north east england

Alnmouth – Jewel by the Sea

Alnmouth beach
Alnmouth’s sparkling beach

Alnmouth is a pretty village on the Northumberland coast with sparkling sandy beaches and dramatic views across the River Aln estuary.

It may look like a sleepy coastal village and a quiet backwater, but in the 18th Century Alnmouth was a very different place. It was once a bustling trade port, the ‘granary’ of England, a prosperous exporter of grain and wool.

It’s also a place which has known conflict, wars, and border strife – and it was nearly destroyed by the Black Death.

I took a walk around the village to look for signs of its dramatic past… and discovered a few surprises.

Prosperous Port

I was amazed to discover that Alnmouth was once an important port on the north east coast during the Middle Ages.
It provided a good anchorage for ships transporting wool, hides, timber, coal, corn and other commodities. 

Alnmouth benefitted from its brilliant position on both an estuary and a river… it was, as they say today, all about ‘location, location, location’.

The port was also perfectly placed to capitalise on foreign shipping trade from the Baltic, Scandinavia, France – and further afield.

Little remains of the old port so I tried to visualise the scene. Alnmouth village would have been a hectic place in the 18th Century with carts and horses rattling up and down from the village back and forth to the quayside.

I was amused to learn that traffic became so congested that Alnmouth introduced a law to prevent carts from standing in the street for longer than six hours. An early forerunner of today’s parking restrictions!

It’s hard to imagine the port, a hive of activity back in the late 1700s with goods being loaded and unloaded on and off ships. Today there are just a few yachts which sail in cautiously on the estuary’s tricky tides and shallow waters.

Video: Panoramic view from Church Hill

What to See: The old harbour is likely to have occupied a sheltered position to the west of Church Hill. There is no evidence of any structures associated with the harbour. It’s probable that there would only have been mooring posts and perhaps wooden jetties. Many ships would have beached up on Alnmouth’s intertidal sand flats.

The Corn Road

Alnmouth salt marsh

In the mid 18th Century Alnmouth’s port received a major boost with the construction of the ‘Corn Road’ which was built between Hexham and Alnwick in 1753-54.

It made it easier for agricultural goods to be brought into Alnmouth from across Northumberland. These goods were then transported to other ports in England and Europe.

Before this, land transport had been slow, erratic, seasonal and expensive. Goods had to be carried by animals and carts over dirt tracks and treacherous terrain. Today we can only imagine the tremendous hassle and delays involved.

The fertile coastal plain of Northumberland was an extensive corn growing area – and Alnmouth was perfectly located to exploit this crop. Corn was grown on every possible bit of land in Alnmouth, even on some areas of poorer ground. 

By the late 17th and 18th centuries Alnmouth was exporting more corn than Newcastle which is hard to believe today.

What To See: Alnmouth’s farming landscape is visible as you’re travelling into the village. You can also see the wider agricultural area from the top of Church Hill which has panoramic views across this part of Northumberland.

Northumberland’s Grain Capital

During the late 17th and 18th centuries Alnmouth’s main export was corn which was stored in 16 stone granaries, some of the largest in northern England.

Five granaries were built initially and others sprung up later. They were remarkable for their size, height and the strength of their structures.

The pressure to build storage space for grain was so great that houses were sometimes used or converted into granaries. 

Many of the granaries still stand today, although you wouldn’t know this without researching the village’s history. Most have been converted to housing, tourist accommodation or community use.

A couple of the largest have vanished completely, lost in the sands of time – quite literally in the case of Edward Gallon’s mega-granary close to the Buston beach dunes.

What To See: Many of Alnmouth’s granaries can still be seen today if you take a self-guided walking tour of the village.

Hindmarsh Hall on Northumberland Street was one of the village’s largest granaries with four floors of storage. In 1859 the Duke of Northumberland donated this former granary for use as a chapel. It was given an ecclesiastical style make-over with more than a hint of Alnwick Castle, the duke’s own home, in its window designs.

This ‘granary’ church is still a striking presence on Alnmouth’s main street. It was converted into a village hall in 1879 for public meetings and events. It’s still used as a community hall today (pictured above right).

The long, narrow granary on Prospect Place is another impressive building with a few signs of its former use. It has now been converted into four houses and a shop. Over the road, the bright yellow Sun Inn is the site of another old granary which was converted into a cottage and stables.

The Marine House Hotel on Marine Road started life as a four storey granary and was later converted into a vicarage before changing to its present use as a hotel. The Old Granary does what it says on the tin – this former granary is now studio apartments (pictured below).

Shaped By A Storm

Alnmouth has had a stormy past which is perhaps unsurprising given its exposed location overlooking the North Sea.

On Christmas Day in 1806, the village was hit by the “Great Storm” which changed the entire course of the River Aln. The storm also destroyed what remained of the medieval church and led to the silting up of its harbour.

The silting of Alnmouth’s estuary resulted in the decline in the port’s fortunes. The development of larger ships also put Alnmouth at a huge disadvantage.

Smaller ports like Alnmouth couldn’t compete with more modern ports like Blyth which had a proper harbour designed for larger ships.

When the timber ship Joanna capsized in 1896, it marked the death knell for Alnmouth as a port. After this accident, it became difficult for boat owners to secure insurance for ships passing through Alnmouth.

What to See: The best place to discover Alnmouth’s changing landscape is Church Hill and the area of salt marshes south of the village. Don’t miss the small ruined chapel close to the cross at the top of the hill which was erected as a mortuary chapel in 1870. You can also walk through the salt marshes and nature reserve along a footpath.

To reach Church Hill, walk, cycle or drive a short distance along the A1068 (south). Look out for the sign to a footpath to the south beach . Walk for 300 metres towards to the beach and then take a left turn at the signpost to Church Hill. It’s an easy scramble up the bank to the top from where there are incredible views of the village.

The Guano Revolution

An agricultural revolution was taking place in the 18th Century, and Northumberland was at the very heart of it.

Alnmouth was the centre of the boom in guano, a ‘fertiliser’ used to enrich farming land. Demand was so huge that the amount needed couldn’t be met locally and had to be imported from as far away as South America.

Guano was imported in bulk from Peru. They had mountains of this smelly stuff which is a by-product of bird droppings which accumulate on the cliffs off the Chincha Islands.

In 1870 around 16 boats arrived into Alnmouth with supplies of guano brought in from Peru.

When the guano ships came into the port on an easterly wind, everybody knew they’d arrived because the stench was overwhelming. Local people in the village jokingly referred to the smell as “the perfumes of Arabia”.

It’s no surprise that the 18th Century guano hut was built quite a distance from the village because of the smell!

Alnmouth guano hut

What to See: Take a short walk to the old guano shed south of the village. It’s located in a field on the west of Church Hill. There is a public footpath which runs close to the shed where you can get a good view although the hut is on private land.

Drive/walk along the A1068 south of Alnmouth village. Look for the turning to High Buston and you’ll see a small parking area (opposite a stone bus shelter). Cross the road and look for the track leading down to the dunes. Turn right and join the footpath. Walk for 300 metres heading towards the dunes. From the path you’ll see a ruined building ahead of you in a field to the west of Church Hill. Turn right towards the hut and walk for another 200 metres.

Alnmouth History: Fact File

Alnmouth salt marsh

A raid by the Scots destroyed much of Alnmouth in 1336. The village became almost derelict and “populated with vagrants”.

The Black Death in 1348 wiped out 1/3 of Alnmouth’s population.
The disease was probably brought in by trading ships.

Alnmouth’s fortunes improved in the 1340s when the Percy family developed Alnwick as their principal seat. Alnmouth became annexed to Alnwick Castle.

Smuggling was commonplace. Local fishermen were often involved in the illicit trade. Fisherwomen were known to conceal the contraband including bottles of liquour under their skirts.

The River Aln was once used for the cultivation of oysters and remains of old oyster beds have been found.

“Boom Town

The Norman period saw Alnmouth become a prosperous village and ushered in a new era. It was the age of property development. Burgage plots – narrow strips of land – were laid out, radiating from the village’s main streets.

A burgage plot would have had a dwelling house, probably with a thatched roof, and land used for keeping hens, a pig, vegetables, and a midden (if you were lucky!).

The burgage owners also had the right to keep a cow or two on the village’s common not far from today’s golf course.

