Northumberland is quickly becoming something of a UK literary powerhouse. No longer just home to Hogwarts stand in Alnwick Castle, it is producing some of the best historical and noir fiction I’ve read in a while. Newcastle has a thriving literary scene (if this is something you’d like to know more about, check out the fabulous blog Book and Brew) and despite being a small market town, Alnwick itself is home to the internationally renowned bookshop Barter Books. The rise of new publishing houses is fuelling this further and moving readers past the gritty, marvellous Northumberland set works of Ann Cleeves to new voices such as Matt Wesolowski, the author of one of my Great Read choices for this trip, “Six Stories”.
Whilst I was home in the UK this summer, I wanted to make a road trip down the coast from Edinburgh to Alnwick. As a teenager I was obsessed with Bernard Cornwall’s “Sharpe” series – it was the first series I devoured with 12 hour reading sessions and coming late to it meant that I spent hours hunting for additional titles in WH Smith, there were so many to catch up on! Cornwell is still probably my favourite writer (I fangirled big time when we found ourselves in Chatham, Cape Cod as this is where he’s now based) and I’ve been religiously purchasing his latest series “The Saxon Chronicles,” which is set across Britain, including in Bamburgh, Northumberland, in the 9th Century. “The Last Kingdom” is my second Great Read choice, but really you should all just read the whole series. Right now.
The drive between Edinburgh and Alnwick is absolutely beautiful. You take the A1 which hugs the coast for much of the trip and can watch the expanse of the North Sea unfold beneath the cliffs as you pass St. Abbs, Eyemouth (where the excellent “The Shadowy Horses” by Susanna Kearsley is set), Berwick-Upon-Tweed and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.
Bamburgh, or Bebbanburg as it is referred to as in Cornwell’s novels, is not much more than the castle that dominates the coastal headland. There are a selection of pretty stone cottaged streets and some places to grab a cup of tea and an ice cream but not much else. The castle itself is relatively large but suffers in comparison with its film star neighbour in Alnwick. There are tours available and the views from the battlements are wonderful. I actually prefer this castle to the more polished and glitzy Alnwick; it combines a formidable exterior with some impressive and sumptuous interiors. They also have lots of events that are focused on bringing the castle’s violent history to life so check out the website before you book your trip.
We stopped for a cheeky scone in the village, just across from the castle entrance, at a quirky cafe-cum-gift shop called Wyndenwell. The tea was lovely and there was a good selection of tasty homemade cakes and ice creams on offer – you could even pick up a bucket and spade on your way out. This makes sense when you see the wonderful St Aiden Beach. It is one of those stretches of sand that feels like it couldn’t ever be crowded, even in the height of summer. You can see how it would lend itself to some lonely, sparse fiction.
After being suitably refreshed we hopped back in the car to drive down the coast to Alnwick. For any Harry Potter fan the castle is an absolute must see. For those who don’t avidly follow the adventures of the boy wizard, it doubled as the set of Hogwarts for sections of the movie adaptations, and there are plenty of Potter related activities and events to keep magical fans of all ages entertained.
I primarily wanted to worship at the bookish equivalent of Mecca – Barter Books. This legendary secondhand bookshop is situated in an old railway station and it nods not infrequently to this history in its design and decor, right down to the toy train set that runs around suspended from the ceiling. Low lighting, plush cushions and endless stacks make this one of the most intriguing and comfortable places to book browse I’ve ever been to. It’s also home to the original (and much repeated) Keep Calm and Carry On posters. The bookshop has just about every topic conceivable rubbing up against each other. From antiquarian first editions to popular fiction to obscure books on engineering – this place has something for everyone. For those of you who are already thinking “BUT THE FOOD! WHERE IS THE FOOD?!” There is also a cafe attached which is a lovely place to curl up with your new purchase if you can’t be bothered to drag your by now heavily book laden carcass into town.
If you do fancy a walk into the centre of Alnwick, it’s a very pretty town. Lots of Britain In Bloom worthy trugs of flowers adorn the buildings and there is Embleton Bay nearby if you want to get plenty of value for money from your earlier purchased bucket and spade.
The Great Reads:
“Six Stories” by Matt Wesolowski
This clever, original, suspense filled mystery was a surprise in many ways. I first noticed it on Twitter – it was EVERYWHERE and people were obsessed. The narrative unfolds through a series of podcast transcripts that explore the disappearance of Tom Jefferies in 1997 and the events of the following 20 years. If you loved the podcast “Serial”, this is right up your street.
It’s set in the fictional Northumberland moorland area of Scarclaw Fell, but its more than just the dark underbelly of the landscape that’s unearthed as the plot unfolds. The thing that’s so brilliant about this book is Wesolowski’s ability to have you second guessing throughout. The characters are brilliant and awful in equal measure as their weaknesses and relationships are unpicked by the ‘interviewing’ journalist Scott King and Wesolowski does a fantastic job of creating fully dimensional characters.
I really enjoyed the eerie atmosphere created and found that I whizzed through it in pretty much one sitting. This makes it both a very good book and me a very neglectful mother!
If you are a fan of crime fiction but want something that breaks the rather worn detective formula, then you’ll really like this.
“The Last Kingdom” by Bernard Cornwell
Bernard Cornwell is the absolute master of historical fiction. His novels are meticulously researched whether you are raiding with Vikings, marching through a Napoleonic battlefield or seeking the Holy Grail with King Arthur. I am baffled as to how a man can be a seeming expert in so many areas of history on so many continents. The other thing I adore about his work is how I never, ever pay attention to the fact that I am reading fiction. The writing flows in such a way that I never get jarred or thrown out of the world he is creating. The dialogue is consistently both historically nuanced and modern. The characters are fleshed out and completely believable and I am rambling again as my love for the Cornwell gets the better of me. Apologies.
“The Last Kingdom” is the first in the ten book series dubbed “The Saxon Chronicles” and has recently been made into a passably entertaining BBC series. It follows the adventures of a young Anglo-Saxon turned Viking boy – Utred, as he seeks revenge for the seizing of his birthright by his uncle and finds his way in the warring kingdoms that make up what is yet to be called Britain.
Everything I said above about Cornwall’s writing holds here. You are rooting for Utred right from the start, even though he is arrogant, headstrong and blood thirsty. It’s all rather appealing actually! He is a proper hero, the sort that is true to himself and has the ability to back it up. Many swashes are buckled and maidens rescued (or ravaged, depending) as our intrepid warrior makes a name for himself. There are plenty of slimy, obsequious villains that you are clamouring for Utred to punish and none of the badly written sex that so often plagues the historical genre when there is any hint of male / female relations.
You should definitely read this novel if you want to escape and be immersed in another world or time and want plenty of adventure without the saccharine romance. In fact, while you’re at it you should just buy the whole set… And the Sharpe novels while you’re at it…
Already read them?
Why not try these other titles set in Northumberland:
- “Hidden Depths” – Ann Cleeves (or one of her many other titles!)
- “The Shadowy Horses” – Susanna Kearsley
- “The Confession of Stella Moon” – Shelley Day
- “Holy Island” and “Cragside” – L.J. Ross