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Glorious Family Escape In North East

Cosiest cottage Neil Sowerby's ever stayed in. Still he craves a night in the haunted castle

Written by . Published on August 9th 2011.

Glorious Family Escape In North East

HOGGING the limelight, that’s Alnwick Castle, whose canny owners certainly cash in on the Harry Potter link. The Percy family are great survivors. They’ve ruled the roost from their Northumbrian fortress for 700 years. You can see why.

Swallows KippersSwallows KippersBloodshed and treachery are things of the past but the Castle still gets stormed today – by tourists, particularly when inclement weather drives them off the regions magnificent beaches.

Its major attraction status was sealed by its role as Hogwarts in the first two Potter adaptations. As the series comes to a close and its stars adapt to full-time adulthood here it’s as if Ron Weasley was still scratching the first pimple of puberty.

In the tourist office we read the Castle brochure: “Hagrid and Dumbledore invite you to one of our Hogwartian Parties, taking place on Wednesday August 3 and 10, 2011. Enjoy lessons in broomstick training, potions and spells as well as a chance to meet the Characters & the Sorting Hat before the great Feast commences!”

Special discount £60 for a family of four. We passed. Our two week-old granddaughter in tow has all these delights to come. I rather fancy in time she may be up for a little falconry and dressing up in the Knight’s Quest attraction. All those staterooms packed with polished furniture, though? Well, I hope not.

Barter Books, AlnwickBarter Books, AlnwickFor now we were keen to stop off in the solid old market town to buy some local lamb to roast at our cottage destination and to briefly mooch around Barter Books, which has some claim to be Britain’s finest second hand bookshop. It’s certainly huge, hewn out of Alnwick’s former rail station – and hugely comfortable with settees, the cosiest coffee shop and literary mantras etched on every surface

No JK Rowling fetish apparent, unless the quirky little model train running round the top of the bookshelves is meant to be the Hogwarts Express.

Ah, quirky. That’s how a castle should be and Chillingham fits the bill. Like Alnwick it’s inland, even further away from the Northumberland Heritage Coast with its parade of mighty strongholds, Warkworth, Bamburgh, Lindisfarne and Dunstanburgh (whose gaunt ruins we could see from our base North Cottages near Embleton).

Bamburgh CastleBamburgh CastleAll make good photo opportunities, but grim, grey-stoned Chillingham offers more. For over 30 years its eccentric owner Sir Humphry Wakefield has single-handedly rescued the property from being a roofless, floorless wreck. It’s definitely a Sisyphean work in progress and a far remove from the National Trust and its damned potpourris and rules.

Particularly impressive are the Jacobean entrance and three staterooms built for the progress south of King James in 1603 to claim the English throne.

But the non-architectural joys are more fun – the incredible magpie collections of family mementos, from bizarre dolls to Antarctic sledges, scary dungeons and a bad taste medieval torture exhibition complete with matted mannequins being racked and a (working) Iron Maiden.

Though the family served kings and fought off marauding Scots,this was border country farm from London where allegiances shifted. At least eight of the resident Grays (Sir Humphrey married into the family) were executed for rebellion.

Low Croft CottageLow Croft CottageNo wonder, Chillingham regularly crops up in “most haunted” lists. The Blue Boy, poor wandering Lady Mary, a tortured child, the Royal procession – the stories are legion. Best experienced on one of the castle ghost tours – or you could risk staying in one of the rentable apartments.

More corporeally fearsome are the breed of white cattle unique to Chillingham. These are feral, untamed, inbred beasts dating back to the Ice Age (Darwin cites them in his evolutionary studies). Once almost extinct, the herd now numbers around 100. For £6 you can visit them in their park, but don’t expect any petting!

Chillingham is half an hour inland across truly bleak uplands. We were staying near Embleton in a magnificent new cottage complex just five minutes’ drive from the sea, which we could see gleaming in the distance,

The romantic soul in me longed to hole up in the west wing of Chillingham, but with the weather and rationality closing in, North Cottages were the perfect hideaway. These are five substantial five-star lodgings converted from former granaries, workshops and barns on a working farm with no expense spared.

Got This Racking PainGot This Racking PainTheir names celebrate their former incarnations. Ours was Low Croft, two double bedrooms with a bunk bed room and a vast downstairs living room running into a state of the art kitchen. And it was baby and dog friendly (though Captain Smidge the chihuahua wasn’t allowed upstairs). Owners Richard and Claire have two young children of their own plus a pooch – and a real understanding of what a family needs on holiday.

They didn’t supply waterproofs and umbrellas. We brought our own. You need luxury to go home to when the north eastern weather is so fickle. There’s an acclaimed (dog and baby friendly) gastropub called the Ship in nearby Newton by the Sea. An onsite microbrewery produces excellent ales to wash down your crab stottie.

We didn’t eat at the homelier Greys Inn in Embleton but it too offers quality cask ale and home-cooked food. I could have lived off the kippers bought from Swallows smokery in Seahouses – superior to rivals Robsons in Craster – but a repeat of one brunch was ruled out because of the persistent cooking aroma.

Chippie Central SeahousesChippie Central SeahousesI love all this coastline, despite an absence of any really characterful coastal town comparable with a Whitby or a Southwold, say. We did brave the rain to visit Holy Island and were rewarded with a welcome sunny spell. It’s a remote place that does live up to the “steeped in history” tag.

From the sea-bounded castle on its rocky outcrop you can well imagine the look-outs freezing in fear at the sight of the Viking longboats surging in wolfishly out of the North Sea fret. Come again to pillage the monastery where St Adrian and his learned monks lit a candle of civilisation in the Dark Ages... before it was snuffed it out for centuries.

Today’s peril is misjudging the tide times and getting stuck on the island or, worse still, seeing your car washed away by the sea that covers the linking causeway for two periods each day. This is a less irregular occurrence than you might think. If you daren’t make a run for it, there’s a hut on stilts halfway across. A refuge for the hapless.

We left ourselves plenty of time and headed back for the cosy luxury of Low Croft.


Fact file

North Farm Cottages, Embleton, Northumberland. NE66 3DX (www.northfarmcottages.co.uk). It is 190 miles by car from Manchester via the M62 and the A1.

Prices in for 7 nights in July start from £743 through the booking agents.
Out of season, enquiries on availability and pricing can be made direct to
the North Farm Cottages manager. For more information, ring Jennifer O’Malley on 07775000039 or email stay@northfarmcottages.co.uk.

Chillingham Castle, Northumberland NE66 5NJ (01668 215359, www.chillingham-castle.com). Open Easter to the end of October noon-5pm. Closed Saturdays. Self-catering accommodation available. Ghost tours by arrangement, £20 a head.

Alnwick Castle, Alnwick NE66 1NQ (01665 510777, www.alnwickcastle.com), is open from April 1 to October 31 10am - 6pm, the State Rooms 11am - 5pm with last admissions 4.15pm. Adult tickets are £13, family £34. For all other tickets including those combining gardens, visit website.

Barter Books, Alnwick Station, Northumberland, NE66 2NP (01665 604888, www.barterbooks.co.uk).

For tourist information visit www.visitnorthumberland.com.

For Holy Island crossing times: http://orawww.northumberland.gov.uk/www2/holyisland/holyisland.asp.

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