnwick as a destination for completely idiotic reasons and had arrived there after a bit of a palaver, got myself billeted in a lovely B&B, had a slow hobble round a small part of the town as my health was playing me up, and visited a few decent pubs. All told it had been a brilliant day out and after an unusually early night for me I was up and about bright and early and all ready to go.
My charming host bumped into me and asked if I wanted breakfast but it is a meal I rarely take these days so I politely declined and headed out to face the day which was, if not as utterly foul as the previous afternoon had been, still was not exactly bright and sunny but I wasn’t going to let that deter me.
Heading back into town I stopped for a look at a monument I had seen the previous day but not investigated and I didn’t actually go near it this day either as it sits on a decent sized rise which is fine for a monument but not much good for me. Everything I am going to tell you about it was gleaned from subsequent research. It is called the Tenantry Column and is an impressive 83 feet high with four lions at the base and another “en passant” surveying the surrounding area with his stone eyes. Someone has worked out that it’s tail points North towards Scotland and it’s head South towards England but what, if any, significance this may or may not hold is unclear. It is a Grade 1 listed building which is the highest grade of protection available for historic structures.
The monument is the work of David Stephenson from Newcastle, the first architect from that city to study in London and at the Royal Academy no less. The fairly low-born son of a carpenter he showed enough aptitude for his chosen profession to be one of the foremost architects in this region and designed many buildings in Newcastle, some of which still survive.
Stephenson’s skill brought him to the attention of the Duke of Northumberland hence his commission to design this edifice presumably as I am not sure whether or not the common working man of Percy’s estate in the early 19th century would have had the contacts to arrange such a project but back now to the lion.
I knew en passant was a heraldic term and, had I known more about the subject I would have known that this is the badge of the Percy family, yes we are back to them again. It was raised by the tenantry of Hugh Percy, the 2nd Duke of Northumberland in 1816 in gratitude for him lowering their rents in the appalling depression after the post-Napoleonic Wars.
I am by no means a socialist, far from it, but I find it a little unsavoury that the lower classes who formed the huge majority of the Army in that long and bloody campaign, which was effectively waged to protect the interests of the rich and powerful, were so piteously grateful for a small reduction in rent whilst they were slaving away to make the Percy family even wealthier. It should be noted that the Duke had doubled or even tripled rents during the agricultural boom of the War.
There is a reminder of the military association actually in the very structure of this monument. Built into the base of it is the regimental roll of the Percy Tenantry Volunteers, one of a large number of militia units raised due to the fear of an imminent French invasion when Napoleon was rampaging about all over Europe.
Whilst they were never deployed on the Continent due to militias generally being ill-trained and equipped peasants who would have been more of a hindrance that a help against Napoleon’s once all-conquering army, the were deployed on anti-smuggling duties in Kent (390 miles away at the other end of the country and where I am writing this) and Ireland.
Right, enough of the politics etc. (I’ll be reading Marx and Engels next!) and back to the walk.
I didn’t have too far to go before I came upon another rather impressive column, again the result of war as it is the Alnwick War Memorial. Regular readers will know I have a great interest in military history, including graves and War Memorials so I had to take an image of this.
I had actually seen it the night before when the lamp on the top was actually lit but with my tiny camera the results were rubbish. I have to say that this is not at all a common design and I don’t think I have ever before seen such a memorial with a lamp although I am sure there must be some but the fact that it is actually still functioning pleased me when so many other memorials are decaying.
There are three figures around the base (soldier, sailor and airman), all kitted out in First World War gear which is hardly surprising as they were sculpted in 1921 by. R. Hedley and the memorial was dedicated by the Bishop of Newcastle on 11th November (Armistice Day) 1922. Sadly the war to end all wars actually wasn’t and less than 17 years later we were back at it again which sadly led to another group of names having to be added. Let’s walk a bit further.
