Legendary Locals: Part 3

“Lucrezia Borgia,” Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland laughs when asked who she’d love to invite to the gardens. “I may know a lot about natural poisons, but I think she could teach me a thing or two.

To celebrate the launch of our new Chairman’s Collection journeys, where guests get to meet legendary locals around the world, including the duchess, we sent Luxury Gold’s content producer, Rachel Gee, to Alnwick Garden to find out more about the duchess, her life there and her iconic Poison Garden.

I meet the duchess at the entrance to the beautiful Alnwick Garden, overlooking its towering Grand Cascade water feature. She is dressed elegantly in a long, beige summer dress and sandals, perfect for the warm weather that welcome us. Along with her head gardener Trevor we start our journey around the grounds.

We soon get talking about the duchess’ family history and how ownership of the grounds came as a surprise. Though Alnwick Castle has been owned by the historic Percy family since 1345, Jane Percy never expected to become a duchess. While she was from an affluent family, she didn’t grow up as an aristocrat. It was only after her husband’s brother died unexpectedly that her husband inherited the duchy and she took this position.

By this time, the garden, which has always supported its local community, had fallen into despair, following WWII. The duchess set it upon herself to fix the garden and return it to its former glory, with some added perks. She wanted it to be unique, and with this introduced its famous poison garden.

The Garden today

Just as fascinating as her proposed visitor, Lucrezia Borgia, the Duchess of Northumberland, is famous for her work at Alnwick and on the Poison Garden in particular, one of the only gardens of its kind in the world.

While the medieval noblewoman Lucrezia owned a hollow ring which she used to poison drinks, the duchess’ work is much less risqué and involves fascinating guided tours of the deathly garden. A coffin, intimidating gates and skull-like décor make up its design, perfect for housing deadly plants such as Strychnos nux-vomica, hemlock and Ricinus communis.

“I began work on the garden over 23 years ago and it’s been a fulltime job ever since,” the duchess tells me.

The Garden is home to one of the largest treehouses in the world, which the duchess has turned into a rustic restaurant. It also houses the biggest cherry orchard in the world, which holds 350 Tai-Haku trees. It is little surprise this picturesque spot happens to be the duchess’ favourite place to relax in the gardens. Sat on one of the swinging chairs with the blossoms falling around her, she tells me it’s her favourite place to read a good book.

And just as her garden defies tradition, her interests are just as unique:

“My favourite book is Elements of Murder by John Emsley, a professor of criminology. I was delighted when I found out he was coming to the Alnwick Garden to give a lecture.”

While her favourite spot may be among the cherry blossoms, roses are her favourite flowers.

“My dream bouquet would have to consist of Jude the Obscure roses and David Austin roses – they have a wonderful apricot smell,” she explains.

It is clear to see the duchess is at home at Alnwick. Working closely with her head gardener to oversee community projects and their upkeep, Alnwick Garden now thrives on its individuality and the passion the duchess holds for its restoration, upkeep and position in the community.

“What word best describes Alnwick Garden? Extraordinary, because there is nothing ordinary about it. It is unlike anything else you’ll see in the world,” she confidently affirms – and I agree.

Meet the Duchess of Northumberland for yourself on select departures on our British Royale and Castles and Kingdoms trips.