The Alnwick Garden is a jewel in the crown of Northumberland’s visitor attractions. Created eighteen years ago by the Duchess of Northumberland, it was planned as an ambitious new public garden with a contemporary feel, complemented by structured planting and impressive water features.
We were there at the beginning of June, and while we had missed the spring blossom of the cherry orchard and were too soon for the rose gardens and the delphiniums, there were still lots of blooms to enjoy. A favourite of mine was the path winding up through the orchard peppered with a purple carpet of alliums, leading through and up to multiple wooden swings covering the top area of the slope. It is impossible to resist sitting on one and having a good old swing for a while.
Everywhere curtains of clematis, honeysuckle and wisteria drape themselves over walls and arches and frames looking very beautiful indeed. The Ornamental Garden has a wide variety of European plants just coming into their own, and another central water feature where it seemed to be acceptable to sit on the side stick your feet in – it was a very hot day.
Alnwick has the only poison garden in the UK and I found it absolutely fascinating. So many common plants we know about are actually pretty poisonous. Yew is our most poisonous tree but it is also the source of taxine alkaloids, chemicals which are used in chemotherapy. Laburnum with its stunning yellow waterfall flowers, is found in many a garden, but has pods of seeds which are extremely toxic to humans. Nettles are poisonous but not if you cook them – so nettle tea and nettle soup are OK.
Hemlock, which looks a bit like cow parsley, henbane (stinking nightshade) and belladonna (deadly nightshade) are all poisonous plants mentioned in historical texts, but did you know that garden favourites rhododendrons, aquilegias and even periwinkle are also all poisonous, so don’t even think about eating them! Small groups enter the poison garden and get a little twenty minute tour with a guide, and it is well worth doing. Alnwick Garden has a home office licence to grow cannabis too, in a protective cage which sports the comedy sign ‘ Keep Off The Grass!’
Water features are a big part of the gardens, including of course the huge central feature of cascading fountains which tier down the hill as a focal point for the whole attraction. The fountains spring to life every hour or so starting at the top section and gradually work their way down to the biggest fountain at the bottom which then bursts into a huge cascade of water.
Being squirted by a random jet of water seems to provide eternal amusement to people, especially children, and this can easily happen while viewing the fountains here. The serpent garden has a range of steel water features which channel water up, around and over containers, sometimes into a swirling vortex.
The artworks are all quite impressive, and you can’t resist touching the water as it creates mirrors and pools, then slides and swirls along surfaces. These watery wonders are particularly fascinating to youngsters, who were having the best time ever running into and through the veils of water, created by one of the sculptures which fills up gradually (creating almost unbearable anticipation) before it spills over into a showery circle.
There is a nice mix of more conventional gardens and contemporary creations – the topiary is impressive with huge hedges sculptured to flank the main fountains and a Chinese bamboo tunnel maze which thankfully is quite easy to find your way out of!
The Alnwick Garden charity is also about supporting learning through the arts and healthy activity. Children can drive small dumper trucks up to the fountain fill them with water and dump it elsewhere. It was a very popular activity. There was a flower making workshop when we were there, and Animal Antics which gives little ones the opportunity to handle and touch rabbits, lizards, mice, owls and other creatures. In fact there is a whole summer programme of activities lined up, so there’s always something new going on. For example, Heartbreak Productions are heading there later in the summer with David Walliams’ The Midnight Gang which will be lots of fun to watch. There’s a very nice cafe within the garden’s pavilion area and also other eating options outside that you can go to anytime, without paying to go into the garden itself.
Perched 18 metres up in the canopy, the stunning Treehouse is an absolute work of art, nestling in the trees housing an up market cafe and restaurant and a couple of wobbly rope bridges to cross for fun. Completed in 2005 it is the largest wooden Treehouse in Europe, built by craftsmen in individual sections, with a roaring log fire at its heart. It reminded me a bit of the famous Treetops hotel in Kenya where Queen Elizabeth went up as a princess and came down as a queen when her father died. It is quite a magical place to visit.
There’s a gift shop and plant centre if you fancy a bit of retail therapy, and a crazy golf course constructed on a forbidden garden theme. When were there the Alnwick Garden was absolutely packed with families thoroughly enjoying themselves, and especially lots of rather wet children dashing about. The tickets aren’t cheap but you could spend all day here if you wanted to, and English Heritage members get 20% off the admission price. Everyone is catered for, and the gardens are fully accessible with wheelchairs and mobility scooters available. This is a well thought through, planned and run attraction. I particularly liked the banks of swinging seats and the poison garden but there will be more to see as the summer progresses.
It’s quite a feat to have created this Garden from scratch and Alnwick Garden is now firmly established as a top North East attraction. If you’re looking for a really good day out this summer head up the A1 to Alnwick and prepare yourself for a grand day out!