I knew there were a shedload of other pubs to drink in but my natural route took me back past the Queens Head Hotel and I had found it pleasant enough before so why not? Whilst talking to some of the locals later I did find out that it can get quite “lively” on a weekend night. I had a few pints in there and set off for a further exploration.
I have to say that Alnwick is a relatively easy place to see as it is not to spread out so even an old crock like me could see a lot of what I wanted to and, although I had not specifically set out to find it (as usual I had no map, no guidebook and no clue how to use a mapping system on my ‘phone), I stumbled on the old Town Hall which is a fine building as you can see.
It was not constructed in the uniform beige stone I have been writing about so much but rather seems to have been but together from a variety of stone types. Whether this is by accident or design I could not say. It is, quite rightly in my opinion, another Grade 1 listed building as half the town seems to be.
The fine structure you see in the image dates from 1731 but the concept of a municipal building on this site is much older than that so let me tell you about it.
The first building on the site was a brewery and was constructed and owned by guess who. You got it, the earl of Northumberland, the Percy family seems to have a finger in every pie in this area. He sold it off to a private owner but in 1585 the burgesses (basically the forerunners of modern day councillors) bought it over. They originally continued the brewing but then converted it to use as a tollbooth which is not exactly what you might think when you hear the term. You might think of a hut beside a road with a barrier where you had to pay to use the road but this was a more multi-purpose affair although it’s primary function was the same i.e. to collect revenue for the privileged.
The building eventually decayed to an extent that the burgesses decided to tear it down and build a new custom-built Town Hall which is what you see today. Sadly it is not accessible to the general public as it is used as a function space / art gallery / etc. My advice to you if you want a look inside is to go the Alnwick when the annual Beer Festival is on as it is held there! Let’s move on.
I also took an image of this lovely old building although I cannot for the life of me discover what it is. I vaguely remember someone telling me it was an old Guildhall or Market Hall which would certainly fit with it’s position right next to the market square. I just though I would share another image of the beautiful architecture in Alnwick.
Rather unusually for me I was feeling a little peckish although I knew there was no way I could eat a full meal, I can’t remember the last time I had a three course lunch, but a snack was definitely in order. Luckily enough I happened to walk past Lilburns bar / restaurant and a quick look at the menu and daily specials board sorted my problem for me.
No matter how bad my appetite is I can usually manage soup, which I love in all it’s myriad forms, and if there is one thing I like better than eating soup it is making it. Some of the concoctions I have made over the years would make a proper chef roll their eyes to the heavens but they generally turn out OK. The offer of daily home-made soup of the day with a roll seemed a perfect choice to me and the price was ludicrously cheap for what looked like a smart place with a very good menu so that was the plan.
I went in was met with what was indeed a very tidy bar with only one problem – the only other person there was the barmaid, it was completely empty. I went to the bar and ordered a pint, again at prices considerably less than I would expect to pay in London and also the soup after enquiring what it was. It didn’t really matter as I will eat just about any soup going until somebody comes up with an aubergine, courgette and artichoke version which I would not be a fan of. I do wish I could tell you what it was but it was a while ago and my old memory is not what it once was but I recall that when served piping warm, it was absolutely delicious and exactly what was required.
I thought it was time for another walk as I had seen so many pubs I had not yet visited and that was a situation that needed rectified so I hobbled a massive distance to the Pig in Muck pub which had taken me back into the market square. It must have been all of 70 yards!
It looked more gastro than pub if you use the gastropub term and apparently specialises in tapas and brunches with a pretty eclectic menu, tending towards Mediterranean cuisine, lots of chorizo, halloumi, cassoulets, truffle oil etc. Also, a word of warning, it closes at 2200 every evening so definitely not a place for a leisurely late evening meal.
This place was obviously not designed as a “tavern” although it has done it’s best to look old with the distressed furniture so popular with designers these days. It is part of a registered company called Curious Taverns Limited. Whose registered office is in nearby Morpeth but how many outlets they have I could not possibly tell you.
