“Are we going to the bouncy castle mummy?”
“No, Little Man, it’s a proper castle. I don’t think you can bounce on it.”
We had been lucky enough to be sent a complimentary family ticket for Alnwick Castle, and confusion about whether it was inflatable or not aside, Joe was excited to be going. We were making a full family day of it, and with Grandma and Grandad squeezed in the back seat keeping him company, we were off.
The Castle, and the adjacent Alnwick Garden (a separate attraction), are very easy to get to – it was a straight shot up the A1 for us – and it is a beautiful drive up into the heart of Northumberland. There is a sizeable car park, where you pay the attendant £3.50 on entry for the whole day, although this is situated some distance away from the Castle itself. Following the sign for ‘The Alnwick Garden’, you will reach the ticket office in about five minutes (there are toilets and baby changing facilities here too), and it’s another five to ten minutes’ walk to the Castle (depending on the pace of your accompanying small people). It’s best to pay for your tickets online before you arrive as you will save 10% on the gate price. Make sure you get your tickets validated at Admissions and you can return as many times as you like for 12 months at no extra cost, making them excellent value.
We were delayed en route to the Castle, first by an unscheduled nappy change which couldn’t wait on the back seat of the car, then by a pond full of ducks as we entered the grounds, which Joe couldn’t pass by. When we reached the path leading up to the castle entrance, the view opened out before us, and on a pleasantly sunny Sunday the Castle looked magnificent with Northumberland’s splendour spread out around it. “It’s the castle! It’s the castle!” Joe started yelling excitedly as we approached it, and it did look very impressive.
Once through the gate and you pass inside the outer walls, there are plenty of green spaces for the little ones to run around on, and some parents were pushing buggies quite comfortably despite the bumpy ground. Not all of the Castle is so accessible though, due to the historic nature of the site, so be prepared if you do have a pushchair that you might not necessarily be able to get into some of the interior attractions so easily. This includes the magnificent State Rooms, which have steps to access, and are questionably suitable to drag young children around anyway, but we chose to risk it while Joe was still excited and not too tired.
On entering, we were impressed that they had evidently considered the fact that kids would find old furniture and fancy ceilings a bit boring so they have cleverly hidden a little toy owl and dragon in each room for children to try and spot. I think us adults had as much fun trying to find them as Joe did, although shamefully we had to ask the good-natured staff for pointers a couple of times! The thing which separates the Alnwick State Rooms from other stately homes I have visited is that the Castle is still the residence of the Duke of Northumberland and his family, so many of the rooms had lovely personal touches like family photos on display. The most surreal sight was in the Library, where surrounded by stunning floor-to-ceiling shelves of thousands of historic books, sat a huge TV and stack of DVDs, two faux fur beanbags, a large football table and the best stocked drinks trolley I had ever seen.
Joe’s patience and fortunate good behaviour in the State Rooms were rewarded with a badge handed out by a member of staff at the end, which he was more than pleased with. He then blew off a bit of steam running up and down the grassy moat surrounding the State Rooms complex. In the next courtyard we visited the obligatory gift shop, which brilliantly reminded me of school trips to similar venues – you could even buy one of those wooden rulers with Kings and Queens in chronological order on it, or a brightly coloured pencil eraser, or a novelty pen top, or any number of things reminiscent of childhood visits. Grandma and Grandad bought Joe a red and yellow foam sword, which he took to waving around and jabbing us with for the rest of the afternoon.
We had some lunch in the Courtyard Café next door, which was very nice, if typically expensive as tourist attractions are. A jacket potato with baked beans cost £5.50, but it was big enough for Joe and me to share and came with an enormous and varied side salad. £2 for a plastic bottle of Diet Coke is an indicator of the inflated prices but it was convenient and very pleasant so unless you want to head into Alnwick itself for something to eat, you might have to accept the expense.
After lunch we went into the Knight’s Quest arena, a fun free-play space where you can play traditional games like quoits and skittles, take part in the organised craft activities (tile painting when we were there), and dress up in Medieval attire. You can even put Mum or Dad (or Grandma in our case!) in the stocks and pelt them with stuffed rats. It was very quiet on the Sunday we visited so there was lots of space to run around and play with the games but on a very busy day you might struggle to enjoy everything. Some older children looked like they were having great fun dressing up as Knights and Ladies, and Joe entertained himself stacking all the quoit rings on the poles. Also in this area is the Dragon Quest, a walkthrough riddle-solving experience to defeat a fearsome dragon, which I had previously read was a bit scary for little ones, so we avoided it with our nearly 3 year old.
Leaving Knight’s Quest we headed back to the main grassy area and spent a carefree half hour joining Joe running up and down the moat, and on one occasion rolling down it which definitely brought out the child in me! At this point in the afternoon there was a Broomstick Training session on the grass, which is one of the optional activities included in the admission price. The ‘lesson’ takes place in the spot where Harry Potter first learns to ride a broomstick in The Philosopher’s Stone film, as the Castle doubled for Hogwarts in that scene. This is definitely more suited to children older than toddlers as they need to follow the fun instructions given by the two enthusiastic ‘professors’ in big robes. I didn’t stand and watch for long enough to see if anyone made it off the ground though…
Before we left, Daddy and Grandad couldn’t pass up a go at the archery – worth a shot at £3 for 8 arrows. It turned out they were both rather good, and Joe enjoyed cheering every hit on target from behind the safety rope. We stopped for well-deserved ice-creams on the way back to the car and sat down in another café seating area opposite the Garden entrance. Here you can see the magnificent Grand Cascade fountain if you look through the gate, but you’ll need a Garden ticket to get access to it.
The Garden is open for visitors all year round but you’ll only be able to visit the Castle up to 30th October (28th Oct. for the State Rooms) before it closes for the winter so don’t miss out if you want to see it soon, or you’ll have to wait until next Spring. It might be advantageous to visit at this time of year as it will be quieter but to really make the most of everything you need a fine day as there is a lot of fun to be had outside. There’ll be no rolling down hills on wet grass! All in all, a thoroughly recommended family day out, with plenty more to see to keep you going back time and again.
I was sent a complimentary family ticket for Alnwick Castle for the purpose of writing about our visit. This post was also published on the Sunderland Parents website in September 2013. All descriptions of attractions are from my experience of them and all opinions are my own.