Alnwick

  
   - darkometer rating:  2 -
 
A town in the far north-east of England, in Northumberland, Great Britain. This pleasant little place has a couple of surprising dark secrets for tourists to savour … well not literally in one of the two cases, since it's a poison garden. The other one, however, comes with perfectly palatable culinary options: the original First Class lounge of the sister ship of the Titanic! This lounge is now a restaurant so you can dine in style as if you were aboard that legendary ship.  
More background info: Alnwick is quite an ancient place going back almost a millennium and a half. It is most famous for its stately castle, seat of the Duke of Northumberland, that was begun in the 11th or 12th century and today is the second largest lived-in castle in Britain (after the Royal Family's Windsor Castle near London). 
  
Since the castle was repeatedly used as a film set, e.g. in Robin Hood films, the series “Blackadder” and, perhaps most popularly, in the “Harry Potter” films, it has become an icon, a prototype of what people think a British castle should look like. Its appearance certainly does not disappoint.
   
The old centre of the town directly adjacent to the castle is pretty but quite tiny, comprising a modest market square and three streets forming a Y shape. But around the centre plenty of (less picturesque) housing estates have sprung up over the years. 
   
Alnwick's population is just over 8000, but the town receives several hundred thousands of visitors each year, mainly thanks to the castle. 
 
  
What there is to see: The general tourists' star of Alnwick is without a doubt the huge and atmospheric castle (parts of which are open to the public), but for the dark tourists it is two very different things that are the key attractions here. One of them is given its own separate chapter: 
  
  
  
The other attraction which involves a dark aspect is the White Swan Hotel. This is so because it is home to a fantastic relic: it features the original wood-panelled First Class lounge of the RMS Olympic, the near-identical (older) sister ship of the tragic Titanic! (See also under Belfast and especially the Titanic Belfast Experience.)
  
When the Olympic was decommissioned and broken up in 1936/37, some of the interiors were auctioned off. The then owner of the White Swan Hotel in Alnwick, who had been a frequent passenger on the ship, took the chance and purchased the finely carved wood panelling and columns, the ceiling, the decorative marble fireplace and mirror and some of the stained glass windows, plus the aft First Class stairs and the revolving door that originally led into the Olympic's restaurant. 
  
This was then all incorporated into the hotel to resemble the original state as closely as possible. The revolving door, however, ended up as the hotel's main entrance door (it is pretty difficult to get through with luggage!). Of the original four bay windows that allowed panoramic views of the sea on both the port and starboard side beyond the ship's promenade deck, only two have been refitted. However, they are arranged differently: not, as in the original, next to each other or facing each other, but at a 90 degree angle. The two corner snugs now flank just one of the bay windows. There's also a grand piano in the bay.  
  
The original function of the room was to serve as a lounge for day and evening use by both men and women passengers travelling in first class of the Olympic, who would gather here to play cards and chat and have cups of tea and generally just socialize. Therefore the furniture would have been different back then to what the floor space is filled with now: dining tables. Originally it would have been comfy chairs and sofas and little coffee tables.    
  
Now that the lounge serves as the hotel's larger restaurant (there's also a bistro), its role may be different, but it is still the closest you can get anywhere to savouring the original atmosphere of the Olympic, or: the Titanic! It really is a marvellous experience. 
  
As you would expect, the restaurant, called The Olympic Suite these days, strives to be rather posh, and hence isn't cheap, though not overpriced either. Whether the cooking is of the exact same standard as it would have been in 1912 on the Titanic is somewhat doubtful …. although, you never know, culinary standards may not actually have been that phenomenally high back then. Anyway, I had a very nice Northumbrian-inspired three course meal there. It was tasty and well presented … but the atmosphere was much more relaxed and informal (in a cultivated way, though) than it would ever have been anywhere in First Class on the Titanic or Olympic.  
  
The restaurant today did provide a kind of reverential atmosphere, with (fake) candlelight and soft (piped) classical music in the background, but it was far from stifling, instead relaxed, quiet and friendly. 
  
The rest of Alnwick doesn't really have anything else to offer the dark tourist, though there is a little detail that may be worth a mention: the Dirty Bottles Pub, originally called the Ye Olde Cross. It derives its second (and now official) name from the legend that two centuries ago the then innkeeper snuffed it after interfering with a few bottles in the window. His superstitious wife then insisted that nobody ever touch those bottles, as they were evidently cursed, and so they ended up sealed in between two windowpanes. 
  
