Even before the pandemic made it only viable option, my head contained a huge list of UK destinations I wanted to visit … and Northumberland has always been at the top of that list. However, as any fellow readers with an energy-limiting chronic illness will know, organising even a short trip away takes a heck of a lot of strategising.
Between my best friend and I, we need our holiday destinations to be easy to reach via public transport, activities and amenities to be wheelchair accessible, accommodation to be peaceful and rest-facilitating, and food and drink to cater for a handful of dietary requirements. And let me tell you, making all of these things co-exist alongside each other can be quite the challenge.
After trawling through maps of train stations along the North East alongside suitable accommodation on Airbnb, we decided that the best place for us to stay would be Alnmouth, a small coastal town and an area of outstanding natural beauty. Already sold on the location, it was an additional bonus to find out that our location was just 4-5 miles away from a destination my best pal and I have always talked about visiting… Alnwick.
We planned to spend two days out of our four-day holiday in Alnwick, and here’s what we got up to…
The Alnwick Garden
It’s no exaggeration to tell you that I’ve been wanting to visit The Alnwick Garden for a good 7-8 years now. Having caught glimpses of the various attractions and stunning scenery on TV and online, I knew it could well be my happy place. Of course, with over 12 acres of stunning land to explore and ample opportunity to spend some quality time in nature, it was only right that on the day of our visit the heavens opened and we were blessed with unrelenting torrential rain. Nevertheless, in true British holiday style, we donned our rain macs and our game faces, and set off on our way.
We spent around four hours at The Alnwick Garden in total. During our visit, we explored The Grand Cascade, Ornamental Garden and Serpent Garden towards the front of the attraction, before walking (or in my case, scooting) in a big circle around the area. Our journey first took us through The Cherry Orchard, home to the largest collection of Taihaku Cherry Blossom in the world. From the end of April to the beginning of May all 329 trees bloom together in a stunning display, and even though we’d missed this peak period, there was still plenty to appreciate along the way. As you progressed to the highest points of the land, there were dozens and dozens of swinging wooden seats for visitors to perch on and enjoy the view, and if we and they hadn’t already been drenched by the weather at this point, you can bet we would have had a little sit on every single one.
En route, we also enjoyed The Rose Garden: 300 beautiful roses were in bloom at the time of our visit and created a beautifully curated display bursting with colour and heavenly scents. Making our way back down and completing the circle, we could also take in a different view of The Grand Cascade, the central flowing water display with 120 water jets that even in inclement weather really will take your breath away.
For us, though, our absolute favourite area to explore was The Poison Garden – and yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. After a briefing from a staff member not to touch, smell, or taste anything in the enclosed space we were about to enter, we found ourselves in a garden full of intoxicating and narcotic plants. Funnily enough, on the surface they were plants you might expect to find in any household garden or public space… but, as Head Gardener Trevor Jones cheerfully explains in this video, have the very real potential to end your life. In the past, some visitors have even been known to faint simply from inhaling intoxicating fumes whilst walking around.
Accompanied by storyboards of how various plants had been casually utilised by murderers, knowledgeable staff members ready to explain the toxicity of each plant and the impact it would have on the body (and show you images of said impact that definitely aren’t for the faint-hearted), and interactive QR codes which you could scan to hear more about their history, this was an experience like no other. It was such a quirky take on botany that we could see engaged visitors of all ages, and something I felt was a really clever way of informing younger people about the power, and the danger, of what might seem like just ordinary plants. Writing this now has reminded me that I really should have a word with Izzy and check she’s not plotting any plant-based conspiracies of her own. You can never quite tell with that gal.
Also taking in The Pinery Gift Shop and stopping for a cuppa in the light and airy Pavillion Café, we found plenty to occupy our time at a pace that suited us. We later explored the Roots and Shoots project, a communal area hosting community programmes for people in the area who are at risk of being isolated or disadvantaged. This, we discovered, was just one of the charitable and educational elements of The Alnwick Garden – objectives that are at the core of their attraction. Their mission isn’t only to provide a stunning experience for visitors and tourists – it’s to give back and improve the lives of others, too.
Our visit was concluded by sighing over the cosy, fairy-light adorned Treehouse Restaurant… truly one of the most beautiful spectacles I’ve ever seen, and the element which originally made me aware of the gardens and made me intent on visiting. The restaurant requires pre-booking far in advance and was slightly out of our budget for this trip, but it’s safe to say that dining here in style one day, ideally at night when it’s all lit up and extra magical, is still high up on my bucket list.
