Alnwick (pronounced 'Annik') is a market town on the Great North Road which owes its importance to a large Norman castle. It's the second largest inhabited castle in Britain, after Windsor, and you'll have seen it many times on the small and big screen. The first Edmund Blackadder lived here, as did Kevin Costner's arch-enemy the Sheriff of Nottingham. More recently it's doubled up as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films - many's the Quidditch lesson that's taken place on the pristine lawn between the main keep and the Barbican tower [photo]. Alnwick Castle is home to the Duke of Northumberland, one of the more important British noblemen, who graciously allows the public to troop around his state apartments to see how the other half 0.001% live. Every room on the tour is over-ornate, über-showy, and littered with old portraits and modern family photographs. The ubiquitous photos feel like a Hello centrespread ("In medieval magnificence we meet Ralph, Lady Isobel and their utterly gorgeous offspring") and no opportunity is missed to point out that the family are jolly good friends with the Queen and several of her ancestors. The view from the battlements [photo] is of a totally unspoilt verdant valley and, after the tourists go home in the evening, this must be a magical place to live. Don't be jealous now.
A new attraction just down the road is the AlnwickGarden, the horticultural brainchild of the Duchess of Northumberland. She's created a new green public space for locals and tourists alike, complete with water features, sculptures and acres of plants. The garden has only been open since 2002 and isn't quite finished yet, but there's still plenty to see. Centrepiece is the Grand Cascade which tumbles valleyward with choreographed fountains spurting half-hourly into the sky [photo]. At the top of the slope is a well-tended Ornamental Garden, and lower down a series of smaller themed areas. Particularly popular are the sweet-smelling pergolas of the Rose Garden and the metal water sculptures in the Serpent Garden[photo]. A deadly Poison Garden has been established behind locked gates, inside which tour guides delight in pointing out all the killer plants that lurk unnoticed in your own back garden. Toddlers play happily on the mini-tractors at the foot of the main fountain, scooping water from the cascade and dumping it unceremoniously on their parents' feet. Older children, meanwhile, are more likely to enjoy swaying across the rope bridges of the big wooden Treehouse. It's a glorious half-day out, especially in midsummer sunshine, but you're probably better off coming back when the place is finished.