MY WORK­ING LIFE

Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland, cre­ated the world­fa­mous Poi­son Gar­den at Al­nwick Cas­tle – a breath-tak­ing me­dieval fortress that dou­bled up as Hog­warts in Harry Pot­ter

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Duchess, Duchess, how does your gar­den grow? If you’re Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, it’s a poi­sonous – but ed­u­ca­tional – place.

What gave you the idea for the Poi­son Gar­den? I wanted to do some­thing dif­fer­ent, and by chance I went to Italy where I saw this tiny gar­den in Padua that was vir­tu­ally derelict. It was a poi­son gar­den that I later learnt had been built by the Medi­cis to find more ef­fec­tive ways of killing peo­ple. I thought, ‘That’s in­ter­est­ing.’

What hap­pened next? I went to Su­tra Isle in Scot­land where there had once been a great monastery. There’s noth­ing there now, but this was where you went to get your leg or arm am­pu­tated in the 13th-15th cen­turies. When they did ex­ca­va­tions there in the 1980s they found rivulets of blood and bones, and some­thing called so­porific sponges – sponges that they put over your nose and mouth and you would in­hale what­ever was on it. They ex­am­ined the sponges and found the right mix­ture of hen­bane, hem­lock and opium seeds to anaes­thetise a body for be­tween 48 and 72 hours, which is ex­actly how long it takes for a limb to be chopped off and for the body to go into the nat­u­ral state of heal­ing. I started think­ing that these would be the sto­ries that would be re­ally great for chil­dren to hear.

Sounds like a good way to get kids in­ter­ested in plants… No child wants to go to a gar­den on a school trip if they think it’s ed­u­ca­tion – you’ve got to do ev­ery­thing by stealth. If you’re try­ing to teach peo­ple about ‘cure’ – which for me is pretty bor­ing, I’d much rather know about ‘kill’, as I think most chil­dren would, too – then come at the cure from the killing an­gle. That’s what we do.

Are you at­tracted to the macabre? Def­i­nitely. I think with hind­sight I was dif­fi­cult to ed­u­cate. I got bored eas­ily, but if I hear some­thing that is dif­fer­ent then I am al­ways in­ter­ested.

How many poi­sonous plants do you have? At least 100, and we’re al­ways chang­ing them and bring­ing in new ones in.

Which of your plants is the dead­li­est? I think aconi­tum, or monks­hood, which a lot of peo­ple have in their gar­den. It is very, very deadly. All parts of it are deadly but the roots of it were used to poi­son wells back in me­dieval times – peo­ple would chuck a few roots into the vil­lage wa­ter sup­ply and the whole vil­lage would have to leave. Equally, you look at ricin from the cas­tor oil plant – not so long ago they were us­ing that to poi­son peo­ple in Ja­pan. They’re all deadly, it just de­pends how they’re used. When peo­ple use these plants to kill, which they do even now, on the whole they put them in a curry. Most taste nasty and curry masks that. Do you have a favourite? The Brug­man­sia plant, also known as an­gel’s trum­pets. They have these beau­ti­ful big bells and they smell lovely.

What rules do vis­i­tors to the Poi­son Gar­den have to abide by? Well, ev­ery­body has to be ac­com­pa­nied by a guide, and peo­ple are not al­lowed to wan­der off on their own. You’re not even al­lowed to sniff the plants be­cause some­thing like hen­bane gives off fumes and we can have seven or eight peo­ple faint­ing almost ev­ery sum­mer when peo­ple have left the group and smelled it.

What else do peo­ple learn? Well, the bel­ladonna plant will kill you if you eat the berries, but a rab­bit can eat them and be fine. But if you then eat the rab­bit, you can die. An­other one I find fas­ci­nat­ing is lau­rel – I mean, every­one’s got lau­rel hedges in their gar­den in the UK, and peo­ple won­der how it can be poi­sonous. But in Vic­to­rian times chil­dren used to have some­thing called a killing jar, and they would have one lau­rel leaf ripped off the plant which they’d put in a jar with their but­ter­fly or bee­tle and the plant would as­phyx­i­ate the bug. We’ve had peo­ple say that they’ve been trans­port­ing trim­mings from their lau­rel hedge to the dump and en route they’d crashed the car be­cause the poi­son in it had sent them to sleep.

What mem­o­ries do you have of Harry Pot­ter be­ing filmed at the cas­tle? I was there when they were film­ing the broom­stick train­ing – I watched that out of the win­dow and that was fas­ci­nat­ing. It’s usu­ally quite in­ter­est­ing to see how it’s done, to see the ma­chin­ery be­hind one scene. We just had the lat­est Trans­form­ers filmed at Al­nwick and I’ve seen a clip on YouTube that was pretty amaz­ing.

Down­ton Abbey filmed there, too? Some of the Christ­mas episodes were filmed at Al­nwick and what was quite strange was sit­ting down to watch the Christ­mas spe­cial on Christ­mas day in the li­brary where it was filmed. It’s part and par­cel of liv­ing some­where like Al­nwick Cas­tle, it sort of goes with the job.

Fi­nally, is it true that your great un­cle – and all-round sport­ing ace – Max Woos­nam once beat Char­lie Chap­lin at ta­ble ten­nis? Yes, Char­lie Chap­lin had heard that Max was com­ing with the Olympic team to play ten­nis in Amer­ica and Chap­lin re­ally fan­cied him­self as a ta­ble ten­nis player. Be­cause Char­lie Chap­lin ap­par­ently had a re­ally ter­ri­ble tem­per, Max was a bit wor­ried about this and said, “I’ll only play you if I can use a but­ter knife.” He did, and he still won.

Don’t stop and smell the flow­ers in the killer at­trac­tion at Jane Percy’s home – the an­cient Al­nwick Cas­tle

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