A town centre may seem an unusual place to be “off the beaten track”; our towns are places that we are very familiar with. But this very familiarity often leads us to miss what is in front of us. Off the beaten track is as much about our eyes as our feet – so we can be in the busiest of places and if we look around, there are things that are there for all to see, but which are often missed.
We are taking a walk through Alnwick, but a similar walk can be done through any town; Berwick, Rothbury or wherever you happen to be. It just needs some time to stop and look upwards – and downwards too. We will make use of an old book, published in 1822 by local business man William Davison. Titled “A Descriptive and Historical View of Alnwick”, it paints a wonderful picture of the town as it was nearly two hundred years ago – and you might be surprised how much has remained unchanged!
We’ll start at the Bondgate Tower. Davison tells us that “the old gate…which belongs to the Duke of Northumberland, being considered an obstruction, a few years ago, a number of the principle inhabitants made application to the late Duke to have it removed.” Thankfully their request was not granted. This tower was one of four entrances through the town wall, the others being Clayport, Pottergate and Bailiffgate. In 1822 there were four blocks set into the roadway marked with ‘T’ which indicated the four corners of the Clayport tower. Sadly, these have been lost, but we will find the traces of another defensive system later in our walk.
Walking up Hotspur Street and along Green Batt, the houses on the right are on the line of the town wall. No doubt many of the buildings around here have stones from this old wall within their structures. A carving above the sign of the Tanners Arms tells us that this was once the Brewers Arms, while at the top of the hill, the circular pinfold was used by the town authorities to impound trespassing cattle until the owners made restitution for damage caused. The soon-to-be-closed library was once a school; a plaque tells us that it was opened in 1810 for the education of 200 poor boys.
Taking a brief diversion up Percy Street, there are three rows ofdimples in the surface of the road just beyond the Mechanics’ Institute, the remnants of one of the road blocks that was built in 1940, when invasion was a real fear. Deep sockets were dug into the road, into which would be slotted long lengths of steel beams, which would create a robust obstacle. There are a number of cobbled back lanes in this area, many of which have grooves worn by the iron-tyred carts that serviced the adjacent properties.
Walking back into the town centre along St. Michael’s Lane we pass Sion House, an old chapel which is now being converted into flats. When it was built in 1816, it was the second largest religious building in town, after St Michael’s. Did you know that there is the much smaller Bethel Chapel which lies hidden behind its larger neighbour, and is also included in the new development? Crossing into the Market Place, there is a plaque high on the wall of the old town hall which tells us that it was erected in 1731. A passageway takes us through to Fenkle Street, where we can find the old Alnwick Cooperative Society building, a magnificent example of Arts and Crafts architecture, built in 1907.
Continuing down to Narrowgate, it is hard to imagine that this was part of the Great North Road until 1968, when the town gained its bypass. On the right is Bow Alley, named after the Bow Burn, which still runs under the roadway here. In 1822, Davison tells us the Bow Burn was an open watercourse and was “an intolerable nuisance, particularly in the winter season.”
Passing the castle and continuing down the steep hill of The Peth, there are some rectangular holes high in the wall of the building that sits on the corner of Walkergate. These are rifle loopholes, created by the Home Guard in 1940, to protect the road block that would have been near the Lion Bridge.
Along Walkergate, some old brackets on the wall are remnants of the old gas lights that used to light the town’s streets. Gas first came to Alnwick in about 1825, with William Davison being part of the consortium which built the gas works and laid the piping.
A little further along are the remains of St Mary’s Chantry, a 15th century hospice which later became the first school in the town. Emerging onto Canongate, we arrive at St Michael’s Church, one of the oldest buildings in the town. Davison tells us that the churchyard was “the resort of recreation and place of pastime for children….the tombstones are wantonly defaced.” On the road outside the church there are the remains of another roadblock.
This brings our short tour to an end, but hopefully you’ll have seen some things which you may not have noticed before, even though you’ve passed them many many times.