Harry Potter and the Poison Garden

The Duchess of Northumberland at the gates of her Poison Garden at Alnwick Garden, England.
The Duchess of Northumberland at the gates of her Poison Garden at Alnwick Garden, England.

On September 19, 2016, I had the pleasure of touring The Alnwick Garden and Castle, and of meeting with the visionary behind Alnwick Garden, The Duchess of Northumberland.

The Wizarding World of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland.

Only dreams and movies prepare you for the grandeur and the astonishing visceral feast of Alnwick Garden. Walking into the atrium, seeing the Grand Cascade towering before you and the Poison Garden off to your left behind menacing black gates, feels like Eden. One area contains the Tree of Knowledge – all of the toxic and psychotropic plants used throughout the ages to heal and to kill. The rest is idyllic. You can frolic in the water fountains of the Serpent Garden, or navigate the Bamboo Labyrinth with a whimsical spirit that is so rare in today’s over-planned world – making choices on which way to turn by brain toss. Beauty, bees and birdsong intoxicate the senses. Children on toy tractors are dwarfed by magnificent greenery; their laughter is drowned by the tripping and falling of water.

The Grand Cascade at Alnwick Garden, England.
The Grand Cascade at Alnwick Garden, England.

Hogwarts and the Poison Garden.

Alnwick Garden and Castle are national treasures of Great Britain that marry rich medieval history and architecture with the fantastical world of Harry Potter. (Alnwick Castle is Hogwarts.) The castle dates back to 1093, with most of the masonry completed in the 1300s and 1400s. No silver screen or green screen at any amusement park can compare with a real-life medieval castle, where villains and heroes actually lived, conspired and collided. Trying your hand at archery, or learning to fly on a broomstick, are heightened experiences when surrounded by the Alnwick Castle towers and state rooms, where Hotspur conspired against King Henry IV and Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland, was arrested for an alleged role in the Gunpowder Plot against King James I.

Alnwick Castle by Canaletto, circa 1750
Alnwick Castle by Canaletto, circa 1750

If you are drawn to Alnwick Castle to see the location of Hogwarts and Downtown Abbey, be sure to arrive early and allow plenty of time to also experience Alnwick Garden. The real-life Poison Garden, created by the current Duchess of Northumberland, is as wickedly delicious as J.K. Rowling’s imagination could concoct. The ancient art of apothecary comes to life in the true, and often tragic, stories of the medicinal magic of the roots, seeds, berries, bark and leaves of the Poison Garden, told by informed and experienced guides. Click to take a visual tour with Trevor Jones, the head gardener at Alnwick Garden.

Amputations, Assassinations and a truly High Tea.

All great gardens have an apothecary section. The Duchess of Northumberland rightly assumed that learning about plants that can kill would enthrall (and educate) visitors, far more than the traditional focus on cures. Though she had plenty of people questioning her decision, she was right. Last year, Alnwick Gardens attracted over a quarter of a million visitors.

Before curating her curios, The Duchess toured the famous Medici Poison Garden – a family that worked tirelessly to perfect the art of poison – and consulted experts, professors and historians. Within the Poison Garden, you can see (but not touch) the real life plants behind some of the most high-profile murders in recent history, the ancient anesthetics used for amputations, and a very popular, truly high tea from Victorian times. Cannabis, poppies and coca offer modern examples of toxicity and drug education, alongside ancient tales of murder and intrigue. “No child should ever know that he’s being educated because you lose half of them,” The Duchess told me.

What medicinal blend can actually put someone into a sleep so deep it looks like death for 2-3 days – such as Juliet sipped? Isn’t it remarkable that this concoction was actually employed in the Middle Ages, particularly for amputations? How many dark belladonna berries are needed to stop your heart permanently? Is there an antidote for ricin – the poison responsible for the “umbrella murder” of a BBC journalist in 1978? What pollen was tapped for a hallucinogenic high tea in Victorian Times (datura)?

You can learn more about these toxins and hallucinogens in The Duchess’ Little Book of Poisons, Potions and Aphrodisiacs.

Meet the Duchess Behind Alnwick Garden.

Some early reviews of Alnwick Garden were quite scathing. Why on earth would you place toy tractors in a Great Garden! How can one enjoy a carefully crafted Ornamental Garden with kids in swimming suits frolicking and screaming in the water fountains? What madness inspired Her Grace to build a Tree House and swinging bridges next to a grand garden? Alnwick Garden is clearly more suited for the person with an easy laugh – someone who skips and swoons – than those who prefer their gardens to be sterile and serene, although The Duchess assures me that there is room for everyone. Which brings me to one of the most controversial decisions The Duchess has made regarding Alnwick Garden – when she hosted a cage fight, attracting a crowd that most guests to the garden might regard as “trouble.”

The Tree House at Alnwick Garden, England.
The Tree House at Alnwick Garden, England.

Cage Fighting

Some of the Alnwick Garden volunteers quit in protest when the first cage fight was announced, griping that cage fights were not what the garden was created for. To The Duchess, however, this is exactly what the garden is all about. “This garden is a community garden. I want it to appeal to a 17 or 18-year old boy as much as to a 55-year old lady with her frilly collar,” The Duchess of Northumberland explained to me.

As a student of martial arts herself, Her Grace appreciates the artistry of a discipline where a smaller master might, through skill and craft, vanquish a much larger opponent. She was also interested in the statistic that teens who took up boxing were less likely to use drugs.

Sprouts, Elderberries and Enterprise

Alnwick Garden supports three charities, targeted at different age groups. Sprouts takes children into a vegetable garden, where they can pull up their own carrots and try their hand at cooking potato leek soup. Enterprise puts cash in the wallets of local youth, teaching business and skills to teens who are trapped in pockets of high unemployment. Elderberries offers social opportunities to people over the age of 50, who might otherwise be isolated and lonely.

All of this is part of making the garden relevant and sustainable. “There have been 7 gardens on this site, and they haven’t survived,” The Duchess told me. “I hope this one will because it’s roots are strong enough. I don’t think whoever built those [other gardens] has spent 20 years every day working on it, as I have.”

What makes Alnwick Garden such a grand achievement, and such a joy to experience, is that The Duchess of Northumberland embodies the same bold confidence, vision and purpose that all great authors and architects tap into for historically significant landmarks that span the ages. The garden is relevant, engaging, educational, fun and landmark. The only way another garden comes close to its magic is to copy it.

“To me a garden without people is dead. People have brought The Alnwick Garden to life and restored its soul,” according to Her Grace, The Duchess of Northumberland.

We are fortunate that the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland have opened up their home – Alnwick Castle and Garden – to us. For those of us who love immersing ourselves in magic, Harry Potter, history and sustainability, the Alnwick Garden and Castle are bucket list destinations that should be at the top.

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