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garden tales from a Brit abroad

Garden theme park disregards big attraction

We are in Northumberland for a couple of weeks, escaping the worst heat of the Delhi summer. A few days ago we revisited the rather pompously titled The Alnwick Garden, a  site created by the Duchess of Northumberland in part of the grounds of the ancient Alnwick Castle.

It is a garden I try – and fail – to love. The Duchess took a brave decision to use contemporary designs and designers to make this new site, rather than creating something classical and safe. She argued at the outset in 2001 that “No gardens of this scale and ambition have been undertaken in Britain during this century. And no gardens will have quite such a magical effect on those who visit them.”  The Garden’s website now trumpets its “Must See” features, including the Poison Garden, the Tree House (apparently one of the world’s largest), the Serpent Garden with its hidden water features, and the Grand Cascade.

Grand Cascade

The garden is well – and expensively – done, much of the planting is lovely, and it is undoubtedly popular and increasingly well-known. Yet for me it has no sense of place or character. Instead it feels rather like a theme park, a collection of roller coaster garden experiences all stuck together in one big shiny venue, giving you lots of bangs for your buck, as they say, but no atmosphere or associations or quiet moments of reflection. It is a garden without a soul.

The rest of the castle grounds are utterly different. They are the characteristic distillation of the English countryside for which Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is renowned. Created in the 1760s, the grounds are a fine example of his work, not perfectly preserved, but still a beautiful mix of trees, grass, water and English sky, setting off the castle building and providing a magnificent sense of permanence and serenity. The contrast with the gaudy business and sparkle of The Alnwick Garden just over the fence is delicious. The grounds offer a perfect spot to picnic, enjoy the fine views, and just to relax and ponder for a little while.

Brown Pastures

Yet, as far as I can see, the publicity for The Alnwick Garden makes no mention of the attractions of the castle grounds, despite them being assessed as of Grade I (exceptional) significance and having been designed by one of the most influential men ever to come from Northumberland (Brown was born and raised in nearby Kirkharle, and was no doubt much influenced by the lush, open countryside of his home county). When I asked at The Garden ticket booth whether my entrance fee allowed me to visit the Capability Brown landscape as well, I was met by a puzzled look, and had to explain what I meant – and then was wrongly told that it did not.

Maybe the contrast between the two garden styles is just too great to attract the same visitors. My nine-year-old daughter loves The Garden’s interactive water features, its dumper trucks and wobbly rope bridges. When I took her to the back window of the upscale gift shop, to peer at the Brownian landscape just visible behind the row of tills, she looked genuinely puzzled and said  to me: But, mum, it’s just grass and trees…

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11 comments on “Garden theme park disregards big attraction

  1. Jack Holloway
    June 24, 2012

    The dumbing down of culture…?
    And Mr&Mrs Average’s inability to tell good from bad for themselves – they need to be told by a celebrity commentator…
    Makes me think of something I overheard outside Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise in Florence back in the mid 70s, said with a slow drawl: “My gaawd, loook at all that goowld, it must be a masterpiece!”

  2. Donna@Gardens Eye View
    June 25, 2012

    Too bad…it does seem like a theme park but give me the grass and trees…

  3. maggie
    June 25, 2012

    I went to the garden’s (I mean The Garden’s) website and noticed that in reference it’s always capitalized. And the promo for the Poison Garden is theme-parky for sure.
    Then I had to realize that maybe I don’t like Jacques Wirtz’s designs for public places. The cascade is like a giant Villa Lante version; it’s too big for me.
    I go more for the kind of modern design insertion into existing landscape of the Jardins de l’Imaginaire in Terrasson, but maybe it’s not diplomatic to compare a French garden design to an English one?

  4. Stacy
    June 28, 2012

    The contrast between your photos is breathtaking. The Garden looks like it could be located just about anywhere, even here, whereas the Brown (at least to these American eyes) radiates quintessential England. For some reason I think it’s interesting that they don’t seem to be equating “contemporary” with “cutting edge.” Reflecting the times without imposing any particular vision? The Serpent Garden with the water sculptures does look like it could be really nifty, though.

  5. landscapelover
    June 28, 2012

    Thanks for the comments.

    Yesterday was actually the tenth anniversary of the opening of The Alnwick Garden, and there was much positive coverage in the local media, focusing on how much employment and tourism the garden has brought to that part of the Northeast. Having written elsewhere that gardens only develop character and meaning over time, it is perhaps rather unfair of me to expect the place to have a “soul” when it is so new. But I still can’t help feeling that the Brownian landscape (however unfashionable his work may be currently) has stood the test of time better than the Duchess’s new Garden ever will.

    The thing that disappoints me most is that the two landscapes are marketed completely separately, when some of the coach parties and school trips that come every day to The Garden could so effortlessly be introduced as part of their visit to a beautiful example of the work of England’s most important landscape designer.

  6. Jean
    June 29, 2012

    Jill, I can understand the desire to create a new garden that is of and for the 21st century rather than slavishly trying to imitate the past. But it seems to me that a garden, by definition, must interact with its surroundings — even if that is to reference them in a whimsical way. That interaction seems to be what’s missing from The Alnick Garden and what makes it feel like a theme park. It’s too bad.

  7. landscapelover
    July 1, 2012

    It’s interesting that several of you have picked up on the derivative nature of the design and its lack of connection with its location – maybe that is why it somehow feels soulless. The master plan for the site was produced by the Belgian firm Wirtz International (whose work I have criticised elsewhere) and, as far as I can remember, few if any of the individual designers are local to Northumberland. The Duchess has complained that critics of The Garden are southern snobs; maybe it would have been better if she had demonstrated her loyalty to the north of the country in her choice of designers and designs?

    I do worry that I am one of the southern snobs – there is much to enjoy at Alnwick, and one of its greatest achievements is how accessible the whole garden is: I have rarely seen so many people in wheelchairs or with poor mobility able easily to enjoy such a large space. If only they would expand its attractions explicitly to include the adjacent Brownian landscape, I think I could almost become a fan…

  8. Tim Longville
    August 12, 2012

    It is also sad that so few of the hundreds of thousands who make it to Alnwick discover either Howick (almost on the doorstep and, despite its considerable scale [100 acres or so], quintessentially English in a slightly dotty but charmingly homespun and unpretentious way) or, not much further away, Herterton House (a heart-and-mind-felt garden of a modest couple of acres, made from scratch over the past 40 years, which is intensely conscious both of Brown and of the local landscape and simultaneously and urgently ‘historicist’ and ‘modernist’, so that a physic garden and Mondrian colour-theory planting co-exist in adjacent compartments).

    • landscapelover
      August 13, 2012

      Tim, thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughtful comment. There are indeed so many lovely gardens in that area – we visited Howick last year and I am afraid I was slightly sniffy about it on this blog, but it is without doubt more interesting and has much more of a sense of place than the Alnwick Garden. Just a few weeks ago we were at the interesting little walled garden at Meldon Park (since featured I think on Country House Rescue!). To my shame, I have not yet made it to Herterton House, but your description makes me salivate with anticipation…

  9. Adam
    January 27, 2013

    Whilst most landscape designers seem, these days, to prefer as you have identified as lovely, we are wise when we also take into account and provide for the preferences your daughter implied so succinctly. Well done her !

  10. Landscape Designs
    May 21, 2014

    Your all post are wonderful and i am speechless what to Say now because each and every post represent some information which is helpful for me. thanks for sharing with us

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This entry was posted on June 24, 2012 by in Gardens, Modern design, Parks, UK and tagged , , .

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