What impressed me the most about The Alnwick Garden, though, was just how wonderful it felt to explore using mobility aids. As I had George the manual wheelchair rather than Janice the power-chair with me for this holiday, we rented a mobility scooter from admissions and I’m *so* glad we did. The vast grounds were for the most part surprisingly smooth and accessible, and being on wheels meant that I could appreciate them to the fullest. Every ramp felt safe and secure (it’s worrying that that’s something I’ve learned to praise given past experiences as a wheelchair user…), and I was particularly impressed to see a map of scooter/wheelchair accessible routes on their website, with different paths annotated by how accessible they would be. There was a level-access route to almost everything that would be accessed by foot, and that in itself meant so much. It was clear to see that accessibility is at the heart of this attraction… even the rope bridges to the treehouse were easy to navigate using a scooter, and you just try and tell me there’s anything better in life than a wheelchair-accessible treehouse. I’ll wait.
As you may be able to tell, we really loved our visit to The Alnwick Garden. The fact that we enjoyed it so much in such beastly weather conditions is a testament to just how gorgeous it really is… and it’s safe to say we’ll be back again to enjoy the experience on a finer day in the future. If you’d like to visit yourself, pre-booking is essential – grab your tickets on their website!
Alnwick CastleAlnwick Castle and the surrounding area is truly one of the most beautiful sights I’ve set my eyes on in a long time… ‘awe-struck’ is the phrase that immediately comes to mind. With a rich history dating back to the Norman period, the castle has served as a military outpost, a teaching college, a refuge for evacuees, a film set for the first two iconic Harry Potter films, and, of course, a family home to the Percy family. Today, the castle is inhabited by the 12th Duke and Duchess of Northumberland and their four children, and the family has used their influence to evolve the castle into a tourist attraction and welcome visitors into their home.
Simply meandering around the gorgeous grounds would have been enough to us, but Alnwick Castle boasts plenty to see and do. During our visit we explored The Fusiliers Museum of Northumberland, caught the immensely enjoyable Arms and Armour talk led by an artisan staff member who definitely deserves some kind of Netflix show with her wit and humour, and enjoyed a hot drink from the Armoury Takeaway whilst taking in the view from within the castle walls. We had to have a bit of a word with ourselves before we could get over-excited and sign up for the Broomstick Training sessions (in the exact spot where Harry Potter had his first taste of flying in the first of the movies), but from watching those taking part and hearing their excitement, it’s clear that this experience is ideal for families with children.
A particular highlight of our visit was exploring the Castle’s State Rooms, an unmissable experience included in the price of your admission tickets. This was quite a new experience for me, and by the end of the tour I’d run out of adjectives to do justice to how stunning the Italian Renaissance-inspired interior was before us. I can only dream of having a library like that one day. No photography is permitted, and guests are asked to turn off or silence their phones, so the experience really allows you to immerse yourself in the environment and chat with the knowledgeable staff stationed in every room.
On the topic of staff, I cannot speak highly enough of the individuals we encountered during our visit. Each and every person was so knowledgeable and clearly so passionate about sharing their element of history – and everything was communicated in an engaging and entertaining way that would appeal to those of all ages. To me, it’s people like this that really can make all the difference.
Not only that, but every single team member we encountered had a sound knowledge of accessibility in and around the area. There was clear protocol in place for every area of the castle and grounds, and all staff had clearly been informed and briefed about these processes so they could be ready to assist wherever possible. We never had to worry about access or where we could or couldn’t go, because there was always somebody on hand to help. Even in the State Rooms, which couldn’t be accessed by the mobility scooter I’d once again rented for the day, there were staff members who could guide you to the handful of steps and a discrete one-person lift, and a wheelchair you could borrow to explore the upper floors. There were even small collapsible seats people could carry around with them in case they need an emergency sit-down – such a brilliant idea, and something I really hope will be adopted in more visitor attractions in the near future.
When seeking accessible days out, a historic castle perhaps wouldn’t be the first experience that comes to mind. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of Alnwick Castle I could enjoy with limited mobility. I will say that the cobbled uneven grounds, as they do at home in York, made for quite a bouncy ride in a mobility scooter and could pose a bit of an issue for those with chronic pain or sensory issues, but the experience as a whole still made me feel valued and welcomed as a disabled visitor. From interactive screens that allow people to sit and explore areas unreachable in mobility aids, to menus accommodating various dietary requirements and free tickets for carers, it’s clear that accessibility has always been a central priority at Alnwick Castle. If the team behind this attraction can find innovative ways of being so accommodating in a preserved historical setting like this, then quite frankly we all know it can be done. If you’d like to experience it for yourself, be sure to book your tickets online!
We absolutely loved our time at The Alnwick Garden and Alnwick Castle, with both trips proving to be real highlights of our holiday. Whether you’re a disabled or a non-disabled reader, I’d be quick to recommend visiting either of them in a heartbeat. You can see what we got up to during the rest of our stay in Northumberland in our vlog… featuring the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen, plenty of good food, and a trip to one of the largest second-hand bookshops in the UK. It’s safe to say we’ll be back again one day!