The North of England’s most powerful baronial family, the Dukes of Northumberland (Percy) have ruled the land around Alnwick for more than seven centuries.
Their descendants still reside at the magnificent ancestral home, Alnwick Castle, which was a shooting location for the Harry Potter movies and is bursting with priceless art.
The castle’s garden has been totally reworked in the last 20 years and warrants a day out on its own.
Just by spending time in Alnwick you’ll learn a lot about the Percys, who still own massive tracts of land here.
Alnwick is in one of the remotest regions of England, a few miles from the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Bay.
There you’ll come across sandy beaches, dunes and ruins like the ghostly Dunstanburgh Castle.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Alnwick:
1. Alnwick Castle
Started as a Norman fortress, Alnwick Castle has been the seat of the powerful Percy Family, the Dukes of Northumberland, since the 13th century.
Over the last 700 years, successive generations have added their own touches, and today Alnwick Castle is the second largest inhabited castle in the UK after Windsor.
Much of the complex, like the inner ward, kitchen, opulent accommodation and Prudhoe tower, is from 19th-century makeovers by Anthony Salvin and Italian architect Luigi Canina.
The State Rooms show off the family’s invaluable collections, rich with paintings by Titian, Veronese, Canaletto and Turner, Cucci cabinets made for Versailles, as well as Meissen and Sèvres porcelain.
The Percys occupy just a small fraction of the property and visitors are invited to discover the rest.
Guided tours take you to the parts used for Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films
2. Alnwick Garden
Since 1997 Jane Percy has led a multi-million pound update of the castle’s set of formal gardens, which date back centuries but had fallen into decline.
Over 42 acres Alnwick Garden was plotted by the Belgian landscape architects Jacques and Peter Wirtz, and feature topiaries and innumerable water features like a regal Grand Cascade.
There’s a peaceful Cherry Orchard, a Bamboo Labyrinth and a Serpent Garden with otherworldly water sculptures.
Alnwick Garden also has one of the largest treehouses in the world, in a 560-square-metre complex housing the cafe.
The remarkable pavilion/visitor centre opened in 2006 and has a striking barrel-vaulted grid-shell timber roof.
3. Alnwick Poison Garden
Through a set of black iron gates with ominous skull and crossbones warnings is a garden of deadly plants laid out in the Alnwick Garden in 2005. This has been described by the Smithsonian Magazine as the “world’s deadliest garden” and grows more than 100 plants that can kill.
It was inspired by the Medicis’ notorious poison garden in Padua, and has classic poisonous plants like hemlock, foxglove, strychnos nux-vomica (producing struychnine) and deadly nightshade, side by side with exotic killers like brugmansia.
Also in the garden are a coca plant, cannabis and poppies, the source of opium.
Visitors have to refrain from smelling, touching and of course tasting any of these plants!
4. Bailiffgate Museum
In one of the oldest corners of the town, the Bailiffgate Museum occupies the former St Mary’s Church, a Gothic Revival building from 1836. The museum uncovers the heritage of Alnwick and Northumberland, with a collection far larger than it can display at any one time.
One important piece is a copy of the Davison Bible, named after the progressive reformer William Davison, who printed the Holy Bible in 100 parts in the 19th century to make it more accessible to everyday people.
There’s also a hand-operated Albion press (1852), similar to what Davison would have used, as well as goggles from a First World War pilot.
One outstanding exhibit is the Rothbury football, used in an inter-village match in the late 19th century.
These games involved dozens of players and took place in open countryside between villages.
The contemporary artist, Stella Vine is an Alnwick native and has donated a set of her works to the museum.
5. Dunstanburgh Castle
The epitomy of a picturesque ruin, Dunstanburgh Castle is stranded on a dark promontory on the south side of Embleton Bay.
The castle has been decaying since the 16th century, but the jagged outline of its twin-towered keep is still visible for miles.
This mighty fortress was started by Earl Thomas of Lancaster in 1313. At this time Thomas was in opposition to his first cousin Edward II, and the proportions of the fortress were intended to send a message to the king.
After his rebellion was defeated he was executed in 1322. Dunstanburgh Castle then became a key defence against the Scots and was involved in the 15th-century Wars of the Roses, when it was besieged and captured by Yorkists on two occasions.
You can reach the castle from Craster on a spectacular coastal path that has been named one of the UK’s favourite walks.
6. Howick Hall Gardens
The Palladian Howick Hall is the ancestral seat of the Earls Grey.
And if that name rings a bell, one former resident is the Prime Minister Charles Grey, who gave his name to a type of tea.
Earl Grey tea was custom blended in China to go with the spring water at Howick.
The estate’s big draw is the garden, which was reworked in an informal, natural style in the 20th century.
Praised for its bulbs, Howick Hall Gardens is often cited as one of the best UK gardens to visit in spring.
There’s a snowdrop festival in February and the daffodils are brilliant in March and April.
Around this time, the tulips add a blaze of colour to Botticelli Meadows.
And where better to enjoy a cup of tea than at The Earl Grey Tearoom, which is found in the house’s East Quadrant.
7. Hulne Park
The last survivor of three massive parks on the Alnwick Castle estate, Hulne Park is still owned by the Percy family.
Covering thousands of acres, the park is enclosed by a wall and was once the family’s hunting ground.
In the 18th century Capability Brown, the foremost landscape architect of the period was hired to remodel this parkland.
