A Day and a Knight at Alnwick Castle
By Debi Lander
Peering skyward I see soldiers standing guard atop towers and turrets. Then I realize they are merely stone figures that fool the eye or play, as my daughter Laura calls it, “a medieval Home Alone trick.” This ploy is so effective, I laugh at the simplicity and myself. Still, ones imagination conjures images of terrifying battles over ramparts, archers with crossbows and sentries on battlements. I feel I’m cast in a tale of King Arthur, as I enter the grounds of 700-year-old Alnwick Castle and Gardens in Northumberland, England.
My husband joins us and we cross the drawbridge of this ancient motte and bailey fortress. We see young ones enroll in The Knights School, taught in the old Training Yard. My daughter is too old, at fourteen, and I can sense her disappointment. In fact, I feel it, too. The little recruits dress in clothes of the time, play games, brave the garderobe (medieval toilet), fire a trebuchet (catapult), learn the art of swordsmanship and enjoy the joust. If they perform with courage and concentration, they progress from page to squire to knight and are dubbed with a noble title. Proud parents and grandparents alike watch the antics, shooting enough photos to fill the entire memory card in their digital camera.
The Knights School debuted on St. George’s Day, in March 2005, honoring the legendary hero who slew a menacing dragon. Clothed in his regal robe, the twelfth Duke of Northumberland opened the first interactive educational exhibition of its kind in Britain. He announced, ” many places try to describe life in medieval England, but we have taken it one step further by allowing the children to discover for themselves what life was really like.” Eight-year-old Jonathan Stevenson added,” The best bit is the sword fighting,” but, when questioned, didn’t have any positive comments about the smelly garderobe. He merely pinched his fingers over his nose. There’s no doubt, however, that memories of this day etch into the youngsters brains.
While my temperamental teen daughter usually prefers to “hang” with friends, Alnwick captivates her, making this a true family outing. We discuss the Scottish Border Wars she has studied in history class, and suddenly, the lessons make sense. She understands and can actually touch and feel the perilous history of this place. “Eureka,” I think to myself, “she’s got it.” Though camouflaged, my parental reward for traveling with a teen presents itself; she is learning and having fun. Like three musketeers, we descend the stairs to the terror and dank, depressing closeness that a confinement in the dungeon brings. And …she, especially, likes it.
We wander on through the upper and lower baileys and climb on artillery. Screams of delight pierce the air and we follow the sound to a crowd surrounding two Potter characters: Professor Dumbledore, Hogswarts Headmasters and Hagrid, Keeper of the Keys. Many little ones gaze up at seven-foot Hagrid in awe and ask for an autograph. These friendly fellows greet everyone in the same courtyards where Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry holds class. Sadly, unlike Harry, we are mere muggles and can only dream of flying to catch the golden orb in a game of quidditch. My family feels like extras on the movie set, awaiting our costumes and call.
Passing into the keep or castle chambers overwhelms us. While Alnwick’s exterior proclaims a feeling of strength, venturing inside soothes the soul. The Earls and Dukes of the Percy Family, owners since 1309, financed extensive renovations and restorations to achieve the “fit for a king” style. No wonder Alnwick is called the Windsor of the North.
We tour guard chambers hung with ancient arms and armor, the chapel with Aubusson tapestries and palace-like rooms with original silk wall coverings, sculpted marble fireplaces and masterpieces acquired over centuries. Paintings include Titian, Van Dyke and Canalettlos, as well as furniture once belonging to Louis XIV of France. This ducal house, second largest inhabited castle in England, offers unique delights for all ages.
Getting a bit weary, we cross over the stonewalls to the garden, newly renovated with fountains, floral lighting and topiary extravagance. The current Duchess is the spearheading the massive reconstruction project spending millions of her personal fortune.
The landscape, similar to Versailles, highlights the Grand Cascade, an elevated water garden of immense proportion. Others play and get wet in the jets or collect water in buckets and splash. Grandparents meander into the fragrant Ornamental, Rose, Serpent and Quiet Gardens with fine garden architecture. The Poison Garden, recently opened amid controversy for growing cannabis and coca plants, features docents telling gruesome stories about nasty plants. Kids look out for secret places to hide in the nooks and crannies of the Woodland Walk. The Labyrinth, a bamboo maze of twisting paths rustles as they explore, holds youngsters captive for hours.
On our way back to the parking lot, we stop at the amazing treehouse, grander than the Swiss Family Robinson’s. This immense structure, rather Lord of The Rings style with an Ewok Village accent, is one of the largest wooden treehouses in the world. Nearly four million dollars were spent constructing six natural “rooms” with connecting aerial walkways and rope bridges. We order lunch and relax our tired feet while little ones frolic in the playground below.
Reflecting back on our vacation, we certainly covered a lot of territory. We toured Windsor Castle with it’s royal heritage, traveled to Warwick Castle, considered by some as the best Medieval Castle in England, and visited The Tower of London with it’s royal jewels, Bloody Tower and Traitor’s Gate but … our favorite castle was Alnwick in Northumbria. A sense of fantasy prevails over this little kingdom, returning visitors to a childlike state. Breaking out of the adult world- away from political, social and economic problems- is a good but rare thing. This magical feeling of freedom and abandonment, created by just being within the walls of Alnwick Castle, only becomes richer when shared with your entire family. I can’t wait to return with my two grandchildren.
If you go:
Alnwick (pronounced “Annick”) Castle is approximately one hour south of Edinburgh or a 45-minute drive from Newcastle-on-Tyne, off the A1. The castle is open daily from April to October.
Admission prices are £ 8.50 per adult, £ 3.50 per child and £ 22.00 for families.
For further information visit http://www.alnwickcastle.com/.