Alnwick Garden: a force of nature

Alnwick Garden, the creation of the Duchess of Northumberland, is a garden of contrasts, with grand cascades, cherry orchards and bamboo labyrinths to explore

The Grand Cascade is the centrepiece of Alnwick Garden
Above: The Grand Cascade is the centrepiece of Alnwick Garden

Even a gardener tending the humblest patch knows that a garden takes time to evolve. So with a plot the size of Alnwick Garden, evolution on a grand scale was always the plan.

Neighbouring Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, the garden is now entering its seventh year following its opening in September 2002 by Prince Charles, an ardent fan. The first visitors, including myself, were greeted with the garden’s centrepiece, the Grand Cascade, a magnificent tumbling mass of water and, in a sense, the spine around which the rest of it would grow.

Back then it was obvious that this was a work in progress with fenced-off areas and a temporary cafe – today housed in the contemporary, light and airy glass Pavilion – but it was clear there was much more to come.

Our readers will recall our feature on the 12-acre garden in 2003 when we talked to the Duchess of Northumberland, whose passion and enthusiasm has been the driving force behind this bold and exciting project.

“So much has changed in the garden since 2003 when the project was still young and the only features we had completed were the Grand Cascade, the Rose Garden and the Ornamental Garden,” says the Duchess who lives with her family in Alnwick Castle.

“Since then, the original features have matured a great deal with the hornbeam tunnels forming on either side of the cascade and the pergolas in the flower gardens now covered in roses, honeysuckle and clematis.

“Our programme of events has also developed a great deal so there is always something going on.”

New for spring is the Cherry Orchard, which promises to be a spectacular garden, planted with hundreds of Tai Haku cherry trees on a peaceful slope beyond the Grand Cascade. It will be the only place in Britain to see the Tai Haku with its large double flower blossom planted in such numbers. In April and May it will become a beautiful bank of white flowers with petals falling like snow.

Each of the trees will be given a celebrity’s signature so visitors can collect brass-rubbing autographs. The plans for this area also include re-developing an existing pond, which will be frozen six months of the year to create a beautiful skating pond around an ice sculpture.

“We have completed many more of the landscaped features such as the Poison Garden, the Serpent Garden and the Bamboo Labyrinth as well as one of the world’s largest wooden treehouses,” says the Duchess.

The grand Treehouse and sky walkways, Alnwick Garden
Above: The grand Treehouse and sky walkways

The Treehouse opened in 2005 and is set high in the treetops in a copse of mature limes. With its walkways in the sky, wobbly rope bridges and great views, it is a chance for children to enjoy being children and for adults to pretend they still are. The cafe at its heart, set around a roaring log fire with trees growing through the floor and handcrafted furniture, all reinforce its fairytale image.

Not surprisingly one of the most anticipated gardens was the Poison Garden, which lies behind locked gates with a big sign reading, “These Plants Can Kill”. Once through the barricades, tour guides share tales of deadly plants. You may be surprised to find you’re already unwittingly growing several poisonous plants in your own back garden while others are growing wild in the British countryside. The Home Office issued a special license for Alnwick to grow plants like coca and cannabis. Tobacco, belladonna and cannabis lie behind bars in giant cages, making you feel like you’re observing a ferocious animal in a zoo.

In another part of the garden, the country house tradition of a box or yew maze is given a contemporary spin with a Bamboo Labyrinth. Designed by international maze-maker Adrian Fisher, it sways and rustles as you make your way along its twisting pathways.

From the traditional Rose Garden you enter the Serpent Garden. A topiary serpent in holly snakes through this garden leading to the Tornicelli, an interactive water display that is fascinating to watch as it slowly fills before the ground jets spring to life. These clever water sculptures, created by leading water sculptor William Pye, are both visual and tactile, producing interesting effects and optical illusions with the restful sound of splashing, rippling water.

“Children really enjoy playing in the Serpent Garden but, as well as being interactive, the water sculptures are beautiful artworks so we find that those who visit without children can enjoy watching the children play,” says the Duchess who obviously gets her thrill out of the pleasure others get from the garden.

“For me, the garden is at its best when it is full of people enjoying themselves. A favourite spot is on the terrace looking up to the Grand Cascade.”

The Ornamental Garden, Alnwick Garden
Above: The Ornamental Garden

Looking at the garden today, it is hard to believe that just ten years ago the site was derelict. The Duchess chose world famous Belgian landscape designers Jacques and Peter Wirtz to create the garden. Their signature style features an architectural green structure, seen at Alnwick in its hornbeam-covered pergolas, yew topiary, and box and beech hedges. In addition top water technologists, engineers, lighting specialists and architects have worked with the Duchess to design and create a unique garden with plenty to see outside the summer months.

Although the garden has a contemporary structural design, it is also planted with a huge variety of trees and plants. Structures from the original walled garden have also been renovated such as four antique Venetian wrought iron gates, which have been repaired and repositioned in the Ornamental Garden.

The garden is open all year round and has something to offer every season – not just during the lazy, hazy days of summer. Non-living structures such as arbours, arches, pergolas and spectacular water features all add extra year-round interest as well as creating places to sit and enjoy what the garden has to offer.

“We have made a garden with year-round appeal by using a variety of plants which have more than one source of interest – like flowers, foliage, winter stem colour and fruits,” head gardener Trevor Jones explains.

“For anyone planning a visit this spring or summer, the new Cherry Orchard will be in flower,” he says. “It is underplanted with a carpet of spring bulbs and these feature throughout the garden as do early flowering shrubs such as magnolias, camellias and cornus. Following the flowering shrubs, the perennials begin to grow at a fantastic rate, some flowering from early summer through to autumn.”

So can a visitor take ideas away for their own back garden? Yes, says Trevor, whose favourite garden is the Ornamental Garden because of its huge variety of plants, 16,500 in all. “The Alnwick Garden gives the impression that it is much larger than it actually is by dividing the area up with hedge planting. This technique can be transferred into small gardens, creating rooms within the garden and creating the illusion of space. Rooms within a garden are often themed by colour or style to add interest.”

Many more features and five more themed gardens are planned. The Spiral Garden will be planted on a mound rising to 14 metres above ground offering a spectacular aerial view across the gardens and landscape.

The Garden for the Senses is a place to be experienced blindfolded with plants to stimulate the senses of touch and smell, and water to provide interesting sounds. The Quiet Garden will be a peaceful corner where visitors sit on chairs in a large shallow pool dipping their bare feet in the water.

A new garden, The Central Garden, will lead from the Pavilion’s terrace to the Grand Cascade and the Pavilion Garden will be a private garden adjoining the Pavilion.

“There’s something for everyone and of course there’s lots for garden lovers to enjoy. Jacques and Peter Wirtz have created a unique and contemporary structural design and the landscape is truly beautiful,” says the Duchess.

“It’s certainly not a traditional English garden. I hope guests will find its beauty inspiring and that it will take them out of their daily lives.”

The Alnwick Garden, Denwick Lane, Alnwick, Northumberland NE66 1YU; tel: (01665) 511350.

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