Created by Jane, Duchess of Northumberland and opened in 2002, the Alnwick garden is one of the garden highlights of the UK.
Alnwick (pronounced with a silent 'l' and 'w') is small market town situated in Northumberland, England's border county with Scotland. The imposing castle which dominates the town is famous for being the home of the Percy family, (including Henry Percy, known as Hotspur and immortalised by Shakespeare) since 1309. Used in numerous films, including the first Harry Potter movie where it doubled as Hogwarts, the castle is the second largest inhabited castle in England. The first gardens at Alnwick were laid down in 1750 by the first Duke of Northumberland who employed Capability Brown to landscape the parks surrounding the castle. Today the castle is home to the 12th Duke of Northumberland.
The current garden is the brainchild of Jane, the current Duchess of Northumberland, who employed leading garden designers from Belgium. Work began in 1997 to transform the grounds near the castle which had previously been used for hothouses, conservatories, ice-skating rinks, tree nurseries and a 'Dig For Victory' garden during World War 2. The first phase of the current garden was officially opened by HRH The Prince of Wales in September 2002.
The feature which most visitors to the garden see first from the huge pavilion building is the huge Grand Cascade water feature. The cascade uses 250,000 gallons of stored water pumped from a huge pump room built underneath. The water is filtered and recycled and there are four rotating sequences of water displays. The gardens feature numerous water features, sculptures, rills and fountains and they are very popular with children. Alnwick Garden is very child-friendly, and there is also a popular bamboo maze and eight water sculptures hidden among serpentine yew hedges.
At the base of the cascade is the Poison Garden which is enclosed by walls and almost hidden by imposing iron gates which bear the sign "These plants can kill." Garden visitors are escorted through the Poison garden by a guide who tells fascinating stories about the plants grown for their medicinal qualities. They include plants well known from apothecary gardens of centuries ago such as mandrake, henbane, deadly nightshade and hemlock. The most dangerous plants are grown in protective cloches and there is a strict 'no touch' policy!
Lining the grand cascade is a covered walkway provided by 850 hornbeam trees which are planted on frames with cut out 'windows' looking onto the water feature. At the top of the grand cascade are 3 huge 500 year old Venetian gates which lead into the Ornamental garden which contains around 16,500 plants. This is my favourite part of the garden, its square themes include yew-enclosed secret gardens, one with a yellow theme, the other red. A large square pond is at the centre of the garden surrounded by rose-covered pergolas and water rills lead off towards beds filled with peonies, poppies and anemones. Along the 18th century brick walls which enclose the ornamental garden are large beds filled with all kinds of plants and there is something to admire on every day of the year, from snowdrops and hellebores in winter to miniature daffodils, roses and delphiniums, to colchicums. All of the flower beds are enclosed by box hedges, and there are also hedges of Cornus mas and ornamental crab apples 'Evereste' which enclose iris beds. To give height and structure to the garden, pleached crab apple 'Red Sentinel' dominate the main square beds. They provide year round interest with spring blossom and later on small red fruits which attract blackbirds.
Another popular feature of the Ornamental Garden are the two dovecotes which are home to numerous white tumbler doves. There are numerous sculptures around the gardens including Ascending Form by Barbara Hepworth.
The main square summer borders inside the gates of the ornamental garden are dominated by delphiniums and bedding roses, and there are standard roses such as Alberic Barbier underplanted with summer fruits like blueberries, gooseberries, strawberries and raspberries.
There are many trees planted in the borders including Prunus'The Bride' and 'Umineko', Magnolia 'Yellow Bird', a Malus sargentii planted in memory of Ivy Johns, a former children's nanny, Prunus serrulata'Tai Haku', Prunus subhirtella'Autumnalis', Mespilus germanica (Medlar), Magnolia 'Merrill', Magnolia acuminata subsp. subcordata, Koelreuteria paniculata, Acer griseum, Acer 'Bloodgood', Prunus incisa, and Cornus kousa'China Girl'.
Perennials in the garden include many beautiful hellebores, Epimediums, Anemones, Achilleas, Amsonias, Echinaceas, Campanulas, hostas, lupins, Mertensias, primulas, peonies, Euphorbias, Crambe, ornamental poppies, ferns, Trollius, hardy geraniums, asters, salvias, Cimicifugas, Astrantias and Alchemillas. The perennials are interplanted with many species of bulbs, including narcissi, iris, snowdrops, alliums, cardiocrinums, anemones and lilies. There are some wonderful Scotch thistles and other biennials such as foxgloves. Maturing shrubs such as camellias, wintersweet, hydrangeas, tree peonies, viburnums and the many roses provide good bulk in the borders. Roses and clematis are grown up large pillars in the borders as well as on the walls. There are several winter flowering shrubs which provide fragrant flowers for a winter visit. Winter is an interesting time to visit Alnwick garden as the structures as well as the yew, box and beech hedges provide wonderful continuity.
Visitor numbers are at their highest in mid summer when the magnificent rose garden is at its peak. Pergola lined walkways are covered with climbing roses, many clematis varieties, grape vines and honeysuckles, and the flower beds contain over 3,000 rose bushes. David Austin Roses created a special rose named in honour of the garden which made its debut at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2001. There are rose varieties representing pretty much every class of rose, and my favourites in the garden include 'Pat Austin', 'Anne Bolelyn', 'Penelope', 'Morning Mist', 'Raubritter', 'Snow Goose', 'Jaqueline Du Pre', 'Golden Wings', 'The Pilgrim', 'Queen of Denmark', 'Gertrude Jekyll', 'Grace', 'Chapeau De Napoleon' and 'Corvedale'.
The rose garden contains a wonderful 200-year-old urn representing the four seasons supported by rather sinister monkeys and topped by a fox. It is situated at the centre of a seating area beneath a pergola where visitors can sit and enjoy the fragrance from the roses and the sounds of water from the nearby water sculptures.
More gardens are planned at Alnwick and the newest opened in Spring 2009. The Cherry Orchard is made up of rows of 300 Japanese Tai Haku cherry trees with double white blossoms. There is a meandering path through the orchard and the grassy borders are underplanted with thousands of Spring bulbs. This past Autumn 187,500 bulbs of the pink tulip variety 'Mistress' have been planted towards the goal of 600,000 bulbs. At the edge of the orchard are borders planted with colourful azaleas.
There are future plans for development of the Tree House to include a children's adventure playground, a garden for the senses, a tree top walk and a Quiet garden.
A yearly pass giving free entry to the gardens which are open 364 days a year is a real bargain. Every time I visit this wonderful garden I enjoy myself. It is a wonderful place and a must-see for any visitor to the north east of England. I hope you've enjoyed this little tour.
All photographs in the article are my own.
About Sue Taylor
Originally from Northumberland, and now living here again after 10 years in Yorkshire and 10 years in Maine, USA. I've been a gardener for many years and also enjoy wildlife. I love houseplants, particularly sansevierias.