I went in and ordered a pint of cider (I believe Aspall’s was the offering) and was waiting for it to be poured when I saw the utterly appalling sign you can see in the image above. They have cleverly not displayed it outside as people like me would not have set foot across the threshold as a matter of principle. I find the practice of refusing to accept coin of the realm utterly repugnant and and yet another step on our road downhill. Instead of perfectly legal currency we are now forced to rely on foreign banks to deal with our financial matters.
I shall give you a quote form the Bank of England website (I can think of no better authority than that) which states that, “Debit cards, cheques and contactless aren’t legal tender anywhere”. In the interest of fair reporting, the same website also states that, “A shop owner can choose what payment they accept” which I suppose is their get out of jail card although I still find the practice repulsive and extremely unpatriotic. Presumably it is just there to save the staff from the responsibilities of their job as they have been for centuries. Enough.
Leaving aside my thoughts on the state of the country and world finance in general, the pub itself was fine if a little “trendy” for my liking. A group of women came in and sat at a reserved table beside me which did prove to be a bit noisy (obviously a celebration of some sort in the early part of the week) and had ordered a load of tapas which, I must say, looked rather good.
Eventually the inevitable happened and I needed to use the “facilities” so I asked the barman and was told, “Go out the door, turn left and left again into the alley and it is at the end”. What? I don’t think I have been in a pub with an outside loo for well over 30 years where I knew a number of pubs in Northern Ireland which had them. A trip down memory lane, not to mention the alley, for me although I do wonder what the residents of the upstairs maisonettes must have thought of the constant coming and going outside their premises, which had obviously cost a few quid.
Eventually, and really not too late at all, I decided it was time to make a move and so I took off again in the general direction of my B&B but I reckoned there was time for at least one more pit-stop to be had. It came in the form of the Fleece Inn which, as you can see form the image is in a street named Bondgate Without and I know this term, much in use in England, does create some perplexity amongst some foreign visitors so let me explain. I had limped along Bondgate Within, passed through the Bondgate itself and this gives you your answer really.
In days past and before the advent of decent artillery, the city walls of any settlement were it’s effective means of defence against marauders which, in this part of the country might have been Scottish raiders or even armies in times of war. The gates were locked at a certain hour (I know it was 1800 in London in the 17th century) and if you were outside, you stayed outside and vice versa. They were manned by watchmen / guards so the alarm could be quickly sounded in case of attack. Enough of the medieaval history and back to the Fleece.
It certainly looked very tidy from the outside and proved to be equally so on the inside (it is yet another listed building). The only problem with it was that it was just about empty but it was a Tuesday evening so probably not too surprising. There was no problem with the pint or the service and even with my verbosity I am really running out of ways to tell the reader what a refreshing change the attitude of those in the tertiary industries is up there compared to London. However, it was a bit quiet for my taste so I thought I would move on as I still had that hill and those stairs to negotiate.
I was “girding my loins” for the slog home but, less than 100 yards away I ran into another hurdle in the form of the Ale Gate. Oh dear, but duty called and in I went.
As the name suggests, there is a strong emphasis on real ale, specifically from local breweries which is a concept I admire although I was able to get a pint of very decent cider. This is a relatively new addition to the Alnwick pub scene, having opened in Spring 2019 but it is none the worse for that and has been well kitted out with all sorts of knick-knacks and curios.
Right, that is definitely me done for the day as I was sure there was not another pub except the Plough across the road but I thought that would do me. I did manage to get home and into my comfy bed for a great night’s sleep which is such a joy for me given my sleep problems.
There is more of Alnwick to come but it shall not happen for at least a week. I know I just dropped off the radar the last time I vanished which was frankly very bad behaviour on my part and I feel bad about it but I am composing this on the first night of the Broadstairs Folk Week and I am going to be manically busy for the next seven days. I have three gigs to play tomorrow! There will, therefore, be no blogging for that period but if you want more about this beautiful town give it a week and stay tuned.