Barter Books is one of the jewels in Alnwick’s crown.
Aside from the castle, it has become probably the town’s most famous building, more celebrated now than it was in its magnificent heyday, when it welcomed trains and passengers on two branch lines – from Alnmouth in the east and Coldstream in the north.
The entrance to the Victorian railway station, designed by William Bell in 1887, is unassuming, but, as they say, never judge a book by its cover.
Once inside, not only are you transported back to the romantic era of steam, you are also in a veritable wonderland of paperbacks and hardbacks.
Row after orderly row of bookshelves grace the considerable length of the huge station, built to impress royalty visiting the seat of the Duke of Northumberland.
A working model railway line above head height is a satirical reminder of the previous life of this beautifully-restored space.
There are so many echoes of a bygone industrial age that you could easily spend many a distracted hour looking at the structure around you and not at the volumes which justify its survival today. But plenty has been written about one of Britain’s biggest secondhand bookshops. Fewer words have been scribed about its food offering and the Station Buffet really does justify column inches of its own.
Set at the far end of the original outgoing platform, the buffet was hidden for many years behind a locked door. When it was discovered in 2008, a skylight provided the inspiration for co-owner Mary Manley to introduce an American-style diner.
It has expanded to swallow up further rooms, which more resemble a railway buffet car.
In fact, our eagle-eyed, astute companion declared it was just like being in a station as we took our seats at table 15 having ordered breakfasts at the counter.
The room paid homage to John Patterson, top hat station master of Alnwick from 1882 to 1902, and other local characters. A large painting of Mr Patterson dominated a room dimly lit by lights that comically imitated the station boss’s traditional headgear.
The cracking little menu was actually more extensive than I had imagined and just the ticket for connoisseurs of local food.
Alnwick butcher Turnbull’s featured heavily, with bacon, bangers and burgers all their own making.
Hot and cold sandwiches for no more than £5, baked potatoes, with a variety of fillings for £4.90, even beans on toast (£2.80) or smoked haddock fishcakes (£7.60) would all have been welcome if it hadn’t been breakfast time!
Mrs L opted for The Spike Milligan (fried eggs, chips, toast, marmalade and coffee, £7.60), I went for a Turnbull’s sausage sarnie (£3.80), while our friend plumped for the American-style two eggs (over easy), sausage, bacon, toast, marmalade and coffee (£8.60).
True to form, the meat offerings were delicious, splendidly cooked and just what the doctor ordered, if not the dietician!
Those chips would take some beating – thrice cooked and as tasty as you’ll get (£3.20 for a standardportion and £2.20 for small, if bought separately).
With the addition of the smooth Pumphreys coffee, we realised we had stopped at gastronomic destination.
The only missing ingredient was some light jazz music, which would have completed our journey in style.
Waiting in the sidings was a tempting selection of reasonably-priced homemade cakes (£2.20), scones (£1.80 or £3.60 for a cream tea), shortbread (£1.60), cup cakes (£2.40), Selkirk bannock (£2.60) and the like.
Mrs L and I decided to steam on to the sweet selection in the interests of a balanced food review, although our companion’s appetite had hit the buffers and he resorted to an orange juice.
My lemon cake duly landed with the lightest of thuds. The quite sizeable slice was moist, very tangy and not too sugary.
Barely a crumb survived on the plate opposite, which spoke volumes from a person who is not the greatest cake fan.
The rest of our visit was spent in casual, relaxing conversation, inspired by the surrounding works of many a literary genius. Our fare was quite reasonable and we have promised ourselves a season ticket for table 15 so we can wallow in this feast of localness more often.
CORNUCOPIA OF VEGGIE OPTIONS
Vegetarians will take great pleasure from a menu showered in little green ‘v’s. Whether it’s macaroni cheese (£4.60), Northumbrian rarebit (£3.80), sandwiches or baked potatoes, there’s a decent choice. Youngsters will also feel at home with the likes of beans on toast to keep their hunger at bay.
The service at the buffet was excellent, chirpy and friendly.
Barter Books is open every day apart from Christmas Day; buffet hours are 9am–5pm in the summer and 9am–4.30pm in the winter.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
The Spike Milligan......£7.60
Clive’s Express (porridge)......£5.60
Bacon buttie (Turnbull’s)......£3.80
Sausage sarnie (Turnbull’s)......£3.80
Cheese toastie (salad garnish)......£3.60
BLT (with crisps)......£4.60
Burgers & Hot Dogs
Soup du jour (roll + butter)......£3.80
Chilli con carne......£9.60
Olly’s Northumbrian rarebit......£3.80
Creamed mushrooms on toast......£4.80
Beef & vegetable stew......£6.60
STAR RATINGS (OUT OF 10)
Quality of food......9
Value for money......8
Use of local food......9
Access for disabled......8
Toilet for disabled......Yes
Verdict: Steam along to Barter Books, enjoy a relaxing snack or lunch and a good book to boot.
Contact: 01665 604888; website www.barterbooks.co.uk