Hops and Skips

Battles, Dragons, and Harry Potter: 1,000 Years of History at Alnwick Castle

It was not our first time in England, but it was our first time exploring the northern half of it. Having studied abroad in London (way, waaaaayyyy long ago), we’d already checked off many well-known destinations of south England, and flying in and out of Edinburgh gave us the opportunity to get to know another region of the country we once temporarily called home.

We began our 2.5-week trip to the UK in the Northumberland market town of Alnwick. It’s just 30 miles south of the Scottish border and 5 miles from the eastern coast. Its name comes from the River Aln that runs along the city’s northern boundary (in Old English, ‘wic’ meant a settlement or village). The town’s history is tightly linked with the 11th century castle bearing the same name; though Alnwick was settled in the 7th century and served as an important post on the road between Edinburgh and London, the construction of the castle–for protection from frequent raids–triggered its growth and development during the medieval era.


The first iteration of the castle was wooden, built sometime in the early 1090s to protect the land from Scottish invasion. That castle, and Alnwick’s lordship, was given by the English crown (at the time, William II) to the de Vescy family who rebuilt it with stone in 1096. For the next 200 years, it resisted threats and attack (including one de Vescy heir that swapped allegiance from England to Scotland for a period of time), until the family line ended, and the castle was sold to the Percy family in 1309.

The Percys were a powerful family in north England. Their major renovations to the castle turned it into a fortress fit to protect the border, as well as an opulent living space. It saw military action during the War of Roses, Civil War, and Oliver Cromwell’s reign, after which it sat in disrepair until restoration in the 1760s. It’s been renovated repeatedly with the times ever since, and the Percy family still owns, maintains, and resides in this centuries-old piece of architecture.


Today, Alnwick Castle is one of the town’s top attractions (open during warmer months), and for good reason–it has a surprising amount to explore through the various tours and activities that are offered each day. We first tried to visit the castle late one afternoon, as an activity that would extend our time awake, still fighting the jet lag from our flight across the pond. The grounds are open until 5:30, but the last admission is 3:45, and we were just past that. We bought tickets online for the next morning; any ticket purchased–online or at the gate–is good for one year from the date of your first visit, with unlimited visits allowed during that period. This would prove to be quite advantageous as visitors with young kids; we enjoyed multiple, shorter trips during our time in Alnwick.

Our first visit was on a typically English day–the weather was cool and cloudy, the air heavy with an ever-present threat of a drizzle. The main entrance leads through the coach house–heavy, metal doors that once guarded everything within the castle’s walls. A large display board shares the day’s happenings with meeting times and places; we took a photo for reference before heading into the courtyard.


Like many historic castles, Alnwick keeps itself relevant (and, presumably, keeps the funds coming in for its upkeep) by diversifying its use. It’s been used as a filming location for Downton Abbey, Dungeons and Dragons, and one of the Transformers movies, and there are daily “On Location” Tours that share this aspect of the castle’s story. Most famously, though, the castle grounds were used as part of Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter movies, and one of the activities offered is Broomstick Training, just like Harry had on the castle’s Outer Bailey. We joined for a fun large-group session, led by two entertaining staff members with a great presence.

The Outer Bailey is the first wide-open space that really provides a sense of scale for the size of this castle. The heart of the castle towers above you in the center, and fields roll along the River Aln in the distance, beyond the castle walls. We walked along the grass towards the Gun Terrace where cannons line the stone walls. The Postern and Constable’s Towers are both open for a climb–and a history lesson of medieval life through their interior displays; further on, the Ramparts Walk offers an elevated view along one of the perimeter walls.

The State Rooms are a must-see during a visit; there are guided tours available, but our timing dictated that we’d just explore independently. Walking through the massive stone archways, you feel propelled back into history. This castle is nearly 1,000 years old–can you imagine the lives of people that walked these same cobblestone paths each century? Upon entering the interior, there are many docents available for guidance and to answer any questions. The first we met shared with our kids that there are stuffed rats hidden in each room–a scavenger hunt of sorts the current Duchess devised to keep kids entertained. (Brilliant!) The State Rooms are lusciously, decadently decorated, filled with the treasures that accumulate when one family has owned such a distinguished piece of property for over 700 years. (Photography is prohibited inside, but you can Google it!)

We took advantage of the annual ticket perk to visit the castle for the second time the next afternoon. This time, we began our visit with the Fusiliers Museum of Northumberland, an independent museum located in the castle’s northernmost tower. The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers was an infantry regiment of the British Army founded in 1674. It’s been active in the country’s major battles and wars for the last 350 years and, in 1968, merged with other regiments to become the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Military history may not be the most exciting thing for a couple of kids under the age of five, but, once again, this was properly considered; the museum offered a scavenger hunt of artifacts to find during the visit, so our kids stayed entertained as we browsed the exhibits.

The last stop of our visit was the most kid-friendly section of the castle, the Artisans Courtyard. It’s an immersive experience; there are costumes and props, medieval crafts, games, demonstrations, and the Dragon Quest–a walk-through experience with video, lights, and smoke. (Our 5-year-old loved it; our 2-year-old was a bit scared.) The kids loved this whole area, and we had our own “parenting quest” to conquer in getting them out of the costumes when it was time to leave.


Alnwick Castle was a pleasant surprise. The staff was wonderfully friendly and incredibly knowledgeable. I didn’t expect the amount of activity they offered visitors, and I can’t get over how much they considered the interests and attention spans of all visitors–especially so much that would engage the kids. It’s definitely worth visiting more than once during a multi-day stay in Alnwick or the area.

Opening Dates (2023): March 31 – October 27
Hours: 10:00am – 5:30pm (closing time varies for each attraction, but last admission through the entry gates is at 3:45)
Cost: Adults 19.50 online (20.50 at the gate); Seniors or Students 15.75 (16.50); Children aged 5-16 years 10.25 (10.75); Under 4s FREE; Family of 2 adults, up to 4 children 53 (55.50)
Tickets are good for unlimited visits for 1 full year from date of first entry.
Concessions: Sandwiches, salads, pastries, cakes, and hot and cold drinks available daily from the Courtyard Cafe; fish and chips and other pub favorites available for lunch from the the Stables Friery (check schedule)


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