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.
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.
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…