Friday, 10 September 2010

Alnmouth’s Wind of Change (NU247100)

The wind in question being the storm of Christmas Day 1806 – the defining moment in the history of this Northumbrian village. If most of the history books are to be believed, that is. But was it?

Many of you will be familiar with the tale. Until the fateful day a little over two centuries ago, Alnmouth was doing very nicely, thank you. It had made a good living from its spot at the estuary of the River Aln: an ample harbour offering shelter to sizeable vessels from Scotland, London and continental Europe, and plentiful trade besides. Plenty of stuff came in, but it was the export of local agricultural produce (wool and grain, mainly) and coal which kept the locals busy. At one time there were sixteen granaries on and around the quayside and room enough for more than a dozen ships at a time in the harbour. And, of course, there were the fishing boats, too. During the 1700s, the port was at its peak.

Then on Christmas Day 1806 came the wind and the rain, an act of God powerful enough to change the course of the river from its southern course around the village’s dilapidated old church to a more northerly one, separating the ruin from its flock – and pretty much destroying what was left of it, to boot.

Afterwards, Alnmouth’s fortunes slowly declined. And the change in luck was blamed on the river. It seemed as if the ships couldn’t navigate the river’s new course quite as easily and trade fell away. That’s what tradition would have us believe, anyway. The fact is, the records show that shipping ‘trends’ didn’t really change at all pre- and post-1806. The river was beginning to silk up anyway, and as ships were simply getting bigger and heavier, the Aln’s days may have been numbered regardless of the weather. Shipping activity to and from the port did not begin to seriously decline until the mid-1800s, a development accelerated by the arrival of the East Coast rail line around the same time. In 1896 the final sea-bound imports arrived – and then, nothing.

The railway, thought to have signalled the end of Alnmouth’s heyday, launched, in fact, a new era in the village’s history. For the rich Victorians discovered the town, and turned it into a fashionable holiday resort. The old granaries were turned into accommodation, the main thoroughfare (Northumberland Street) was developed and Alnmouth found a new niche in the modern world.

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