In 1995 the gardens at Alnwick Castle lay derelict and unkempt, they hadn’t been touched for over forty years. Most of the grounds were taken up with spruce trees part of a commercial lumber business that helped support the estate. The new Duchess of Northumberland saw a plethora of green opportunity, she was from an avid gardening family and it broke her heart to see the former gardens laid to waste. She spoke with her husband, the most recent Duke of Northumberland following the early death of his brother, and told him of her plans to renovate the extensive gardens – that they could indeed be restored to their former glory.
What originally started as a whim of the new Duchess became one of the most ambitious public gardens created in Europe since World War II. She saw an opportunity to create a modern counterpoint to the adjacent 18th-century landscape designed by Capability Brown, a tourist attraction to become known as the Versailles of the North. Along her journey she has amassed plenty of admirers, but more than a few critics as well. “The criticism I’ve had is just massive,” said the Duchess of Northumberland, “It’s really staggering the way that Britain views this project. They said I am to gardens what Imelda Marcos is to shoes.”
Whilst the Duchess was inspired by the history of the gardens, she also became increasingly determined that the garden should be modern, not a recreation of Alnwick’s long-derelict 18th- and 19th-century gardens. And so the project attracted controversy as it became more ambitious, instead of traditional British garden designers she hired Jacques Wirtz, a Belgian landscape architect considered by some the modern equivalent of André Le Nôtre, the designer of the gardens at Versailles. He is known for a critically acclaimed redesign of the Carrousel Garden in the Tuileries in Paris, and for redoing the gardens of Élysée Palace, the residence of French presidents.
The plans soon escalated and included prominent features of the old garden like the Grand Cascade, a multitiered hillside waterfall and fountain that is the visual centerpiece of the site; a formal ornamental garden with water rills that contains one of the largest collections of European plants in Britain; a Rose Garden with 3,000 roses in 180 varieties; a Serpent Garden with swirling yew hedges and eight stainless steel water sculptures by William Pye, an English sculptor; the Bamboo Labyrinth, with 500 bamboo plants; a £5 million treehouse built amid 17 lime trees, with an education centre inside, a restaurant that seats 80 people and thousands of square feet of suspended walkways; and the Poison Garden, a spooky fenced-off area with about 100 varieties of toxic plants, as well as cannabis, cocaine and opium poppies.
Over a decade later the gardens are open and thriving, they are a huge tourist attraction to the North region, and somewhat of a mecca for gardening enthusiasts. The Duchess of Northumberland was inspired by a trip to the world’s oldest Botanical Gardens in Padua and created the Poison Garden after her trip, a tunnel of ivy leading to the gardens and numerous deadly plants are housed inside.
Image: The Alnwick Gardens
One of our favourite features is the magical Tree House, hidden in the mature lime trees outside the walls of the gardens; one of the largest in the world. The Treehouse is so at home in its environment that it appears to have been there for many years, wooden walkways climb up into the treetops, and there is a decked veranda with walkways and bridges leading out into the tree canopy.
If you’re in Northumberland, you must pay a visit to this gardening spectacular!
Find more information on Alnwick Garden here.