Welcome To Hogwarts

This the most magical castle in England. It was the home of the Wizarding Earl and the School of Hogwarts (in two of the Harry Potter movies), and it is probably one of best castles you can ever visit.

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From the outside, Alnwick castle looks like a medieval fortress, from the inside, an Italian palace, surrounded by walls and towers and also with one of the best formal gardens in the country.  Alnwick Castle answers the question: What would a medieval castle look like if lived in continuously (like Berkeley, Raby or Arundel)? Alnwick was and still is the home of the Percy family.

For hundreds of years, they were the “Kings of the North”, and their main purpose was to stop the Scots from raiding/invading the south. The castle was built following the Norman conquest in 1096 by a baron named De Vescy. The Scots attacked it numerous times and it was even captured once by the Scottish King David the First in 1136. Alnwick was bought by the Percy family at the beginning of the 14th century and immediately started to expand in size and omnipotence, turning it into a powerful combination of palace and fortress.

Some of the towers in the castle today still date back to that period. Alnwick continued to play an important role during the medieval days when the Percys were rebelling against the English kings. While they succeeded in overthrowing Richard II, they were less successful in getting rid of Henry IV, even though they probably had one of the best knights in the country – Henry Hotspur (the knight with the football team) on their side.

In 1569, the Percy Family joined the Neville family in what is known as the “Rising of the North”, a Catholic rebellion against Queen Elizabeth the First, which aimed to replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. Following the rebellion, the 7th Earl was executed, and the castle was abandoned.

The Percy family continued to suffer misfortune, when the 9th Earl spent 16 years in the Tower of London after the famous Gunpowder Plot. He was known as the Wizard Earl because he was passionate about science (mainly alchemy) and it was he who started the library in Alnwick Castle. During the English Civil War in the middle of the 17th century, the 10th Earl was the most senior member of the King’s government to become a member of parliament. During the war, he was trusted to look after the King’s children in his London home at Syon House. Alnwick itself was in a derelict condition and played a very minor role in the second part of the war, in one of the most horrific events that took place after the battle of Dunbar, when thousands of Scottish prisoners were brought to the castle and murded while they were marching south. The remains of some of them were found a few years ago. The Percy male line ended after the death of the 11th Earl (you can read about his virgin widowed daughter Elizabeth in my Syon House stories). In a later generation the great-granddaughter of the 11th Earl managed to revive the family title along with her husband. They became the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland (third creation) in 1766.

The new Duke and Duchess embarked upon a huge renovation programme of Alnwick Castle. They hired the same experts who worked on their London residence; Robert Adam and Lancelot “Capability” Brown to rebuild the castle and its landscape, turning it into a lavish stately home.

A century later, the 4th Duke hired another famous architect, Anthony Salvin to work on the interior of the castle. Salvin was an expert on working with medieval buildings, he had carried out works in castles like Carisbrooke, Caernarfon and even Windsor. In Alnwick, Salvin re-did most of Adam’s work, costing more than £20M in today’s currency. The decoration of the rooms was overseen by an Italian designer who turned Alnwick into an Italian palace.

In 2001-2, Alnwick became “Hogwarts School of Magic” in the production of the first two movies of the Harry Potter series. In the castle grounds, you can recognise the location of Harry’s first flying lesson and where the flying Ford Anglia landed, in the second film. If you remember the movie, it landed near a weeping willow, a feature of the film only. To shoot this scene, they had to use 17 different Ford Anglia cars… Ever since the shooting of the movies, the castle has become a huge magnet for Potter fans. Today, Alnwick Castle is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the north of England.

The castle is still lived in by the 12th Duke of Northumberland, and it is open to the public only at certain times of the year. The castle is associated with the HHA.

For more information: Alnwick Castle official site

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Is this the best Castle in England?

Chasing Castles Review

We visited Alnwick Castle during the last week of August. It was a day after the bank holiday weekend, and I expected the castle to be less busy. Unfortunately, it seemed that everyone else thought the same, and while the bank holiday weekend was reasonably busy at Alnwick, we arrived in what appeared to be the busiest day of the year.

