Duchess of Northumberland: How I plan to finish the job at Alnwick Garden

Two decades into the Alnwick Garden and the Duchess of Northumberland still doesn't expect to be liked

Jane Percy, The Duchess of Northumberland in the Tree House at Alnwick Garden
Jane Percy, The Duchess of Northumberland in the Tree House at Alnwick Garden

“Don't expect to be liked, doing something like this,” the Duchess of Northumberland says knowingly of her labour of love – the Alnwick Garden.

The comments are a nod to the attraction’s well-documented flirtation with somewhat dangerous and provocative activities and stylings that fly in the face of the archetypal English garden.

It was thought 2015 would be the year the Duchess stepped back from the attraction to pursue other interests – but she’s still chasing an elusive £25m to finish the job, and provide a little extra, or an “endowment” as she calls it, for staging events in the long run.

The Garden has famously drawn criticism for a string of non-traditional events, designed to widen its appeal and capture a new audience. One such fixture was a televised cage fight. It bought the Garden international media coverage and attracted some of the best fight teams from across the UK. Several of the garden’s volunteers quit in protest of the event, a step some deemed to be unstately and incongruous.

The Duchess, herself a martial arts enthusiast, relishes in kicking those prejudices into the spotlight.

She said: “I received a four-page letter from the group who said it wasn’t what they had worked for. My response was ‘you’re totally wrong’. This is exactly what the garden was built for. Try getting disenfranchised 17-22 year-old men into the garden – what are you going to offer to include them?”

Deconstructing the aristocratic stereotype has been one of Jane Percy’s strengths since she became a duchess in 1995. The Garden has proven a useful tool in her quest to dispel the idea of the prim duchess. Despite her professed lack of enthusiasm for the title, it does prove to be a useful in securing funding.

Alnwick Castle at night
Alnwick Castle

A lot of her time is spent courting international backers – and that means using Alnwick Castle’s Downton Abbey and Harry Potter credentials to fire up Asian, US and Russian investors who are romanced by the very British aesthetic.

“It’s very unlikely that I’ll raise the money in the UK. I’m doing a lot of work with China at the moment – investors there want an experience that money can’t buy. In the US they’re after the whole castle and duchess thing,” she explained.

“I’m sometimes shocked that many couldn’t care less that it’s a charity, but that’s the way it is. The landscape is looking better than it has done for many years, so I’m fairly confident of pulling off more funding this year.”

That funding is essential as the Garden is still loss-making. It has needed multi-million pound support from the Duke of Northumberland’s Estates along the way. Accounts filed in October 2014 show the charitable trust, which employs more than 200 people on full and part-time contracts, has attracted more than four million visitors since 2003.

Those punters have come for a variety of reasons, beside the ample publicity. A “poison garden” harbouring deadly plants producing the likes of hemlock, strychnine and ricin has piqued interest. In fact, a number of cannabis plants have been stolen from the garden. Meanwhile the enormous Treehouse with its wobbly rope bridges and log-fire restaurant has enchanted families.

The principle is that it’s new and exciting. Standardisation is a bugbear of the duchess. She recounts a recent trip to a shopping centre in Dubai with her children. “It could have been the Metrocentre, or any number of malls across this country. It could have been anywhere. I think that’s really sad, because if you travel to different parts of the world you want to see different things.”

The danger, she suggests, is that we become boring, and places become boring.

“I think one of the best examples of individuality in this country is Marylebone High Street. There’s been a real plan there and it shows. Closer to home? I think Morpeth has done pretty well in retaining its individuality and quirkiness. On the other hand it’s really sad to see Alnwick lined with charity shops.”

The Duchess of Northumberland
The Duchess of Northumberland

There is a sense of anxiety when the duchess talks about her home town. She thinks it has all the components for individuality – good footfall and great history – but is disappointed not to see more “quirky, interesting” gift shops. The charity shop worry is shared by Alnwick Chamber of Trade chairman Carlo Biagioni, who recently said rates and rents were putting pressure on the town’s existing traders.

The concern is known to the duchess and it adds to her frustration at the pace of change in Alnwick in contrast to the Garden. “Some of the hotels are a joke,” she said, matter-of-factly, though she was spirited about the town’s Christmas lights display and its toyshop. There’s an obvious enthusiasm for the place – and there has to be. The Garden and the town share a symbiotic relationship. “I hope some day it will come good,” she said.

Her anti-standardisation agenda prompts her to recall a run-in with renowned former chairman of Barclays, Marcus Agius. The financier is also a trustee of the Royal Botanical Gardens, and on a visit to the Garden had hoped to get the low-down on how they had executed the Treehouse development.

