When you’re from Western Canada, “close” is a relative term. You can live in the same city as someone and still be 60km apart. If you’re talking about the next major city, that distance is generally measured in hours of 119km/h highway driving (at least 3). A ski day generally requires 3–4 hours of round trip driving, and the family cottage can be anywhere from 4 to 18 hours away. And while this means you aren’t exactly taking day trips to Vancouver, it does have the distinct advantage of making many other parts of the world seem adorably (and conveniently) tiny. The United Kingdom definitely qualifies.
Kara and I left for Alnwick (pronounced “On-nick” or “Aah-nick”, but definitely not “Aln-wick”) from Edinburgh on Wednesday morning. We were traveling from southern Scotland to northern England—changing countries and everything! The train ride to Alnmouth took all of 30 minutes. The bus to Alnwick took another 15. Small and quaint indeed.
We were in Alnwick for two reasons. My reason was for the White Swan Hotel, a several-century-old carriage house inn that has some of the fittings from the RMS Olympic, the only one of the Olympic-class trio that didn’t sink (the Titanic and Britannic being the other two). I convinced Kara to go on the grounds that a) she loves me and b) there is a castle there that was used as a filming location for some of the Harry Potter movies.
After a week or so of hostels, it was nice to have a hotel room. Kara and I immediately draped our clothes over every available surface to air out and otherwise made a big mess, revelling in the fact that our bedroom was not also a common area. Then we went for a walk.
It has been raining earlier, but it stopped, the clouds cleared, and the sun came out. Alnwick really is a truly adorable little town. We stumbled across a pub called The Ginger Beaver, admired all the cobblestones, and decided that Alnwick is the local destination for vacationing pensioners. We definitely didn’t see any other backpackers. We quickly hit the edge of town and found a beautiful old bridge leading over to a meadow that seemed to be a popular dog walking spot. The meadow ran along the Aln river and paralleled the castle grounds, so as we walked we had an excellent panoramic view of the castle.
After heading back into town we found one of the largest and most wonderful used bookshops in England. It was housed in what used to be Alnwick station, and had electric model trains running on tracks set on top of the book cases as tribute. It was massive, and it was wonderful. We sipped rose flavoured beverages in what used to be the corridor leading to the platform (the café filled a selection of first class waiting rooms and corridors) and marvelled at the creaky floors and endless bookshelves. It was a rather dangerous place for two books lovers travelling with already heavy backpacks, so we left sooner than I would have liked, but it was probably for the best.
The next day was Alnwick Castle day. We took a tour with a guide who was knowledgeable, but completely incapable of speaking above a whisper. Combined with the rather enthusiastic winds that ripped through the grounds that day, much of what he said was sent north to Scotland. We did catch bits and pieces, though; enough to know that the castle had a long and storied past. Our guide also shot me pointed looks whenever he spoke of invading Scotsman after I volunteered that I had Scottish ancestry. After 20 minutes I felt as if I was directly responsible for launching attacks on the castle 500 years ago.
The highlight of the day was taking a broomstick lesson in the same spot the scene from the first film took place. The lady running it was clearly having a blast with her rather curmudgeonly character, and clearly took great pleasure in making the lot of us (mostly middle aged women, and then Kara and I and a 9-year-old boy) run around with brooms between our legs making funny noises. It was a giddy good time.
The following morning we set off for Oxford on what was to be the longest travel day of our trip with a whopping four hours on the train. Drive four hours westward from Calgary and you’ll barely make it into the next province; head south in Britain for that long and you end up clear on the other end of the country. I like this teensy country thing. It’s handy.