This meant for example that the entrance to the castle was done through a time slot, and they had to cancel the castle guided tours. However, this did not stop Alnwick from jumping up to the top of the castles we have ever visited. Since we started our castle chase, I was trying to identify the different elements that turn a castle into a great visitor attraction. In the case of occupied castles (unlike ruins), I recognised a few elements that are necessary for that purpose.

First, the castle should have a rich history. Next, it needs to have a wow factor once you visit it’s inside. Next, the castle needs to attend the needs of the entire family (in other words, it needs to be child-friendly) and finally, it needs to allow visitors to be engaged with its past and heritage. Many castles managed to fill some of these requirements, but so far only two before Alnwick managed to achieve them all and those were Raby Castle in Yorkshire and Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. Now, Alnwick Castle joined that small exclusive club of three stars castles. In the case of Alnwick, we should start with the child-friendly aspect.

Well, the castle was mainly known for being the Percy family stronghold for hundreds of years, but in the 21st century, it was invaded by a much stronger force (shall I say magical energy?). Alnwick castle became Hogwarts school of Wizardry, and although almost 20 years have passed since the shooting of the first two movies, it still embraces that heritage (along with its visitors). There are several daily attractions in the spirit of the boy wizard in the castle including a broomstick flying lesson and an on-location tour of the grounds, both are great fun. Kids can also join a dragon quest and numerous other activities that relate a bit more to the medieval history of the castle.

Next, you have the castle itself. From the outside, it still holds its medieval charm (which was the reason it lured so many productions to come and shoot in it only from the outside). There is a guided tour on offer that explores the grounds and helps to unlock some of Alnwick’s history and the interesting characters who called it home. To be fair, the history of the Percy family is wealthy, it is almost impossible to talk about it all in one tour.

I was lucky to visit their “London” residence in Syon House before, but if you are planning to visit Alnwick without having been to Syon before, and you are passionate about history, you should read my post about Syon House and do some reading, mainly about the Percys during Tudor days… Once you finish exploring the outside of the castle, it is time to visit the inside of the castle which hides a huge surprise. The fifth Duke redesigned the castle so it would resemble an Italian palace: the result is breathtaking.

When you visit the staterooms in Alnwick Castle, you mainly see the staterooms that were designed by Anthony Salvin (same architect who renovated the Tower of London), but the interior design was influenced primarily by The “all things Italians” passionate 4th Duke. He brought Italian craftsman to build his new palace. Luigi Canina was in charge of the works, and in the process, he even trained local workman from Glasgow and Newcastle…). The most impressive room for me where the library (that was used as a location in the movie “Transformers.”) and the Drawing room with its massive Italian fireplace and two ‘pietro Dura’ cabinets. Amongst the paintings, in this room, you can find original Van Dyck and Turner.

I do recommend to take the tour dedicated to the rooms (which was not on offer on the day we visited) because the lavish rooms can easily dazzle anyone, and to be honest, I probably missed a lot if important fetures by exploring them by myself.

Finally, you have the grounds. Since the castle is so big, we had to split up to cover it all in a day. You would be interested to know that Alnwick offers an amazing deal like Blenheim, and in the price of a single day you can come back and visit over an entire year. Since the castle is located on the border with Scotland, I suspect that most visitors will not be able to revisit it, but my tip is to plan a two-day visit to the castle and spend at least half a day in the gardens. Alnwick gardens (according to my wife) are unique in the sense that they are very modern. They include several different attractions like the water garden, the “poison garden” and of course Europe’s largest tree house that is also a home for a coffee shop and a restaurant.

To sum things up, Alnwick has managed to create the perfect castle. It has led to reaching the top in every category which means that no matter why you are passionate about castles, you will be excited by what you find. As I already stated in the beginning, if Alnwick was a restaurant, it would appear in the Michelin guide and would get the best score of three stars. Alnwick Castle is still held by the Percy family (through a trust) and is lived in part of the year.

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