A healthy mix of retailers
From tiny rural shops and galleries to big farmer’s marts and large shopping centres, Northumberland really does have it all. While many parts of the country have fallen victim to out of town shopping centres, in Northumberland you will find a healthy mix of independent stores and bigger retailers sitting side by side.
It means that those larger towns like Morpeth, Berwick, Corbridge and Hexham boast an unrivalled selection of retailers, from high street giants like Marks & Spencer and Laura Ashley to owner-run shops, salons and boutiques. Most of these places began life as market towns, where famers from the surrounding area would gather to sell their wares. And this tradition is very much alive and well, as farmers markets are now a huge business and the popularity of locally-sourced food means shoppers can now buy everything from locally-reared meat and game to dairy products and all manner of kitchen staples. An example can be found at Hexham, where a twice-monthly farmers market and weekly markets sit happily in a town centre packed with exciting, quirky shops and galleries.
In the summer months, many of the nearby farmers open up their fields to families wanting to soak up the sunshine while picking all manner of berries. Brocksbushes, on the A69 near Corbridge, is one of the most popular and also has a year-round café and shop, so local produce is always at hand. If you’re shopping list runs to the original, the quirky and the downright different then Corbridge itself could be the answer to your prayers.
This picturesque town offers a fabulous range of one-off shops, from delis packed to the rafters with local produce to stores like Vintage at the Tower, which specialises in restoring items from Victorian times to the 1960s to their former glory. Corbridge is also home to an incredible Aladdin’s cave of home accessories called RE. Home to an eclectic mix of cool and colourful accessories for the home, it attracts everyone from actors to artists passing through the county looking for that special something.
Like all Northumberland’s towns, Hexham offers a combination of big names, high street chains and smaller independents and is a particularly popular option for antique hunters – although the standard is exceedingly high so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to unearth a rare Chinese vase, for example, at a bargain price. The town is home to national chains such as department store Beales and other high street favourites, but its streets are also packed with smaller, unique shops like Northumbrian Candleworks.
As farmers markets are now a huge business and the popularity of locally-sourced food means shoppers can now buy everything from locally-reared meat and game to dairy products and all manner of kitchen staples
A treasure trove for shoppers
Another treasure trove for shoppers is Morpeth, which is a perfect example of the way in which an ancient town can fulfil all the needs of the 21st-century visitor, without losing any of its charm and appeal. With a small and compact centre and plentiful car parking, Morpeth is a joy to visit and the jewel in its crown is surely its very own, family-run department store; Rutherford & Co. This charming shop, which has been trading since 1846, started off as a draper’s and has evolved through five generations of the Rutherford family. And, although it lies at the heart of this historic market town, there is nothing old fashioned about its stock. Contemporary all the way, it’s home to exclusive women and men’s fashions, luxurious home furnishings, cookware, shoes, cosmetics and handbags. You’ll find Rutherford and Co at Bridge Street – which is Morpeth’s high street – across the road from the Sanderson Arcade. Among its 27 shops is the Morpeth Larder, a delicatessen and café, which focuses mainly on local products and producers, along with a range of fine food.
To the west of Morpeth sits Kirkharle, birthplace of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and now a collection of boutique shops, arts and crafts workshops set in a converted 18th-century farm courtyard. Here, you’ll find an eclectic mix of bespoke and restored furniture, antiques, local artwork, gifts and decorative accessories and, as many of the shops double as workshops, you can also get to see glass being blown and jewellery being soldered.
Further east, next to the giant land work Northumberlandia, at Blagdon, is another shopping centre, similar to that at Kirkharle. The Milkhope Centre is also an assortment of converted farm buildings and, along with a very popular café, there is a gallery selling an assortment of paintings, sketches and sculptures, a home goods shop selling gorgeous decorative accessories and perhaps the best farm shop in the region. Stop off here and pick up one or two of the shop’s famed lamb and apricot pinwheels – but be warned, they sell out quickly so it’s often worth giving a call in advance to check they have some before making the journey.
While Alnwick is perhaps better known today for its Harry Potter connection, it is also an interesting town in which to spend a few hours indulging in some retail therapy. It is split into three main streets – Bondgate Within, Market Street and Fenkle Street – which form a triangular circuit around the Market Place. Bondgate Within was voted Britain’s best street for shopping in the 2011 Google Street View Awards, beating off stiff competition from all over the country. This was undoubtedly down to its selection of shops, from mainstream shopping chains to independent crafts and gifts, butchers, bakers and delis – all set at the heart of this charming market town, overlooked by the Duke of Northumberland’s home, Alnwick Castle.
