The ultimate second-hand bookstore? Quite likely!


I once had the opportunity of attending a family wedding on the outskirts of Berwick-on-Tweed, Northumberland, and a small number of my relatives and I decided to take a short trip to the nearby town of Alnwick. The Border country is fascinating, full of historical sites; Alnwick itself is a pretty town with a grand open-air market and an operator of  splendid vintage buses, Dreadnought Coaches, which, as well as being available for private hire provide a site-seeing service around the town.

I had been told by my cousin, Peter, of the existence of a rather special second-hand bookstore on the edge of town, which was housed in an historic railway station. Being totally incapable of passing  a good bookstore, I soon found myself driving up to what looked like a classic piece of Victorian railway architecture, as indeed, it turned out to be.

If you were amongst the higher ranks of the nobility in Victorian Britain, you would often use your position to arrange with the local railway company to move their lines to suit your own needs. The Duke of Devonshire arranged for the Midland Railway to build a railway station near Hassop in the Peak District of Derbyshire. It was inconvenient for the local population, being two miles away from the village, but quite convenient for the Duke, indeed, at one period the station was renamed ‘Hassop for Chatsworth’!

The Duke of Northumberland was not averse to arranging rail transport for himself, so the North Eastern Railway was persuaded to run a branch line from Alnmouth on the East Coast Main Line to Alnwick, the town which contained Alnwick Castle, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Northumberland. Although the branch had opened in 1850, it wasn’t until 1887 that the magnificent Victorian edifice we see today was built, replacing the original more modest building. The design was by the NER architect William Bell, and constructed in local sandstone; note the period touches such as the slate roof, and the station clock. Also noteworthy are the extremely durable granite ‘setts’ laid to form the cobblestone approach road; this would have been before the advent of the now-ubiquitous tarmacadam road surface. The branch line lingered on past the formation of British Railways in 1948, and finally closed on the 30th January, 1968.

The station platform has been demolished, but the building itself survived, mostly being used as a home to some light industry. The real change came with the establishment of a secondhand bookstore in a portion of the station in 1991. Barter Books is an inspired concept; it is unusually well-designed, and the loving restoration of the interior Victorian details (including the fireplaces) are much to be admired. It has been described by no-less a publication than the New Statesman, as ‘The British Library of secondhand bookshops’. I  know that when we visited, my cousin managed to find some interesting railway titles and I had to restrict my own purchases because of carrying books back across the Atlantic in my already over-weight luggage. Never fear, I can now make any future purchases online.  I cannot recommend Barter Books too highly.  Oh, and the name of the store reflects the fact that you can still exchange your own books for ‘credit’ to spend on purchases in the store. Thank you, Mary!

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