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
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