And there you can still see those evil bottles today – black and dusty but intact (and untouchable). The rest of the pub, on the other hand, tries hard to play the hi-tech modern card, with iPad stations on the tables to order with and prepaid cards you insert into self-service beer dispensers. I gave it a miss though and rather turned to a proper real-ale pub elsewhere for a pre-dinner pint. 
  
  
Location: in the far north-east of England, in Northumberland, Great Britain, only 30 miles (50 km) from the Scottish border, and ca. 35 miles (55 km) north of Newcastle upon Tyne.  
  
Google maps locators: 
  
White Swan Hotel: [55.4131, -1.7045]
  
Castle: [55.4157, -1.7061]
  
Dirty Bottles: [55.414737, -1.708546]
 
    
Access and costs: fairly easy to get to, can be pricey (staying overnight and eating out). 
  
Details: Alnwick is well connected by road, lying just off the A1, the main north-south trunk road along the eastern side of Britain that connects Edinburgh and the north with Newcastle upon Tyne and the rest of  England to the south (the A1 goes all the way down to London). 
  
The main East Coast Railway line between Edinburgh and London also runs past Alnwick close by, with the nearest station being near Alnmouth some 4 miles (6 km) to the east – so you'd need a taxi or bus to get to Alnwick from there.
  
Within Alnwick itself, everything is walkable between the gardens, the castle and the centre of town. 
  
Accommodation at the White Swan Hotel is not cheap at ca. 120 GBP for a double room at the regular B&B rate – but they do sometimes have special offers for dinner, bed and breakfast packages, which are a good deal, also because a la carte or set menu evening dinners in the famous Olympic Suite dining room are on the pricey side too. Note that the Olympic Suite is only open for dinner when there are enough diners that evening (but it is always used for breakfast). 
  
Alternatively you can stay at one of the much more affordable B&Bs in Alnwick. There are also cheaper dining options, but then you wouldn't get to see that famous Olympic room … unless you ask at reception whether you can just have a quick peek in … without staying and/or eating there.  
  
  
Time required: a single afternoon and an evening are enough to take in the sights featured here, but if you also want to visit the castle you'd have to add more time, of course. 
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: nothing in the vicinity – at best Whitehaven to the south-west in Cumbria, Whitby to the south-east in North Yorkshire, or Glasgow to the north-west in Scotland would be just about within comfortable reach, in a couple of hours' drive by car.  
  
For everything further away see under Great Britain in general. 
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Alnwick isn't far from the Northumberland coast, which features a number of stunningly located castles and coastal scenery, including the famous Farne Islands and Lindisfarne nature reserve. Kielder Forest to the west of the town is also popular with stargazers – as it has one of the lowest levels of light pollution in the British Isles.
  
For those more after bright city lights and urban thrills, Newcastle upon Tyne is the place to go. This city has seen some superbly successful regeneration efforts, especially along the inner city banks of the River Tyne. The set of bridges spanning the river is one of the most iconic sights of Britain.  
   
The newest bridge, officially the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, but better known locally as “the winking eye”, is a uniquely designed pedestrian bridge that opens for boats to pass under by tilting sideways so that its curved single span goes up while at the same time lowering its support arch. 
  
Apart from its architecture, Newcastle is also known for its bar and restaurant scene, including a cool and authentic Chinatown (which features other Asian cuisines too – I enjoyed one of the best Japanese meals I've ever had in Europe there). 
 
 
 
  • Alnwick 1 - castleAlnwick 1 - castle
  • Alnwick 2 - unusual doorAlnwick 2 - unusual door
  • Alnwick 3 - White SwanAlnwick 3 - White Swan
  • Alnwick 4 - sign outsideAlnwick 4 - sign outside
  • Alnwick 5 - stairs and doorAlnwick 5 - stairs and door
  • Alnwick 6 - the Olympic suite dining roomAlnwick 6 - the Olympic suite dining room
  • Alnwick 7 - fireplaceAlnwick 7 - fireplace
  • Alnwick 8 - snugs in the backAlnwick 8 - snugs in the back
  • Alnwick 9 - pianoAlnwick 9 - piano
  
 
  
   
  
  

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

  

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