He said, ‘Jane, I want to know about your Treehouse’. It was in a breakfast meeting with the whole shooting party, and alarm bells rang. I immediately said no. I’d given a talk at Kew Gardens and he had his board of directors sitting there taking notes – they copied the walkways ideas from us and now he wanted to copy the treehouse idea.

“It’s really sad to see a repeat of your idea. You can’t build two Eden projects, what’s the point?

“We have to do things differently to other places, otherwise what’s the point? I’d never build a little golf course here because that would make us like everywhere else. I only want to include something that already exists in Britain if it can be bettered, and really stands on its own two feet as something amazing.”

It’s for these reasons the duchess feels she needs to keep her cards close to her chest – so close, in fact, that it’s difficult for her to give the thing over to management. She said: “We operate in a very unusual way. Management do their job, which is operating what I’ve built, and I do my job, which is fundraising and building.”

The only person she’s willing to share her ultimate vision with is trusted head gardener, Trevor Jones. Mr Jones is one of few within her inner circle who is privy to what comes next. It’s a set-up that will make standing back from the Garden a tough task for the duchess.

“If I see the right management team in place I will be able to step away. I’ve got plenty of other projects I’d like to do – that isn’t the question. I can’t leave it until I’m completely sure about who I’m leaving it with – be that a trust, a management company or a franchisee,” she said.

“We’ve got a fantastic chairman of trustees in Jonathan Blackie. He’s seen a lot of changes. He’s very tactful and has been able to defuse so many situations. Most senior management really want to make their mark and don’t want me telling them what the Garden was built for.

“If people care as much as I care then that’s a great start.”

Jane Percy, The Duchess of Northumberland in the Tree House at Alnwick Garden
Jane Percy, The Duchess of Northumberland in the Tree House at Alnwick Garden

The “caring” aspect is quantifiable by detail – and more specifically the garden’s car park. “It was designed to be one of the world’s most beautiful car parks. You lose cars in it.

“If you care that much about a car park – how much are you going to care about the ice cream stand, the grass and the signs. It’s endless and I need people to operate on that level.”

She also makes an interesting observation about the region’s ability to attract senior management as a whole.

She explained: “There’s a problem in attracting senior management up here. I think they’ve often come for quality of life reasons, and not to really get something going. I’m not sure how we overcome that.”

The duchess’ pursuit of perfection has taken her to India for water jet nozzles and Turkey for the world’s best lighting. Her appetite for detail is palpable, and one that she says has caused friction with senior management in the past. Conventional business wisdom suggests “don’t sweat the small stuff” – it’s an idiom the duchess refutes.

She said: “The bigger picture is made up of detail, so you have to pay attention to it. If the details are patchy then it spoils the overall presentation. And you should never underestimate people’s attention to detail.”

A filing cabinet full of letters from Alnwick Garden visitors can attest to that – hundreds of them praising the minutiae of the experience and highlighting its faults arrive every year.

Inclusiveness is top of the agenda in this respect. The duchess is keen to surprise and thrill young and old as much as is possible with a garden. Its charitable remit covers education, skills building and exposure to arts. Her penchant for the unusual and the edgy is used to achieve these aims.

“Storytelling is a great skill and I love using it to teach kids. I despise fact sheets, so when you’ve got a class of pupils standing next to a cannabis plant the garden I want to find another way to tell them about how cannabis is now genetically modified and that one in four of us have a gene which makes us turn psychotic when we smoke dope. Or perhaps it’s about the middle ages recipe for creating an anaesthetic for someone who is about to be hung drawn and quartered. That’s the interesting stuff.”

She professes that a recent survey of the Garden’s elderly visitors told them they wanted speed-dating nights, temporary tattooing and toenail cutting – all activities that will likely raise eyebrows among traditionalists.

Of course the Garden is not the only show in town. Some 70 miles down the A1, millionaire financier Jonathan Ruffer is plotting his own major £100m visitor attraction with the development of Auckland Castle and the former Eleven Arches golf club.

Jane Percy, The Duchess of Northumberland in the Tree House at Alnwick Garden
Jane Percy, The Duchess of Northumberland in the Tree House at Alnwick Garden

The 115-acre park will draw inspiration from the Puy du Fou theme park in western France – hosting a spectacular “night show” featuring historical re-enactments.

Bishop Auckland is lucky to have someone like Mr Ruffer, according the duchess.

“Jonathan has obviously had a calling to do this – and how fantastic for Bishop Auckland that he has. I really do hope the idea works because I think it’s a fantastic vision.”

Much like the Eleven Arches project, Alnwick Garden’s future lies in major events, one key event for each season. The duchess says she’s thinking big – the final phase of the garden promises “things that haven’t been seen in Britain before”.

What of Alnwick Garden’s legacy? “In a few generations someone will probably dig it up and start again, and it will be great,” the Duchess laughed.

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