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The Duchess of Northumberland

A PASSION for people, poison and looking at things with a "twist", Karen Dent meets the Duchess of Northumberland - and discovers why she believes that, ultimately, success comes down to sandwiches

The Duchess of Northumberland
The Duchess of Northumberland

FIRST, everything leads back to sandwiches, says Jane Northumberland, sipping hot chocolate close to the crackling fire in the Treehouse restaurant in Alnwick Garden.

She said: “I would see our sandwiches and I was really, really shocked by them – I was shocked by them! I thought how can we be giving people a sandwich like that, how can we care so little?

“We had a sandwich tasting, and I said I’m not happy and I remember the chef at the time saying ‘oh, sorry, I don’t have time to worry about sandwiches’. Well, I had steam coming out of my ears.”

The sandwich situation sent her to London to consult Ian Wright, a director with drinks giant Diageo, who has advised her since the Garden’s inception. He told her, “Jane, sandwiches are a symptom of an illness”.

“And he is absolutely right,” said the Duchess. “And that directly resulted in Christian arriving.”

The Christian in question is Christian Perdrier, the recently appointed CEO for both the Garden and Alnwick Castle, who is charged with turning the attractions into international must-sees.

The Disney-trained executive was chosen for his attention to detail and customer service ethos, which the Duchess felt the Garden lacked.

“I wasn’t wanting Mickey Mouse or any of the themed ideas but I wanted customer service,” she said.

“To really change a culture and the key values in the Garden, you needed to bring in someone very different. Christian fitted the bill – he’s very French, he cares 100% about values.

“I had four possible CEOS who all came to stay in the castle for a few days and they all had to eat together. A few of them had worked together and they said they’d never been in a situation like that.

“But I needed to watch them and I needed to see how they interacted. I couldn’t get it wrong – I needed someone who knew more than I knew.

“I needed someone who actually had the strength of character and would say to me ‘Jane, you’re wrong, this is how we’re going to do it and this is why we’re going to do it this way’. And, wow, that’s music to my ears.”

The woman behind one of the North East’s biggest tourist attractions has the drive and enthusiasm of a successful entrepreneur. The Garden, although a charity, is big business – and it is very much her business.

At every turn she confounds any popular preconceptions of the smug, imperious and uncaring aristocrat. Jane Richard was born 50 years ago, the daughter of an Edinburgh stockbroker. Her life took its most decisive turn before she left school.

She met her husband to be – Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland – at his cousin’s 21st birthday party when she was 16. They were engaged when she was 20, married shortly afterwards and have two sons and two daughters. “At the time, everybody said you’re so young and how could you have thrown your life away and got married so young?” she said. “But, actually, with hindsight, it was probably a really good way to do things because I could never be doing what I’m doing now if I had young children.

“I didn’t have a nanny for the first two and I did everything and tried to garden and cook. I remember one day very well when I had my daughter, who was a bad sleeper, and I was tired and my husband was doing exams and we were young.

“I remember standing with her and thinking ‘God, I’ve just had it’. She was crying and I had my son running around my feet. I remember saying to myself, now Jane, you’ve got to stop, you can’t do all this. You’ve got to put the children first, stop thinking about what you could be doing and just do the job you’ve got to do.

“And, actually, from that minute on, I coped – it was better.”

Her eldest daughter, Lady Catherine, was a mechanic and a racing driver and now makes parts for guns; George, Earl Percy, works in geothermal energy; Lady Melissa was a professional tennis player who now coaches, and youngest son Lord Max is at Edinburgh University and has ambitions to go into sports management.

The Duchess said: “I never minded what any of my children do so long as they do something and they’re not watching telly all day. I couldn’t cope with a child who didn’t do something.”

She and her husband live in Alnwick Castle when it is closed to the public over winter, but she has a penchant for the Treehouse.

“I’d like to live in the Treehouse. I love this building,” she said. “I think there’s just something wonderful about it – anywhere that makes you feel good is a successful design and this definitely raises your spirits, particularly in the winter when you’re sitting with a fire crackling and it’s authentic.”

The Duchess agrees she is probably obsessed by the Garden. While Alnwick Castle is a business, the Garden is a charity – she is one of its trustees and is not paid. That charity is now working to raise £25m for the Garden’s ambitious third and final phase.

The Duchess said: “What I’m going to be doing is building this play area which my designers tell me is going to be one of the most extraordinary playgrounds in the world – where the disabled route is more exciting that the able-bodied route.

“I’m not someone who is interested in doing things the same way as everybody else. Why give people a cup of tea in a building when they could be sitting in the water?

“They can take off their socks and shoes and they paddle to the table in the water. You want to do things that take people out of their comfort zone and out of normality.

“I have a million and one ideas. I can look at a tomato and imagine it to be somebody. I can look at a leaf on the ground and wonder what story it would have to tell in human terms. I never look at things just a simple way – I’m always looking at things and trying to twist it or turn it.”

Remembering her own childhood inspired the Poison Garden. “I know that I was a difficult child to educate,” she mused. “The ones like me who were at the back messing around – you’ve got to try to think of a way to engage them.