What to See: Evidence of the burgages can still be seen today, especially off Northumberland Street. Look out for long, narrow plots which extend back on both sides of this main street. Many are thought to follow the lines of Norman plots dating from the 12th Century.

There’s further evidence of burgages on Grosvenor Terrace, Prospect Place, Chapel Lane, Garden Terrace and Crow’s Nest Lane. Download an old map – heritage maps – and try to pinpoint their old boundaries.

The Shipping News – Alnmouth

I was surprised to learn that Alnmouth was a small shipbuilding centre in the 18th Century. It didn’t have a proper harbour and lacked the infrastructure needed to become a larger shipbuilding town.

This was before the Industrial Revolution when shipbuilding on the rivers Tyne and Wear started to develop. Today it’s hard to believe that ships would have been built here.

Ship's instruments on RRS Discovery

Alnmouth’s prospered as a small shipbuilding centre in the 18th Century.

Related shipping industries developed including a ropery and chandlers.

In 1765 a ship of nearly 300 tons was built in Alnmouth. It is believed to be the first ever large ship built in the village.

Alnmouth was classed as a creek so it never gained its own Customs House.

Shipbuilding declined with the silting up of the village’s estuary.

A “Wicked” Town

In 1748 the preacher John Wesley rode into Alnmouth on his mission to convert the town’s people to Methodism.

He was shocked at the lechery and bad behaviour in the village, describing Alnmouth as “a small seaport town, famous for all kinds of wickedness”.

Wesley proclaimed that the only redemption for them was to “plead guilty before God” which many of them did.

Photo credit – John Wesley portrait c/o Methodist Heritage.

What evidence did Wesley have that the townspeople were a debauched lot? It’s hard to know but the church registers show that there were a lot of illegitimate children in the village and its environs.

There were many stories about villagers being a thieving bunch against whom “all things must be secured lest they be stolen”. And then, of course, there were the gangs of smugglers… and the illicit trade in contraband.

Haunted Alnmouth

The Schooner Hotel on Northumberland Street was built in the 1600s as a coaching inn and is said to be one of the most haunted pubs in Britain with over 3,000 supernatural encounters.

In the 18th Century the hotel became a hang-out for gangs of smugglers who built subterranean tunnels which led from its basement to the port.

It’s thought that Room 18 is the most haunted room in the hotel. It was here that an entire family was killed by a gang of smugglers as they slept. A screaming woman, unexplained knocking and banging on the walls are common occurrences.

Rooms 16 and 17 should also be avoided unless you’re into psychic investigation. Guests have reported an apparition standing at the ends of their beds. Others have described “an overwhelming sense of dread”. It’s not my cup of tea.

Famous visitors include King George III, Charles Dickens and the actor Basil Rathbone although it’s unclear whether they saw any apparitions.

Don’t Miss: The Schooner Hotel is a must for amateur ghost hunters. But be warned… my friend fled the room on a recent ghost ‘party’ night and refused to return to her bed. When I stayed overnight, I was freaked out more by the scruffy, outdated room and the terrible breakfast!

Alnmouth’s War Stories

Alnmouth’s coastal location has made it an attractive target for invading forces down the centuries, from the Vikings to the Nazis.

During the Napoleonic period, the Duke of Northumberland battery had a battery built as an early warning system. There were fears of an invasion by the French during the reign of Napoleon III, but an attack never happened.

I was surprised to discover that Alnmouth found itself caught up in the American War of Independence. In 1779 the privateer, John Paul Jones, attacked the port when his ship, the Bonhomme Richard, fired a cannonball at the church.

It missed the church, but bounced three times before smashing into a farmhouse roof. A narrow escape for the village.

During the Second World War, Alnmouth once again came under attack. In November, 1941 it was on the frontline of aerial raids when two German bombs were dropped, killing seven people and injuring 20 others.

Don’t Miss: Hike up the hill to the north of the village not far from the beach car park. You’ll discover Percy Artillery Battery which has great panoramic views across Alnmouth (photo top right).

There are remnants of coastal defences – especially from World War Two – dotted around the village. Look out for pill boxes on Church Hill and the concrete blocks designed to deter troop landings on the beaches (above photo – bottom right).

