Mister North and I have been talking about taking a weekend trip along the Northumbrian coast for several years now, but with an uncharacteristic flurry of organisation from both of us, we managed to arrange this long awaited adventure for the weekend of Halloween. After some deliberation we decided to stay in the picturesque market town of Alnwick and use it as a base to explore the wilds and wonders of this historic coast. We also hoped we get the chance to sample some local food and drink as we went…
We were not disappointed. Firstly Alnwick was even more beautiful than we had hoped and secondly it was full of busy bistros, packed pubs and inviting restaurants. It was hard to know where to begin on a Saturday night, but our love of a great steak gave us a clue. I had read about a steakhouse called Louis which is part run and fully supplied by the local butcher. This sounded promising and we asked the lady who ran our B&B about it. She handed us a flyer advertising their early bird menu and told us to call and book a table as Saturday nights were often so busy it was hard to get in. Luckily we managed to score a table for 6.15pm and we went off to explore the town and find a decent pint.
First stop was the oldest pub in Alnwick, The Queen’s Head Hotel on the main street. Mainly filled with people watching the match, it didn’t have great atmosphere or indeed great beer and we were unimpressed in general, especially as the refurb job hid all evidence of the pub’s impressive history. We only stayed for one before sauntering up and down the street to check out the town.
Anticipation of that night’s dinner increased when we came across the local butcher, Turnbulls, who are members of the prestigious Q Guild butchers and obviously a local institution. Deciding we couldn’t wait any longer, we headed across the road to Louis five minutes early and got ourselves seated as soon as possible in front of an excellent sounding menu with a bottle of Sam Smith’s Pale Ale in hand.
Mister North couldn’t resist the scallops with black pudding to start and just had to sample the T-Bone steak on offer as a main course since you don’t see this cut that often anymore. I was keen to try the potted beef, but it had sold out and I plucked up the courage to try the Craster Kipper pate instead. I’m not a huge fan of smoked fish so this was a bit of risk for me. I played it safe with the main and went for a rib-eye steak. We both opted for the home made chips to accompany the mains, deciding that since we were on our holidays we should live dangerously!
Our starters arrived in good time and were excellent. Mister North seemed to enjoy his scallops and was full of praise for the black pudding, using the excellent home made bread to make sure he didn’t leave a drop of the sauce behind. My pate was outstanding. Soft and creamy, it wasn’t overly fishy but the kipper had a rich taste that was enhanced beautifully by the heartstopping amounts of butter in the pate. Apart from an unpleasant moment where I accidentally sampled the horseradish cream on my plate, I enjoyed the pate so much I could have been tempted to cancel the steak and have another plateful.
But I’m glad I didn’t because the steak was superb. Beautifully seared and chargrilled, mine was as requested, perfectly blue, and full of flavour. The fat was beautifully marbled so there was no unexpected big lump of it at any end of the steak and it was extremely tender, barely needing the steak knife at all. Mister North’s T-Bone was a sight to behold: a plump juicy rare masterpiece that he devoured with gusto. There wasn’t much chat while we savoured our superb steaks and reveled in the joys of the golden chips that came with them.
Fantastically replete, we couldn’t face a dessert no matter how much we wanted to try the local ice cream and instead settled our very reasonable bill. My early bird menu of tow courses was £13.95 plus a £2 rib eye supplement and the whole thing came in at under £60 with several bottles of good ale. Appetites whetted by the Sam Smith’s we went in search of some good, preferably local, beer…which we found without much difficulty at The Fleece Inn on Bondgate Without.
Not only was this great local pub conveniently situated right beside our B&B, it also served great pints of Wylam Angel. This beer was commissioned from this Northumbrian brewery to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Angel of the North and it was a treat and a half. Deep amber, slightly spicy and with a hint of citrus, we sank several pints of this with ease while chatting to the locals. We finished the evening just up the road in The Tanners’ Arms in the midst of a Halloween ceildh and put away a few pints of another local beer brewed seasonally and called Dracula’s Soup and admiring the top class costumes Alnwick had to offer, even if we didn’t get a chance to try the legendary Alnwick Rum!
Feeling surprisingly fresh the next day, we headed up the coast from Alnmouth toward Holy Island, amazed by how stunning the coastline was at each step of the way. Keen to see things in person rather than from a car window, we pulled in at Craster and took the walk to Dunstanburgh Castle. While it was was glorious to be out in the fresh air and see the sights, it was also a fantastic way for Mister North to work up an appetite for a Craster Kipper Bun back at the car park by the Tourist Information Office. Cooked in butter, these super local kippers are then pressed into a buttered roll and according to the queue, savoured by a multitude of people. It wasn’t bad, but just too smoked for my tastes. I need my kippers in a block of butter apparently, so kept my appetite for a Craster crab sandwich at The Castle Inn in Bamburgh further up the coast. This sweet fresh crustacean sarnie set me right up for a long walk on the beach as the sun went down behind the imposing castle…
Fish was still on the menu for us the next day as we were aiming to drive down the coast in order to get to Whitby in time for a late lunch. I don’t know about you, but when I think of Whitby, the first black clad thing that comes to mind isn’t Dracula, but a magpie. More precisely the magpie that adorns the plates at the the world famous The Magpie Cafe on the harbourfront. Reknowned as one of the best places to eat fish and chips in Yorkshire (if not the country) we made a beeline there after a brisk walk round the Abbey to make sure our appetites were fully up to the challenge!
Luckily since it was the first day of low season and well after the lunchtime rush, we didn’t have to queue at all. We were seated in a trice with the most extensive menu I have ever seen in front of us before we could even blink. Astounded by the selection of fresh fish and seafood dishes listed, we felt very boring going for the fish and chips. Until we saw the variety of fish available! Aside from the old favourites of cod and haddock, we could have chosen from John Dory, sea bass, plaice, whiting, lemon sole or skate, but I went for the delightfully named woof and Mister North chose monk. A pot of Yorkshire tea and some mushy peas on the side and we were good to go!
The menu does warn that these are Yorkshire portions, but I still wasn’t prepared for the size of my piece of woof. A long muscular fish, this piece had been folded round itself to fit the plate but was at least 12 or 14 inches long. Had it not looked so enticing in its golden batter coating, you could have used it as a draught excluder…
We beat the early autumnal chill by tucking into our heaped plates with gusto. Mister North’s monkfish was fried with the skin on and came in several pieces of tail rather than a fillet. It was amazingly succulent with the tender fish and crisp batter complementing each perfectly. My woof was lighter in flavour, almost as flaky as cod and absolutely sensational. The chips were proper chippie chips, fried twice and the right shade of golden brown that deserves its own Pantone reference.
The mushy peas were a knock out and might well be the very best I’ve ever eaten. Super smooth, very creamy and with a delicious savoury undertone, they were so far from the insipid sludge of tinned Marrowfat peas that were our only exposure to mushy peas when we were kids in Belfast that I gave silent thanks for having moved to England and tried to swipe the last of them without Mister North noticing. Luckily he was too busy clearing his plate of monkfish to stop me and all I needed to do was threaten him with dessert to keep him quiet.
This epic meal with super-fresh local fish, outstanding mushy peas and the biggest pot of loose leaf tea you could drink was around £32 for both of us. For the quality, location and chance to fulfill a long held ambition, I thought this was excellent value. We were both too full afterwards to eat anything before bedtime!
It was an excellent way to finish a delightful weekend. The coastline was incredibly beautiful in the autumnal light and fortified with such good local food and drink, we enjoyed every minute of exploring it. If you’re looking for a weekend break close to home that will leave you well fed and well rested, then I heartily recommend the East Coast!