“Hope you’ve remembered your wellies?” asks a pal. Whoops. That would be a no. But, thankfully, a sturdy pair of walking boots is to hand. And just as well.
A fiercely contested tradition for more than 250 years, the annual, do-or-die parish football match is about to kick off, here in the shadow of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland and conditions underfoot are troublingly squelchy.
Two teams of roughly 20-a-side congregate as Lord Max Percy throws the ball from the castle battlements to get under way a tussle that has been part of life in this pretty market town since 1762.
Then, players and spectators trudge down the hill and over the Lion Bridge to the sprawling playing fields. There ensues a feisty, muddy, puddly, take-no-prisoners footballing free-for-all.
For the record, St Michael’s claim the bragging rights over St Paul’s with a 2-0 victory. But there’s still time for the braver footballers to wade into freezing water and maintain the old tradition of carrying the match ball to the other bank of the River Aln.
Thankfully, Barter Books, inside the town’s Victorian former railway station, is the perfect place for players and spectators alike to dry off. An open fire crackles as a model railway whirrs around overhead and aisles and aisles of books of all genres stretch out. Not least a huge range of Broons and Oor Wullie annuals, should you wish to top up your collection.
It’s here where the Second World War poster bearing the now-familiar slogan Keep Calm And Carry On was discovered… and what better motto for our times?
Over lattes, next to the fireplace, the chills recede.
Alnwick sits just off the A1, about 30 miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne, so it’s easy to stop off at this book-browser’s Aladdin’s cave. Or, even better, stay a little longer.
Along cobbly Bailiffgate sits a Grade 2-listed building which, after more than 100 years in the Catholic church’s care, has been lovingly converted into a bijou hotel. The Cookie Jar’s owners are Scottish: Debbie Cook and husband Robert, the chief executive of TGI Friday’s, and formerly in charge of Hotel du Vin and Malmaison.
Welcoming visitors into this convent-turned-hotel is Brinley Moralee, former butler to the Duke of Northumberland.
The castle is currently closed – the impact of the coronavirus crisis means it will remain so for many weeks – so Brinley selects a weighty history of the country pile, Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies, from the bookshelves for my perusal later. Hospitably, he also rustles up a Percy Special, a cocktail of whisky and cherry brandy purportedly concocted by the revered 10th Duke of Northumberland.
A few sips later, it’s upstairs to the statement suite. Designed with Debbie’s guidance by Matt Hulme, who created the interiors of the Hotel du Vin in Edinburgh, in another life this was the convent’s former chapel.
Its stained glass windows remain but what was once the altar now comprises an open-plan bathroom, with copper bath on timber flooring, and walk-in shower.
The carpeted lower bedroom features super-kingsize bed, antique desk, orb lights, wall-mounted widescreen TV, and cinema lamp. It’s the sort of luxurious space where you want to treat yourself to an early night, nursing a dram and kicking back in front of a boxset.
After a cooked breakfast in The Cookie Jar’s Bailiffgate Bistro, the to-do list involves exploring as much of coastal Northumberland as possible.
First stop is Alnmouth where, after a quick coffee at Scott’s, a popular little deli, I take a stroll along the village’s beautiful beach. From Alnmouth, it’s only a 15-minute drive to the pretty fishing village of Craster.
From there, it’s a one-mile walk across flat but occasionally rocky farmland to the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle. The walk from Craster can take up to 40 minutes but it’s worth the effort to enjoy the breathtaking views from the promontory along the Northumberland coastline.
There is one other reward before the road home beckons: a tasty crab sandwich in Craster’s Jolly Fisherman pub.
Keep calm. Carry on.
P.S… Superstar Sting owns one of a handful of exclusive residential suites within Bamburgh Castle, once home to the kings of ancient Northumbria, 17 miles north of Alnwick.
Luxury double room at The Cookie Jar in Alnwick costs £220, including breakfast, from April 3. Special rates are available. Call 01665 510465 cookiejaralnwick.com
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