Remembering Days at Alnwick Castle

via Photo Challenge: Nostalgia


Move over Lancelot and Guinevere, Harry and Hermione– we’re storming the castle! (Alnwick Castle, 2006)

Traveling through the UK with my two knee-high knights was always a good time.  It’s easy to see a photo these days (when both of my kids have grown to my height) and feel a twinge of nostalgia.  But since moving back to the States recently, I’m a little overwhelmed by waves of nostalgia.  It’s a problem.  Nostalgia is a great place to visit, but it’s no place to live.  I’m aware of that.  And I know that, as I move forward with this blog (I still have plenty of stories and photos to share, and hopefully new travels in the works too), I don’t want this fug of nostalgia to take over entirely.

But, when logging into my blog account last week, I noticed many– so very many– other blog posts popping up about Nostalgia-this and Nostalgia-that.  I laughed a little, thinking the internet was riding some wistful wave–a viral mood gripping its readers as the autumn chill and  our nesting instincts kicked in.  As it turns out, that wasn’t it at all.  Wordpress had posted a weekly photo challenge entitled “Nostalgia.”   People were jumping on board the theme.

Although I’m a few days late for the weekly challenge, I think this gives me free reign to go nostalgic this week.  I’m sure it won’t be the last time my posts take this tone, but I hope (for both our sakes) that a little indulgence of my nostalgic mood will help it to pass.

Old Railway Poster: Alnwick Castle, aka Hogwarts. (Alnwick was used in many scenes from the Harry Potter films.)
Old Railway Poster: Alnwick Castle, aka Hogwarts. (Alnwick was used in many scenes from the Harry Potter films.)

On offer today: some photos, and a few notes, from Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, England.  (“Alnwick” is pronounced “An-nick”)

Alnwick Castle
Alnwick Castle – copyright J. Stringer, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons


Alnwick, on the river Aln, is set by the coast in Northumberland.  It is a couple of hours north of our old homebase of Ripon, N.Yorkshire, and a couple of hours south of Edinburgh.  That made it a great stopping off point when we would drive the beautiful coastal road up to Edinburgh . . . but it was also a great destination in its own right.

Alnwick Castle is, was, and quite possibly always will be, home to the Duke of Northumberland.  The family still lives in the castle, and, although tourism is big business for the castle, it is still very much a family home.  There are family photos in the living areas, family stories told by tour guides, and, if you are lucky, plenty of family sightings.

On one visit there, we had to scurry quickly through one of the stone entrance gates to make way for the Duchess of Northumberland to drive through.  (Jane Percy gave us an appreciative nod as she motored her convertible Audi through the gate– she was gracious and graceful, and yes, I envied her life in the castle and the convertible just a bit.)

A family affair: we make the castle ours, if only for an afternoon.

Alnwick Castle is about 1,000 years old–yes, you heard that right.  Some nip, tuck, and augmentation over the years, but she’s a medieval beauty with a fantastic backstory (both illustrious and checkered) of exploits in British history.  Much of her prominence owes to the fact that she sits near the present day Scottish border.  The border lands have long been disputed territory, so Alnwick was strategically important. Her most famous son was Harry “Hotspur” Percy.  He became a knight, Sir Harry Hotspur (I kid you not), who earned some fame for his military prowess, and later for rebelling against Henry IV.


Alnwick as Hogwarts–quidditch lesson

But Alnwick’s past often takes a backseat for tourists who know her better as the backdrop for many scenes in the Harry Potter films and the Downtown Abbey Christmas Special.   Nevermind that– the Percy family is glad to entertain Potter fans and sneaky enough to slip a little British history into their experience, even if they only showed up to frolic on the Quidditch Lawn.

The Alnwick Treehouse
The Alnwick Treehouse

The grounds of Alnwick are beautiful and extensive.  The gardens are certainly worth a tour and they will surprise you.  There is a poison garden (clearly needed for horticulture and potions classes at a Hogwarts proxy) and the massive Treehouse restaurant that will blow your mind if you are, or ever were, a child.  When I was little, I used to dream of being part of the Swiss Family Robinson, just for the tree house– but this tree house puts that one to shame!  Also, the food is supposed to be fantastic. . . we never ate there, owing to very young children who were only interested in running full throttle through the structure.  (Only an adult would climb into  a huge treehouse and immediately set themselves in a seat, right?)