The park is managed by Northumberland Estates, which has devised a network of circular walking trails guiding you to points of interest, which we’ll talk about below.
A lot of Hulne Park is given over to grazing, so there are plenty of sheep and highland cattle, while you should see plenty of fallow deer.
Check online before setting off, as because Hulne Park is private land it can be closed to the public at short notice.
8. Brizlee Tower
Out in Hulne Park you won’t be ignore this solemn Gothic Revival landmark, which is often touted as the UK’s most beautiful folly.
Brizlee Tower (1781) was designed by the celebrated Robert Adam, who had a big influence on Western architecture at the start of the Classical revival in England.
This 26-metre, six-floor structure was erected in memory of Lady Elizabeth Seymour by her husband Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland.
Close to the public for most of its history, the tower has been restored since the 2000s and now opens on specific days.
If you do get the chance to go up, the vistas of the estate and the landscapes to the east and north are amazing.
You can survey the Northumberland coast and its islands, as well as the Treviotdale hills, 40 miles away in Scotland.
9. Hulne Priory
Ambling through Hulne Park you’ll come upon this ruined Carmelite friary from the 13th century.
Hulne Priory, possibly England’s first Carmlite priory, was constructed with a defensive wall, which was a necessity in this unstable border region in Medieval times.
A defensive Pele tower was also added in the 15th century, and this is in good condition today.
The priory and its monastic buildings were abandoned in after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in the 16th century but the ruins are extensive and have statues of friars carved in the 18th century.
The site is unlabelled but unusually complete; in 1991 it doubled as Maid Marian’s home in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
10. St Michael’s Church
One of the north’s loveliest examples of Perpendicular Gothic architecture, St Michael’s Church has Norman roots but was almost completely rebuilt in the 15th century.
The church has the style’s signature broad traceried windows with mesmerising 19th-century stained glass, and faux castellations.
Funding for the project came from King Henry IV, who granted Alnwick a fair and market in 1464, as well as tolls on exports from the port at nearby Alnmouth.
Outside, seek out the little turret on the southeast corner of the church, part of a system of towers to warn of cross-border raids.
There are ledger stones dating back to the 13th century on the aisle walls, as well as two statues, one of St Sebastian or Maurice and the other of Henry IV. These were unearthed during a restoration in 1818 and given new heads.
11. Alnmouth Beach
In any season you have to take in the natural wonders of the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Within five miles is the picturesque village of Alnmouth, fronted by a giant sandy bay.
Such is the size of this bay that the beach in front of the village never feels busy, even when hundreds of sunseekers come on the hottest days in July and August.
There’s an even quieter patch of sand just south of the River Aln’s estuary, and both the estuary and dunes here are Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
The village of Alnmouth has an intriguing past as a port that lost its role when it was cut off from the coast by vicious storm in 1806. Later in the century, when the railways came, Alnmouth emerged as a seaside resort and Alnmouth Golf Club (1869) here is England’s fourth oldest course.
12. Embleton Bay
Another hauntingly beautiful undeveloped beach, Embleton Bay is charged with extra drama by the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle posted on a promontory on its south end.
The sand is a burnt gold, and the bay arcs for more than a mile, bordered by little more than dunes offering an important breeding site for fulmars, shags, kittiwakes and elder ducks.
On the warmest summer days families flock to Embleton Bay to relax in the sun and build sandcastles, and when the tide goes out you can investigate the rockpools in the dark reefs.
The rest of the year you can savour its untamed beauty on walks before taking shelter at the namesake village’s friendly pub.
13. Warkworth Castle
This hilltop castle over River Coquet was founded as a small wooden fort at the start of the 12th century.
But given the fractious relationship between England and Scotland it soon became something more substantial.
Warkworth Castle was beefed up in the early 13th century, and King John and Edward I stayed here in the 1200s, while the stronghold repelled two Scottish sieges in 1327 before being acquired by the Percys.
After the English Civil War the castle went into decline, but the 4th Duke of Northumberland restored the cross-shaped keep in the mid-19th century and conducted excavations that brought ruins like the collegiate church to light.
Now an absorbing English Heritage site, Warkworth Castle has an almost complete circuit of towered walls to go with that intact keep.
As you explore, look for the Percy family’s lion insignia, which shows up all over the site.
14. White Swan Hotel
Somewhere very special to go for a meal in Alnwick is the White Swan Hotel on Bondgate Within.
This is a fine 300-year-old Baroque coaching inn with a beautiful arcade and pedimented windows.
But the most exciting feature is inside at the Olympic Suite.
There you can take lunch surrounded by the wood panelling, stained glass windows, mirrors and carved ceiling from the transatlantic ocean liner RMS Olympic (1911). This was Titanic’s near-identical sister ship, and the hotel acquired these fittings when they were auctioned off as the ship was being broken up in Jarrow in 1936.
In England’s most sparsely populated region, Alnwick is one of the best towns to visit to admire the night skies.
Here you’re not far from the eastern edge of the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, a 572-square-mile zone free of light pollution, the largest area of its kind in Europe.
The park, delineated in 2013, is recognised by the International Dark Sky Association, and on a clear night you can you can marvel at 2,000 stars without using any kind of magnification.
There’s a choice of apps you can download to help you identify stars, planets, satellites and whole galaxies like Andromeda, all visible with the naked eye.
The park is the best place in the country to appreciate the Milky Way, as well as events like the aurora and meteor showers.