Digging for victory

April 6, 2021

The Alnwick Garden has a long and interesting history, from ‘Capability’ Brown’s first garden in the 18th century, to the turning of the soil to help feed the nation during the Second World War. Perhaps the most interesting chapter, though, is also the most recent. Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, took charge of the redevelopment of the garden in 1997 and has experienced her fair share of highs and lows in subsequent years. Today, it is a soaring success, bringing in hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and supporting a range of community projects. Here, the Duchess tells Richard Dawson how she feels about the garden 25 years on, and why she’s bullish about this summer, which is expected to see a big influx of inbound tourism as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause uncertainty around international travel.

Except for a very brief moment in April last year, food scarcity has never been an issue in modern Britain.

But during the Second World War and indeed afterwards, the task of feeding the nation was very serious, so grave in fact that it required all sections of society to pull in the same direction.

So great was the task at hand that a number of public and private gardens across Britain’s most prestigious country estates were made into ‘victory gardens’ – turned over for the growing of fruit and vegetables to shore up the domestic food supply.

One such garden was located on the plot of land adjacent to the historic Alnwick Castle.

The place where today families walk through gardens full of roses and labyrinths made of bamboo plants was a key part of the Dig for Victory campaign a little over 75 years ago.

Of course, the history of The Alnwick Garden goes back further.

Its story begins in 1750, when the 1st Duke of Northumberland commissioned the celebrated landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown – who was also behind the gardens surrounding other great country estates such as Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle and Harewood House – to draw up a plan and lay the first garden.

The 3rd and 4th Dukes built on Capability’s foundation and oversaw a lot of development in the 19th century, bringing seeds from all over the world and creating an Italianate garden, the influence of which can still be seen today.

After two world wars, the Dig for Victory campaign and the austerity that followed, the garden fell into a state of disrepair and dereliction for much of the latter part of the 20th century.

That was, until Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, made it her mission to see the garden redeveloped in the late 1990s.

In the years since, The Alnwick Garden has become one of the most popular visitor attractions in the North East, often referred to as the Versailles of the North.

As of January 2020, the garden had contributed £282 million to the local economy over the previous 18 years.

It is, by any measure, one of the most ambitious public gardens created in Europe in recent history, and it has no equivalent in the UK.

And yet, the Duchess faced enormous criticism in the early days of the redevelopment from heritage organisations, garden experts and members of the press alike.

“Mostly, it was because people didn’t understand what I was trying to do,” she says.

Visitors to The Alnwick Garden will agree that it is not like other gardens.

But rather than seeing this as a unique selling point, it was a massive source of the resistance to the scheme.

The Duchess did not want to restore The Alnwick Garden to its Georgian glory and replicate what Capability Brown had done. She wanted to modernise it and create a visitor attraction to rival the Disneylands of the world.

Garden experts couldn’t understand such a populist strategy and heritage organisations didn’t think there was enough demand for it in the North East.

Jane explains: “I remember one of them saying to me, ‘do you really think you can make something like this and get people to stop and see it? Because nobody historically has ever stopped between York and Edinburgh’.

“I thought that was a ridiculous argument because, if you are building something good enough and then you market it properly, you make people stop.”

She faced the same criticism again when the Treehouse opened in 2005, which is now thought to be the largest treehouse in the world.

Jane adds: “I was asked before I built it, ‘why are you building this in the North East? Why aren’t you building it in the South somewhere?’”

The rationale here was that an upmarket bistro restaurant built into a treehouse would be better off being located down South where people typically have more disposable income.

Well, the Treehouse, much like the garden, has been a dizzying success since its inception.

The Duchess’ motivations were also questioned for no other reason than because she was married to the 12th Duke of Northumberland.

She says: “I was doing something for the community, which was a public project, and so the fact that I happened to be the Duchess of Northumberland should have been irrelevant.”

Naturally, the stress of the project and the criticism levelled at it caused many sleepless nights, one of which wasn’t helped, rather innocently, by the Duke himself.

“I’ll always remember my husband saying to me one night, just as he was turning out his bedside light, ‘the thing is, I’m worried that just because you think it’s going to be great, why should anybody else?’” recalls Jane.

“And I thought, ‘oh gosh, he’s right!’ It really hadn’t occurred to me, as I had got so caught up in it.”

But still, the Duchess remained undeterred because she had a clear vision and knew what she wanted to deliver.

She says: “There are lots of people who want gardens to be quiet places, they want to be able to sit at a bench and not be able to hear children running in and out of water features, laughing and shrieking.

“But that’s not what The Alnwick Garden was built for.”

The Poison Garden, one of the main attractions, personifies this point.

Opened in 2005, the Poison Garden flips the idea of the apothecary garden on its head and plays on the fact that many plants, which have curing properties, are often also deadly.

“The same plant that cures almost always kills,” adds Jane.

The Blue Cohosh, for example, has seeds and leaves that are poisonous, but it also has a range of applications for women’s reproductive health.

The Poison Garden puts the deadly aspects front and centre, and it is here that the Duchess’ marketing prowess is really evident.

“You want to engage people and bring them in,” she says.

“Frankly, apothecary gardens are pretty boring for most people and particularly for children, so I thought, ‘why not come at it from the killing angle and say, this plant kills and explain how it kills’?

“Marketing is everything, but there has to be truth behind what you are marketing.”

Despite the hard yards it has taken to realise the Duchess’ vision for the garden, today it is a stunning commercial success.

This has allowed the garden, which is a registered charity, to invest heavily in a range of community initiatives for the people of Alnwick and the wider North East.

The Elderberries drop-in centre is one such scheme, created for the older people in the community to address loneliness.

Jane says: “It’s completely free and it’s really been loved by the community.

“A lot of the older people are just so grateful to have somewhere to go and sit, to have a cup of coffee and something for their lunch.

“It’s run and staffed by volunteers and actually makes thousands every year because people drop money into an honesty box.”

Such community benefits were always part of the plan for the garden, but they’re only made possible by its popularity and by the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come every year.

Like all visitor attractions, the coronavirus pandemic has been challenging for The Alnwick Garden.

But thanks to a strong contingency fund and access to Government schemes, the charity has weathered the storm rather well.

In fact, the garden beat all of its projections for visitor numbers last summer and is expecting this summer to be stronger still.

“I’m really bullish about the summer and that’s going by our figures and seeing our bookings online,” says Jane.

“We are already finding there is real pent-up demand and I think the challenge is going to be capacity.

“In a normal summer, Northumberland is fully booked because our season is so short.

“That is what I am now trying to address. I have a new big project that I’ve started to build.”

Set to open in Easter 2023, the project the Duchess is referring to is Lilidorei – a new, year-round visitor attraction coming to The Alnwick Garden.

The ambition of the project is even bigger than what the Duchess first envisioned for the garden in 1997.

“Lilidorei is a magical village where the inhabitants celebrate Christmas.

“It’s inhabited by nine clans, goblins, elves, pixies, dwarfs and it’s completely immersive – it’s just a magic village that’s full of play.”

A central play structure in the middle of the attraction will be home to the king of Lilidorei.

By all accounts, it will be the biggest play structure in the world.

The American media company MGM is filming a six-part series about its construction, which will air in either the winter or spring of 2022/23.

“The aim of Lilidorei is to bring people out in the quiet months,” says Jane.

“It should start to get really busy in November and December.”

Attempting such a project in the middle of a pandemic shows the Duchess has not lost her nerve after 25 years of driving tourism in the North East.

With excavation works underway for the magical Christmas village, it also shows The Alnwick Garden is once again digging for victory.

Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland