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The Gardens of Alnwick Castle

Emma Hardy Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland, beneath a pregola at Alnwick Garden.

Photo: Emma Hardy

It's this no-nonsense attitude that has won Her Grace both friends and enemies. She never expected to become the Duchess of Northumberland. The rules of primogeniture meant that her husband's elder brother, Harry, was destined to inherit the family title. But in 1995, her brother-in-law, who had a history of depression, died after an overdose of amphetamines. Jane was at the hairdresser's when the news came through, and she found herself catapulted into the limelight as the 12th Duchess of Northumberland. "I had a lovely house and four children," she recalls. "And suddenly we had to move to the castle. The children didn't want to move here at first, either. But my husband had been brought up here, and he felt we had to be at the center of the estate." The garden was her reward.

FOUR years after its official opening by Prince Charles in 2002, and despite its being still unfinished, Alnwick is attracting some 500,000 visitors per year, making it the third-most-visited garden in Britain, after London's Kew Gardens and the Royal Horticulture Society's Garden at Wisley. The positive effects for the region, one of the most economically depressed in the country, have been notable. Hotels are full. Local shops are booming. Dozens of farmers, whose livelihoods were decimated by foot-and-mouth disease, have opened bed-and-breakfasts.

Alnwick Garden is still very much a work in progress. A giant tree house—6,000 square feet of Canadian cedar, Scandinavian redwood, and English and Scotch pine held aloft by 17 lime trees, with a restaurant inside—had just opened when I visited. And Jane is already busy fund-raising for the next stage. Plans include a Garden of the Senses, a Spiral Garden, and an orchard with 350 tai haku cherry trees.

One of the most talked-about features of the existing setup is the Poison Garden, which opened in February 2005. "Every garden has an apothecary garden," Jane says as we walk back down the hill from the Ornamental Garden, then through wrought-iron gates decorated with skulls and crossbones. She wanted something different. Some of the plants here are so dangerous that they have to be grown in cages: ricin, used by the Aum Shinrikyo cult on the Tokyo subway in 1995, and henbane, the poison dropped into the ears of Hamlet's father. "Strychnine is an interesting one," Jane says, leading me over to the gruesomely named Strychnos nux-vomica. "Children don't care how a plant cures," she says with a laugh. "They think that's boring. They want to know how it kills—and how agonizing the death is!"

Simon Worrall writes frequently for National Geographic.


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