The Percy family dining room, impossible not to covet. Image from Alnwick Castle website.
The Percy family dining room, impossible not to covet. Image from Alnwick Castle website.

As you can imagine, the interior rooms of Alnwick are extraordinary. My favorite rooms were the dining room and the library.  The library is grand, but also filled with family touches that remind you that this space isn’t a museum, it is very much a family home.  My only complaint with this room is that Jane Percy, in a misguided fit of whimsy (that steered right past whimsy and landed in the territory of macabre), has on display a taxidermied dog.  Yes, a stuffed dog.  (Not her own, we were assured.)  This is a step too far. . . even for a colorful dutchess who lives in a 1,000 year old castle.  Not cool, Jane Percy, not cool.

Moving on.

Training the next generation of Hotspurs.
Training the next generation of Hotspurs.

Alnwick boasts a “Knights’ School” tucked into one of its courtyards, where children can have some hands-on time sharpening their medieval knight’s skills.  (The lead off photo on this post is my kids at the Knights’ School.)  By our second visit to Alnwick (nine or ten years ago), there were also Harry Potter exhibits (tastefully) in place around the castle.  I expect there might be even more Potter Paraphernalia in place these days.  It’s all in good fun, and the Percy’s seem to develop these exhibits and activities in ways that feel right and respectful to the space.

On that second visit, we stayed overnight in a small hotel in Alnwick (I can’t recall the name).  It was simple, but comfortable, and the English breakfast was fantastic.  It was a “Full English Breakfast” with toast, beans, eggs, tomato, sausage and bacon, and black pudding.  I couldn’t face the black pudding (a highly seasoned blood sausage, sliced and fried) –a little too medieval for me.  Honestly, I dodged a few items on the menu, having a pork allergy– but I always wonder how anyone can consume a “Full English” and still be ambulatory at 8 o’clock in the  morning.  That much food for breakfast would send me moaning back to bed. But I digress.

Hanging out where the Harry Potter cast and crew stayed.
Hanging out where the Harry Potter cast and crew stayed.

The thing more impressive than the breakfast itself was the fact that we found ourselves eating under a signed photo and note from the cast of Harry Potter #1– a photo of, and signed by, the all important trifecta of young wizards, Harry, Ron, and Hermione.  I think parts of the cast and crew had stayed in the hotel during filming.  I would guess that half of the hotels in Alnwick would have been filled with cast and crew, it was such a big production in a small town.   Anyway, it brought a smile to our faces to sit under the gaze of our favorite wizards. (We may have gone to Knights’ School to learn to be Hotspurs, but our hearts have always yearned to be wizards!)

Although the castle dominates the town, there is plenty to do on a stroll through the town of Alnwick too.  Great restaurants and pubs, some lovely, small antique shops, and a bookstore that I still vividly remember 10 years later–very impressive.  Barter Books is housed in a former  Victorian Rail Station and is massive, with books new and used, fireplaces and cozy chairs, and a tea room right there in the store.  You might disappear into this place on a rainy day and not come back out until closing time.  (Unless, like us, you have two young “Hotspurs” running in circles and dragging you on to the next adventure.)

And so, Alnwick has a little something for everyone . . . or a little of everything for everyone.  It has history and Hollywood, medieval and muggle, sprawling grounds and mile-long dining rooms, tree houses and train stations . . .it has charm.   Who wouldn’t get nostalgic about days spent there?

Alnwick Castle painting, by J.M.W. Turner
Alnwick Castle painting, by J.M.W. Turner


In Praise of the Random… or, How I stumbled on Frankenstein Castle

frk castle

Sometimes days don’t turn out quite the way you planned.  And those unexpected things that crop up…well, in Europe, they can take an interesting turn.