With a small and compact centre and plentiful car parking, Morpeth is a joy to visit and the jewel in its crown is surely its very own, family-run department store; Rutherford & Co
Only the best brands
One of the pleasures of shopping in Alnwick is the sheer diversity and number of independent shops you will find, many of which have been trading for decades and provide a fascinating glimpse into life here. Take Jobsons of Alnwick, which not only stocks the best brands in country clothing for riding, walking and fishing and all manner of equestrian accessories, but is also famous for its saddlery, with a saddler boasting more than 35 years’ experience. Meanwhile, the nearby Scotts of Alnwick is recognised as one of the leading outlets of ladies golf in the region, specialising in clothing, golf equipment and accessories. For the discerning gentleman, Bell and Sons is a must if you’re seeking the finest in menswear, while art lovers will enjoy a trip to The Gate Gallery, on the opposite side of the road.
Shoppers of a certain age will no doubt remember when every high street in every town had a wool shop. As handicrafts like knitting and embroidery fell out of favour, many of these closed, but some, like the Alnwick Wool Shop, rode out the storm and are now positively booming as knitting enjoys a resurgence of interest.
From Alnwick it’s an about an hour’s drive to Berwick upon Tweed, which, due to its close proximity to the Scottish border has changed hands numerous times over the centuries. It has been part of England since 1482, and its turbulent history is ever present, not least in its shops, many of which have a vintage theme. Alisha’s Attic, and the Bridge Street Bazaar are just a couple of independently owned gems to be found in Berwick, while those looking for more contemporary goodies will find them at the retail park in Tweedmouth, on the south of the river. As is generally the case in Northumberland some of the most interesting discoveries are to be made by heading off the beaten track – and this certainly applies to shopping. One of the pleasures of travelling – be it for business or pleasure – is taking home a memento of your trip and, for a genuine Northumbrian souvenir, head for Otterburn Mill, on the edge of the Northumberland National Park.
Encompassing a retail outlet, country coffee shop, restaurant, and visitor information Centre, Otterburn Mill’s heritage as a textile mill is still evident. Have you heard the expression, to be on tenter hooks? Well, this saying has its origins in the textile trade and Otterburn Mill boasts the last set of Tenter frames in Europe. After cloth had been woven it needed to be washed and dried and the drying process was carried out on Tenter frames. Cloth would be hooked onto the top and bottom bars of Tenter hooks and the bottom bar would be released to stretch the cloth. So, if you buy nothing else while you’re here, you should buy an Otterburn rug – and if you do, you’ll be in good company. While on a visit to Alnwick Castle, Queen Alexandra (our present Queen’s grandmother) was presented with a hand spun travelling rug from Otterburn Mill. The gift marked the beginning of a royal love affair with Otterburn tweeds, woollens, and rugs.
One of the pleasures of shopping in Alnwick is the sheer diversity and number of independent shops you will find, many of which have been trading for decades and provide a fascinating glimpse into life here
In 1926, following the birth of Princess Elizabeth (our current monarch), royal patronage for Otterburn Mill was extended as Buckingham Palace requested a custom-made baby rug for the royal pram. Over the years the rugs have remained largely unchanged and the classical design is highly sought after around the world.
Throughout the county you will also find independent shops and visitor centres selling plaid shawls, scarves and rugs in the distinctive black and white check of Northumberland and these make stylish and practical mementoes of your stay.
Northumberland tartan is held by many to be one of the oldest check patterns, predating the more colourful Highland tartans which followed it. Textile historians have been able to date a fragment of the pattern, discovered in a bottle near Falkirk, to the third century AD, so it may have been a familiar sight to the Romans stationed at Hadrian’s Wall. Variously known as the Border or Shepherd Plaid – because it was traditionally worn by shepherds tending their flocks in the Border area – it is also closely linked to the Percy family, forming the official dress of the Duke of Northumberland’s piper.
Another good hunting ground for shoppers – particularly in Northumberland, which is so rich in attractions and sights – are National Trust gift shops, as great trouble has been taken to ensure the stock in each reflects the unique character of the area. After all, with so much here that is special, interesting and memorable, which shopper would not want to take home a reminder of their visit?
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