A US student in awe of Alnwick's architecture, the buildings and the secrets within

Grace E Boisvert is one of the students on the latest study group from St Cloud State University (SCSU), Minnesota, in America. Each new school semester brings a group of students eager to live and learn at Alnwick Castle. Grace is majoring in International Relations. In her free time, she likes to read, bike and watch movies. Here are Grace's first impressions of life across the Pond in an article she wrote for the St Cloud State University Chronicle back home.

Sunday, 28th February 2016, 5:00 am
Grace E Boisvert, a student at St Cloud State University.

We open our story with 10 students, setting off on a semester of a lifetime. To Alnwick, England and beyond. The Alnwick study experience is one of the first year experience programs, and I for one am quite thankful for that, due to the fact that I myself am a freshman.

A few background details about myself and this trip. The main reason I enrolled at SCSU was because of this particular program. Just this year, it opened up to first-year students.

A group of students from St Cloud State University, including Grace, top right.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The students participating get to live in a castle. The Hogwarts castle. And as soon as I was accepted at SCSU I applied for this program. To protect the privacy of those I am travelling with, no names will be mentioned by myself.

Living in a castle is nothing short of superb. In the front of the castle, there is a huge door called the ‘Barbican Gate’ that we go through to get onto the castle grounds. A small door in the gate opens up for us, and on some lucky occasions the guards will open the entire gate.

It is comically large and like a castle gate from a fairytale. The guards looking after the gate are these old Alnwick men, the majority of whom have thick Geordie accents that make understanding what they say quite a challenge at times.

When we all first arrived it was dark. My hands were shaking so much out of excitement that all the pictures I tried to take of the castle came out blurry! Since there were only 10 of us students, we got to choose who to room with and where in the rooms we were allotted in the castle. Now, think of a majestic name for a wing of a castle – and if you weren’t thinking ‘The Lion Wing’ then you were not thinking majestic enough. For that is where we were all put.

The Barbican at Alnwick Castle. Picture by Grace Boisvert

My roommate and I were lucky enough to be put in the tower of the Lion Wing. Well, for me it was luck. By staying in this room an extra flight of stairs were added to our already extensive trek to and from classes. Hopefully, by the end of this semester, I will be in even better shape because of all the stairs and walking needed to get around.

Only a week after we arrived in Alnwick, the teachers rounded us up and we went on a day trip down to Newcastle upon Tyne. It is one of the only major cities near Alnwick.

We went to the Baltic art gallery and the Sage center of music. At the Baltic there was an entire exhibit of miniature dollhouses with Bill Murray’s face everywhere on them. And when I went to the Sage music center, which looks like a giant slug next to the river Tyne, and I got to see an orchestra rehearsal. Before I read the sign that said ‘No pictures of rehearsals’, I already had a good twenty pictures.

Our trip to Newcastle was so packed with museums and such that the group of students decided to go up again the next day, and try and take on the city at a more relaxed pace. So on the bus, to get to the train, to get to the city we went – it was a complete disaster. After getting lost (I knew where I was, they just wouldn’t listen to me…humph), we finally decided to get some food and find the train again.

York Minster. Picture by Grace Boisvert

Almost every Friday there is a field trip, but because of excessive windiness our trip to the Scottish city of Edinburgh was canceled. Now wind by itself is alright in my book. Our group had already planned to stay the weekend there, and everything was booked. We got up at 5 stupid AM, and went to wait outside for the teachers. Where we nearly got blown away like Piglet in Winnie the Pooh. After much mumbled debate about whether we should stay or go, our decision was made by a lorry (semi truck) that had the audacity to be blown over by the wind on the A1 (main highway).

Thankfully, our next trip to the grand city of York, went off without a hitch. Everyone was excited for the trip, and I could barely sit still. Until I got on the bus. Then I was out for two hours until we got there. From everywhere in the city the York Minster could be seen. For those who do not know, a Minster is a type of Medieval cathedral. The one in York is particularly famous due to the fact that it has over half of England’s original stained glass windows.

The Minster stood tall and the spires reached towards the sky. My breath was taken away by the beauty of the city. When we walked through a park with old stone coffins on display among the flowers, you could see the Minster. While we toured the old Shambles street where meat used to be sold, the Minster still towered above in the sky. As street performers crowed out their melodies for a few pence, the York Minster stood vigil. As we walked on the old city walls that still stood, the Minster could be seen, waiting. One of the best times in York was when we had a few hours’ break, during which I spent that time trying to find all the bookstores I possibly could (I found 7). And by a stroke of luck I found the world’s best store, the hipster store. Now that’s not its actual name, it was just a very stereotypical hipster store. In fact it was actually selling an old typewriter and clip on bow ties.

Now if you were wondering if we actually went into the York Minster that I have been raving about this entire time, be joyful with the answer, “well DUH!” And forever will I be in awe of that building. The Great West Window of the Minster is called the ‘Heart of York’. Maybe because it can be seen from all of York, maybe because when it was made in Medieval times that window would have been the pride and joy of the town. Or maybe, just maybe, because it is in the shape of a giant heart. There is a room of just stained glass windows.

A group of students from St Cloud State University, including Grace, top right.

And each window tells a different story. Some of them tell stories from the bible, and some tell stories of the patrons who sponsored the windows.

After York, everyone has been rushing to get ready for the upcoming week long trip. Some groups are going to France and Rome, while others are going to Spain. I am heading out for a week in Ireland. Unfortunately, no one else wanted to go to Ireland this time and are fleeing to warmer climates.

The students who used to go on the Alnwick trip had to cook their own food and do their chores. Now all we have to do are a few chores. My job is in the student kitchen used for breakfasts and on weekends. I have found out that people are very incredibly messy. Clean up after yourselves!

When a tour of the castle was being given to us, the Duke of Northumberland walked by!

Yes, he is an actual Duke, he lives in the castle and owns most of Northumberland. And as he walked by, our group fell silent and he waved. How many of you can say a Duke has waved at you? I can.

Everywhere I go here is new, everything I do here is strange. But it is worth it. Even just for the accents! During my second week here I found a book left by the old students of Alnwick to us. Filled with advice and well wishes. And a mystery key. It was just sitting in the book, no sentence to say what it is for. Not one clue. My goal is to find what this key is for by the end of the semester. We’ll see where that leads.

The Barbican at Alnwick Castle. Picture by Grace Boisvert
York Minster. Picture by Grace Boisvert