“And I thought, why not come at it from the kill angle? The same plants always kill and cure. If I was a child, the way to get my attention would be to say ‘do you know this plant has killed 500 people in really nasty ways – their body curls up and their muscles tear away from the flesh’. That would immediately make you sit up and listen.”

Making the Garden inclusive recently resulted in the go-ahead for a cage fighting event. A martial arts proponent and boxer herself – “there were times when you were really worried or really annoyed, and to be able to hit something or someone was wonderful!” – the Duchess faced opposition to her decision.

“One of our volunteers actually resigned because of the cage fighting in the garden. But I let it go. She wrote to me saying ‘how can you be condoning this? This is violence’. But I thought, that’s fine for a lady to say who’s in her 60s and comfortably off and living happily in her home.

“But for those children who are roaming the streets of Alnwick bored out of their minds and they have an opportunity to come and see something that they want – that’s what the Alnwick Garden was built for.

“It’s not built for well-to-do middle-aged women, and if thought that was the way we were going down, I would feel I’d failed.”

She has faced opposition before and says she is a fighter not a quitter.

The initial work on the Garden coincided with the foot and mouth outbreak, which made her uncomfortable. “I remember this terrible feeling when I came in across the disinfected straw one day and I saw the McAlpine team digging away at this cascade and I knew that farmers were having real problems paying their bills and keeping a roof over their heads.

“And there was I building this huge garden and I felt very uneasy about that. I thought, this is wrong, my timing couldn’t have been worse. What I didn’t realise was that it really would be important – in one year alone, a hundred farmers applied for planning permission to turn their outbuildings into bed and breakfasts, and every one of them cited the Garden as the reason.”

Although forever associated with Northumberland and the Garden, the Duchess is Scottish and was brought up around Edinburgh and the Borders. One of four children, she figure skated until she was 13, training for five hours a day.

“That dedication and determination I think sticks with you as a young person. Sport gives you an incredible focus in life,” she said.

Constantly fizzing with ideas, she finds it difficult to relax. Her next big project involves books and films based on a boy who works in the Poison Garden and talks to the plants.

The Duchess said: “I did deal with Harper Collins in New York. They commissioned a series of novels called The Poison Diaries for the teenage market and they’re on a Twilight feel.

“I’ve set up a company called Poison Diaries Ltd and we own the film rights, the audio rights – we’re looking at merchandising, licensing, branding.

“I was looking at a poison plant one day and I thought, imagine if you could talk. And then I thought, well, if you could talk, then I’ll have to make someone who could listen, so I came up with this boy, Weed.

“When people see him, he’s walking around looking like he’s talking to himself but he’s actually talking to the plants. These plants realise they have an accomplice and they can turn him into a killer.”

Her current priority is to raise cash to complete the Garden. She has given more than 400 talks at home and overseas in support of that, and persuaded the Chinese ambassador to divert the official Chinese UK tourist route to include the North East. In return, she wrote columns for a Chinese magazine, signed up for a similar deal in Japan and is now eyeing the Russian market.

“People are surprised that I’m so committed to it,” she said. “I won’t stop until I’m finished. “People assume the duchess will be swanning around in a floaty dress doing very little, I think. So they’re pretty surprised when they see me – I’m certainly not what they expect, which suits me perfectly.”

It’s not gardens she is interested in, she says, it’s people. “One or two garden owners I’ve talked to, they’re quite worried by me and by what I’ve done, and a lot of them are quite openly hostile,” she said.

“I’ve said to one or two that are friendly, you have beautiful gardens – does it annoy you that we have four times the visitors you have when you’re fully developed and you’ve built something magical?

“And they say no, because we don’t want the people that you have. They actually don’t want children, they don’t want people running around shouting and screaming and laughing – but that’s exactly what I do want.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?
Audi S4.

What’s your favourite restaurant?
The Treehouse at Alnwick Garden and Harry’s Bar in London.

Who or what makes you laugh?
People who take themselves seriously. Steve Coogan – I love Alan Partridge.

What’s your favourite book?
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.

What’s your favourite film?
Hot Fuzz and The English Patient.

What was the last album you bought?
Soldiers of Love – Sade.
Florence and the Machine – Lungs.

What’s your greatest fear?
Dying without completing the Alnwick Garden.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Poor sandwiches are a sign of an illness.

And the worst?
Don’t waste your time thinking about detail (detail creates the bigger picture).

What’s your poison?
Mojitos. In terms of real poison I would go for Datura – a great killer.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
I was working in a tea room at Traquair House at 14/15 and got £15 for making and serving sandwiches.

What’s your most irritating habit?
Playing with my iPhone.

What’s your biggest extravagance?
Taxidermy. I collect anything unusual, but especially stuffed dogs.

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
My great uncle Max Woosnam (no relation to the boxer). He captained Manchester City to victory in the FA Cup, scored a century at Lords and beat Charlie Chaplin at table tennis while playing with a butter knife.

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Lucretia Borgia, the old Lord Lambton, Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde.

How would you like to be remembered?
I am planning to have some of my ashes scattered on the Poison Garden so I can come back and haunt it once a year and contribute to the garden once I’m dead. I’ll be a nasty spirit if they’re not doing their job properly!

 

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