The Boxwoods Won’t Get Out of Bed for Less Than a Million Pounds



Alnwick Castle

The New York Times had a fascinating piece yesterday about the public garden being created by the Duchess of Northumberland at Alnwick in Britain and the somewhat Cinderella-like story behind it.

One minute, Jane Percy was married to a property surveyor.  The next, her husband’s brother dies of a drug overdose, and the property surveyor is now the 12th Duke of Northumberland, with 120,000 acres, 700 houses, and Alnwick castle in his back pocket.

Wandering the estate after this momentous elevation, the now-Duchess begins to think of reviving its gardens.  As the Times explains,

Even at this early stage, she wasn’t thinking small: “To do anything,” she told the duke, “I’m going to need a million pounds.”

Actually, she’ll need 70 million to complete the project she launched, a public garden designed by Jacques Wirtz of Belgium, whose smaller gardens I’ve always admired in books.  Look at the Times slide show and judge this one for yourself. 


The new garden

To me, it looks like what it is, a place designed to draw tour buses.  Still, it’s interesting that a rich and powerful woman has chosen garden-making as her civic role.


  1. I went to Alnwick garden at the beginning of March this year. I thought it was magical – the first thing I heard as I stepped through the archway leading to the garden (where your photo was taken) was the sound of children laughing. How often do you hear that in a public garden! The children in question were pedalling small front-end loaders which could be filled with water from the overflow of the cascade. As a gardener I enjoyed the design and contents of walled gardens at the top of the cascade and long to see the rose garden in full bloom as it is full of David Austin and heritage roses. In fact I spent several hours there and the next day went back again, along with local families celebrating Mothering Sunday.
    If the Canadian Embassy can spend a million for a small indoor garden of raked sand and rocks in one of their embassies for the enjoyment of very few, I think that 7 million is probably cheap for this garden. It may get bus tours in the Summer like any other great garden but in the winter I’d say that most visitors were from the immediate local, and clearly some locals come to the garden on a daily basis, including the volunteers throughout the year.

    I’d rather see the wealthy spend money on a garden for the enjoyment of the public than spending it on themselves as so many do.

  2. Looking through the NYT pictures, I believe the picture of the rose garden is NOT the rose garden but part of the walled garden. Maybe the reporter doesn’t know a peony from a rose, but my memory is that the rose garden contains nothing but roses.

  3. I think there is some wonderful food for thought in this blog entry.
    Many times the readership of The Rant has had a decidedly dour view of professionally designed gardens.
    We read those comments on the Scott Calhoun blog entry.
    And yet many of these ‘designer gardens’ are providing vital educational, cultural and entertaining benefits to our society.

    And the best thing about these designed gardens is that they don’t have to be a grand estate garden on an aristocratic scale.

    Think of all the wonderful small private gardens that have been graciously opened to the public for philanthropic social fund raising events.

    Kudo’s to the new Duchess for supporting cultural appreciation. A big Woo Hoo goes out to one of our most talented garden designers for creating a park and garden with social and horticultural interest.
    And a big ‘right on’ to other homeowners who have (and have not) collaborated with garden designers and have generously opened their private homes to the visiting public for wonderful charitable / philanthropic fund raising events.

  4. What a great blog entry. This story has all the elements of Cindarella and The Secret Garden rolled into one. I read the NY Times article in full and what I find intriguing is the impact this garden (along with the Harry Potter mania) has had on the local economy.

    Having been an economic development professional, I learned that rarely does actual attendance come anywhere close to what is projected at the start. To have 650,000 visitors when only projecting 67,000 is nothing short of a miracle.

    I admire her determination in putting a modern spin on castle gardening. Historians are a rough crowd all on their own. Put them traditionalist gardners and you’re talking a whole new language. She’s one tough lady.

  5. I have been following Alnwick with great interest and have it on my list of more English gardens I MUST see when I next go there, which I MUST do as soon as possible.

    Preaching to the converted about the beauty of large, professionally-designed gardens here, Michelle D. I have long been a raving Anglophile as regards their gardens (well, and a lot of other stuff too). But you raise a good point about their being open to the public. I remember Susan posting about an American example of a mega-garden, but the public is never allowed in.

    As a reminder, in Buffalo we will have over 300 gardens open to the public next weekend. Some of them are professionally designed too.

  6. Hmm, i don’t think he story isn’t quite as Cinderella-like as it seems. The British upper classes are only too fond of describing themselves in modest terms: “Oh, I’m just a poor farmer’s wife” usually means “We own 300,000 acres of prime arable.” When Jane Percy describes her husband as a property surveyor, she probably means he was kept pretty busy surveying HIS properties.
    The Duchess and her husband, formerly Lord Ralph Percy, have always lived at Alnwick Castle, because the previous Duke, Ralph’s brother, lived in London at Syon House (which the Percys now ow too, of course). I think the current Duke is worth something like £300m?
    I think it’s fantastic that people want to create gardens to pass down to future generations. The reason the Duchess has run into criticism in the UK is because she wants public money – £30m of it – to continue her project.

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