Alnwick Castle

In northeast England, there’s an interesting new garden. New that is, compared to most UK gardens on the tourist route there. Gardens dating back to Victorian times are the norm, others centuries older. This one, however, only opened its gate to visitors ten years ago, which made me almost first in line, relatively speaking, when I stopped by this fall to check it out.

The garden is located in the picturesque market town of Alnwick (pronounced Anick) in Northumberland. Alnwick is a busy little place, described as one of the best places to live in Britain. Just a half hour drive from the Scottish border, it’s been around for about fourteen hundred years.

The town is dominated by Alnwick castle, home since the eleventh century to a long line of powerful northern barons. Situated on the Great North Road that leads from London to Edinburgh, it was built as a first line of defence against the Scots. 

Today, the castle is home to the current Duchess of Northumberland, a serious gardener who, instead of deterring visitors, decided the castle needed a little something extra to attract even more. And so was created Alnwick gardens, designed by Jacques and Peter Wirtz, from Belgium. Up against stiff competition from other, much frequented, British gardens, Alnwick needed to be unique, and I’d say they achieved it. At most popular attractions these days, it’s a case of exit via gift shop, but at Alnwick I entered that way — kind of.

The access to the garden is through a visitor center that was designed with people in mind. Resembling a huge conservatory, it offers all the usual facilities and is large enough to accommodate a good number should fine weather not coincide with a day’s visit. In fact, the restaurant and the terrace outside offer the first view of the gardens, an impressive vista of The Grand Cascade, a massive stone water feature that flows toward the viewer down a gentle sloped bank beyond acres of lawn.

Reminiscent of the fountains of Versailles, and the largest of its kind, it is state of the art, with computers controlling a flow of thirty thousand litres of water a minute. It can be viewed from afar or close-up from windows cut into the walls of the tunnel-like hornbeam pergolas that flank the sides and echo the curves of the stone work. Above are more fountains, pools, rills, and a place to view the cascade where it begins its flow.

The Grand Cascade makes Alnwick garden unique, but there’s more. It is a working garden, too. On a small plateau at the head of the property is a walled garden growing every imaginable fruit and veg possible. It was here I discovered Strulch, finely textured mulch manufactured from wheat straw that the gardener I spoke to was happy to rave about, particularly as it appeared to provide an effective defence against slugs and snails.

From the walled garden, I spent a while lost in the requisite maze, but not just any old maze of cedar or yew hedges, but one of tightly grown bamboo. I did make my way out eventually, but the manner in which the bamboo swirled around the circuitous pathways, letting in just enough light from above, was mildly confusing; in the dark it could be panic inducing. I’m thinking that the Duchess of Northumberland would have been a formidable foe in times of battle. No surprise, then, that she also has a famous poison garden, too. 

It’s located behind sturdy wrought iron gates emblazoned with skull and crossbones and a sign that says These Plants Can Kill. I joined the tour led by an enthusiastic guide with a gift for relating gruesome tales of the uses to which the plants have been put — appropriately close enough to Halloween.

I concluded my visit whilst it was still daylight — too many ghosts of countless battles fought here, but a lovely garden to visit.

First published November 2011 Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury 

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