A few days ago we hopped in the car to head off to a wine festival just 50 minutes away.  We went early with kids in tow, expecting to catch a little wine and food and a few rides for the kids, but not the raucous, full-on wine lover’s equivalent of Oktoberfest.  “Fest-light” was our goal.

What we got was “Fest-Ultra-Light.”  It seems we arrived the morning after the big parade, and the morning before the evening’s concluding fireworks gala.  The place was a ghost town.  A few other early risers were taking in the food and drink, and we had the rides all to ourselves.  Sure, there are advantages to skipping the crowds, but it felt like we’d missed the party and showed up for the hangover.  Hmmm…

The fest was a bit of a wash for us.

But that didn’t matter to me  because on our way over the river and through the woods to the Fest that wasn’t, we drove through Frankenstein village.  Are you listening?  We drove through Frankenstein Village!   Who knew?DSC_1037 - Copy

This humble village lies on a winding road, cozied in tight between hills and streams, high trees, and old homes.  It is close to Durkheim and Speyer in the Palatinate Forest of Germany.   And as we drove through the Palatinate Forest, the fog just beginning to lift, the road twisting  us until we were dizzy, we saw a flash of sign reading “Frankenstein,” and then looked up to see this:


If that isn’t a great October morning eye opener, then there’s no such thing!   You can keep your tootsie rolls, candy corn, and bit-o-honey–I’ve had my Halloween treat!!!!

(But I’d still take some wax lips, if you’re handing them out. . .)

Here are a few notes on Frankenstein Castle:

*It dates from the 12th century, and was under the administration of the von Frankensteins.

*It lies on a strategic outcropping, began as a fortified tower, and was added to and then damaged in many skirmishes from the 1200’s through the 1500’s.

*The castle is presently more of a ruin than a castle, but it’s now owned by the Rhineland-Palatinate state and some foundational restoration has been done.

**HERE’S THE THING: A lot of confusion arises because there is another, more intact, castle near Darmstadt (in Muhltal) that bills itself as Frankenstein Castle.  It seems likely that it was an inspiration for Mary Shelley’s story.  A man named Dippel was born in that castle, and stories surrounded Dippel and his claims to have created an oil that was an “elixir of life.”   An earlier owner of this house was the founder of the Barony of Frankenstein, but now this castle hosts Halloween parties and capitalizes on the Frankenstein tale.   Both castles, however, trace back to the Frankenstein name.

Ultimately, the name Frankenstein was chosen by Shelley for her fictional tale.  If it took these German rumors or atmosphere as its starting point, that’s great, but Shelley was the doctor who breathed  life into the story.

Maybe the inspiration struck her on the way home from a wine fest.   Maybe.


One more photo for you.  This has got to be one of my favorite sign-clusterings.  Ever.

DSC_1045 - Copy Frankenstein’s Castle.  


Protestant Church.  

Pedestrian Path.

Because what pedestrian wouldn’t want to walk past the church, the cemetery, and Frankenstein’s Castle ruins as dark falls?

This Old House: Your First Questions and Observations Answered


lego castleOur house sparks a little interest, a little concern, and a little inquisitiveness in folks.  So I thought I’d answer a few queries and concerns here.

Question Number One:  A friend came over for dinner with us and brought his eight year old son.  When we answered the front door, the son just stood there, looking up, then to the left and right.  “Is this a castle?” he asked.

Answer:  No, this is not a castle.  But it could play one on TV.

Question  Worrisome Observation Number Two:  I was standing in the kitchen, looking out the front window the other day when my son and daughter came walking home from school.  They stopped in front of the house and had a very animated conversation with a couple of kids from down the street.  Then those kids ran off  quick as lightening.        When my brood came inside, I asked them what that was all about.  “They said our house looks spooky,” was the response I got.

In answer:  Yeah, I guess it is a little spooky.  And you haven’t even seen the utility bills.   Aiieee!

(Drum Roll) The Most Frequently Asked Question:   Is it haunted?

Answer:  Thank goodness, nothing scary so far.  Some very creaky floor boards, and a few weird smells (possibly the house, possible my tweenage son), but nothing ghoulish.   If that ever changes, you’ll hear all about it.


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