A Duchess’s Dream

Venue: The Alnwick Garden, Northumberland
Date: 02 Oct 2013

Group Leisure readers at The Alnwick Garden.

Carrie Martindale joined GTOs on our Reader Club trip to The Alnwick Garden, the brainchild of the Duchess of Northumberland.

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, close bosom-friend of the maturing sun’. This is autumn, aptly described by the Romantic poet Keats.

My visit to The Alnwick Garden this year will always mark the beginning of autumn for me. This is the first time in the season that I am walking through fallen leaves, I thought as I swished my feet through the crimson, gold and burnt umber coloured oak leaves that lay strewn along the pavement. There was that Keatsian mist, and that distinctly crisp and slightly damp smell particular to the time of year.

The gigantic illuminated tree house that you see as you meander along the drive towards the ticket office of The Alnwick Garden fitted nicely into my romanticised sensibility. There was something childlike about my need to climb those branches and sit aloft, and something more inertly adventurous in finding out what lurked within the timber frame.

Well actually, it’s a restaurant. A very cosy and beautifully lit restaurant, and one full of the delicious smells of food, open fires and wood. Very autumnal indeed, although I am convinced that it would be a lovely place to take your group throughout the year. There’s a fun aspect to the tree house too as it’s surrounded by raised walkways and wobbly rope bridges (upon which I joined a few GTOs for a giggle).

“I was really impressed with the emphasis on community projects and the passion of the Duchess. It’s been an amazing day and I’m really glad I came.” Bernice Turnbull, Hartburn Village WI

The warm welcome we received from the team at Alnwick spoke volumes for that fabled Northumberland hospitality I had heard all about. From the cheery attendant who pointed me in the right direction, to the gardener we had a potting session with, to the catering team who put on a fine afternoon tea and whom welcomed us with firm handshakes, the staff at the garden are superb.

Group Leisure readers enjoying a tour of the Poison Garden at Alnwick.

Credit must also go to Fiona from the group booking department at the garden, and last but not at all least, Her Grace, The Duchess of Northumberland, who conducted our tour.

We all felt extremely privileged that the Duchess was personally taking us around what was - and clearly still is - her dream. She spoke passionately and eloquently on every element of the venue, and I highly recommend booking her for a private tour for an extra special (and personable) visit with your group.

A garden inspired by the Medicis

Alnwick is home to a special and somewhat controversial project, The Poison Garden, which the Duchess was inspired to create after visiting Padua in Italy, where the infamous Medici family also had a poison garden. Big difference being that the garden at Alnwick is there to educate, and not to find more effective ways of murdering one’s enemies.

“The poison garden was quite an eye opener because you don’t realise how many plants are so dangerous. It was lovely to have a personal tour with the Duchess, she is a delightful person.” Betty Thorpe, Coventry Friendship Centre

“I didn’t want to put anything in that didn’t kill. In fact, the same plant that kills, also cures, but I thought, why go by the cure angle when you’re trying to engage people, especially children,” She told us. The garden raises £18,000 a season in donations, and that money goes to a theatre group who specialise in drugs education.

Tours of the poison garden are regularly held; we experienced one for ourselves, and the tour guide was full of ominous tales and dark humour – I highly recommend that you do not miss this aspect of Alnwick.

Fun for children and access for less abled

The garden has been created for people of all ages; the water sculptures were commissioned with children in mind, as they are both beautiful to look at – and fun to interact with.

Taking part in a gardenign workshop in the Roots and Shoots garden.

Anyone who has given a child free reign with a garden hose can vouch for the simple pleasure that water gives younger people; and for less able people, everywhere at Alnwick is wheelchair accessible, whether that’s the tree house or the top garden.

There’s a sense of fun everywhere too. We all loved walking through the bamboo labyrinth, a construction that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Healing Fields of Glastonbury Festival, and set to be shimmering with lights at Christmas time. In the middle of the maze is a mysterious centre stone, inscribed with a Latin motto. The translation of this motto, as the Duchess recited with a twinkle in her eye, is: ‘Guests you have seen everything; we express our thanks to you. Now perhaps you'll p**s off’.

A hotbed of learning, workshops and planting sessions

For those of you that like to get their hands dirty, there’s the perfect opportunity to ‘have a go’ in the potting shed down at the Roots and Shoots area, which allows groups to take part in workshops and planting sessions.

We had a tour, a talk and an interactive session with one of the gardeners. I even got to try a ‘cucamelon’ (a cross between a melon and a cucumber) for the very first time, and we were all given some very special allium bulbs which we duly planted and took home. “Just wait until you see them,” our gardener instructor told us.

In fact, the entire food cycle is covered at Alnwick. Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food was opened at the garden last year by HRH The Prince of Wales and its cookery workshops and lessons, using produce grown locally, including the aforementioned Roots and Shoots garden, aims to make cooking fun and to teach people all about healthier lifestyles.

Having fun on the wobbly rope bridge at The Alnwick Garden.

“We’ve had a wonderful tour, been into the potting shed, we’ve seen the gardens and we’ve seen a cookery demonstration. There’s plenty for people who want to get hands on, and a variety of options and activities for groups.” Sue Cooper, Susan Cooper Events

The GTOs and I were given an interesting cookery demonstration – how to cook fajitas, the Jamie Oliver way – which provided an insight into the kind of class your group could potentially take part in, but more importantly, provided us with something tasty to nibble on at the end of what had been an incredibly fascinating day.

Useful contact:

01665-511352 (Fiona)

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