Life’s A Beach

Walking along the seafront, it’s easy to see why Alnmouth developed into a popular tourist resort in Victorian and Edwardian times. Who could resist its superb setting, the sea air and its golden sands?

When the port declined, the railways brought travellers to Alnmouth from far and wide to take in the sea air and views.

By 1897, there was a holiday camp and a garden tea room. Twenty seven beach huts were erected – the foundations of two of them can still be seen in the dunes if you look carefully.

High class villas were built on the sea front to cater for wealthier tourists – and many can be seen today.

Today Alnmouth is a big hit with day trippers and anyone who wants to get away from busy, commercialised seaside resorts. It’s here that you can escape the frenzied city life for a calmer existence.

There are few picturesque resorts where you can be the only person on the beach on a quiet weekday afternoon.

I’m attracted by the dramatic wide views over the estuary, the extensive sands which seem to go on as far as the eye can see, and the big skies. It has a shimmering beauty and luminous light especially on a clear, sunny day.

Tourism is a major industry for the village – and Alnmouth has been dubbed “the Tobermory of Northumberland”.
This nickname derives from the colourful group of houses on Lovaine Terrace overlooking the Aln estuary.

Personally, I’d prefer to describe Alnmouth as “The Jewel of the Northumberland Coast” – a seaside paradise with a rich history and beautiful beaches.

Don’t Miss: My favourite beach walk is from the south side of the village over the dunes to the expansive beach close to Church Hill. There are also interesting walks along the northern beach, a dog walkers’ paradise, and around the estuary with its attractive yachts and boats. Look out for changing tide times if you’re exploring the estuary.

Get Into the Swing

Anyone for golf? If you want to get into the swing of things, you’ve come to the right place. If you prefer to watch golf, there are great views of the golfers from the Old Club House and Marine Road.

Alnmouth Golf Course was designed and created by Mungo Park who was to become a famous golf professional and the club’s first professional.Its nine hole links course dominates the north eastern coastal strip of the village.

Alnmouth’s golf course was established in 1869 and claims to be the 4th oldest golf club in England.

In the late 1920’s a further piece of land was acquired to make a new 18 hole course and the design was developed by Harry Colt, the famous golf architect.

The plans included using a portion of Foxton Hall, one of the historic residences of the Percy family known as a ‘Dormy House’. The new course was opened in 1931. Further improvements have been made down the years.

Don’t Miss: Book a round of golf at the Alnmouth Village Golf Club or simply watch the golfing action from afar.
The early ‘Dormy House’ can still be seen today.

The Ferryman’s Hut – Smallest Museum

A small ferry once crossed the River Aln but no longer exists. The last ferryman was John Brown who stopped working in the 1960s. His rowing boat could take six adults.

Prices were based on tidal conditions. At high tide, when the estuary was at its widest, the charge was three pence. When the tide went out the fee dropped by a penny!

The hut used to provide shelter to the ferry-man but today it houses a small display of historic memorabilia and old photos of Alnmouth.

What to See: The Ferryman’s Hut is thought to be the smallest museum in England and is definitely a novelty.
It’s worth a peek inside although it’s only the size of a small garden shed. Free entry. Open most days. Parking nearby.

Food and Drink

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Alnmouth’s inns thrived as travellers and seamen visited the village.

This was a period of excessive gin and beer drinking. Many inns opened to replenish travellers and workers including The Schooner, The Seven Stars, the Northumberland Arms, The Ship, The Hope and Anchor and the Star of Bethlehem.

Beer and gin drinking may have been considered safer than drinking the local water supply which was drawn from wells and springs. Today, many of the original pubs and coaching inns remain so why not pop in for a pint?

Alnmouth was once the food capital of Northumberland so what better place to try the local produce at one of its cafes or restaurants?

What to See: There are lots of pubs to choose from in Alnmouth – many are on Northumberland Street, the main trawl.
My favourite is the characterful Sun Inn where you can sit outside in summer – or winter, if you wear a woolly jumper.

There’s a decent selection of small restaurants and cafes including The Whittling House, Bistro 23 and the Village Tearoom.

Don’t miss a trip to Scott’s, a fabulous local deli and bakery on Northumberland Street which does a great selection of takeaway pies. The steak and ale pie is right up there with the best!

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