At this English castle, sin­is­ter plots sprout from a Poi­son Gar­den

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY DIANE ROBERTS

“Don’t touch,” says Brid­get the guide, as we pre­pare to en­ter the locked gates of the Poi­son Gar­den. “Don’t smell.”

Don’t worry: I had seen the skull and crossbones on the black wrought-iron gate, right next to the sign pro­claim­ing “These Plants Can Kill,” and I plan to give them a wide berth.

Brid­get tells us that no one has ac­tu­ally died from vis­it­ing Al­nwick Castle’s Poi­son Gar­den, but peo­ple have fainted, pos­si­bly be­cause they ig­nored the no-touch, no sniff rule. There’s hem­lock and deadly night­shade ev­ery­where. Those pretty fox­gloves, pink as a baby’s cheeks, can cause vom­it­ing, hal­lu­ci­na­tions, mad­ness. Ole­an­der, the same kind that grows from Washington all the way down to Key West, can cause nasty rashes and wreak havoc on your cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem. Lau­rels con­tain cyano­lipids that re­lease cyanide and ben­zalde­hyde, es­pe­cially when cut.

Al­nwick Castle is a vast stone ed­i­fice strate­gi­cally lo­cated on the River Aln, not far from the Scot­tish bor­der. If you’ve seen the first two “Harry Pot­ter” movies, you’ve

seen Al­nwick: Harry learned to fly a broom and play Quid­ditch in the castle’s Outer Bai­ley. It was also the set­ting for the Sea­son 5 fi­nale of “Down­ton Abbey.” Parts of it are nearly 1,000 years old and stuffed with Ti­tians and van Dykes, Louis XIV fur­ni­ture, Meis­sen china and Ge­or­gian sil­ver.

I’d been stay­ing in Barnard Castle, a lovely mar­ket town on the River Tees, about an hour and a half’s drive to the south, see­ing friends. They kept ask­ing whether I’d been to the Poi­son Gar­den — ap­par­ently, it’s no­to­ri­ous in these parts. Other parts, too. So I drove up over the moors, dodg­ing death wish­ing sheep (they like to lick the salt on the road), north of Hadrian’s Wall to Al­nwick. Be­cause I had lim­ited time, I de­cided to save the castle for another day and con­cen­trate on the gar­dens: How of­ten do you get to keep com­pany with plants that can pro­duce heroin, co­caine and ricin, one of the dead­li­est tox­ins on earth?

The Poi­son Gar­den tours go ev­ery 15 min­utes, and I have a few min­utes to wait for the next one. Next to the locked gate, there’s a hut, kind of a cross be­tween a pre­his­toric dwelling and a hob­bit house, round with a sod roof. I stick my head in the door, half ex­pect­ing to find a homage to “Harry Pot­ter” or an an­i­ma­tronic witch. In­stead of hokey hor­ror, the place is full of an­i­mals — dead an­i­mals. Stuffed ravens, stuffed foxes, stuffed rab­bits, their glassy eyes flickering in the fire­light. A stuffed gray-and-white cat holds a stuffed rat in its mouth. Other stuffed rats perch on shelves. The back half of a hare is mounted on one wall over a pile of uniden­ti­fied pelts.

“Oh, yes,” says a voice be­hind me. “The Duchess loves taxi­dermy.” It’s Brid­get, who is gath­er­ing up the tour. It seems the Duchess of Northum­ber­land, chate­laine of Al­nwick and cre­ator of the Poi­son Gar­den, keeps sev­eral stuffed dogs up at the castle. She some­times gives stuffed rats as wed­ding presents.

Per­haps I should ex­plain about the duchess, the brains be­hind it all. She was plain Jane Richard be­fore she mar­ried Ralph Percy, younger brother of the 11th Duke of Northum­ber­land, in 1979. In 1995, the child­less 11th duke died of an am­phet­a­mine over­dose, and Ralph be­came the 12th duke, own- er of Al­nwick Castle. The new duchess de­cided to throw her­self into ren­o­vat­ing the castle’s once beau­ti­ful land­scap­ing. The old for­mal gar­dens had fallen into ruin. Much of the land next to the castle was used for lum­ber. Within a few years, how­ever, what had been 14 acres of com­mer­cial spruce trees was trans­formed, thanks to the duchess, Bel­gian gar­den de­sign­ers Jac­ques and Peter Wirtz (who’d re­done the gar­dens at the Élysée Palace in Paris) and up­wards of $60 mil­lion.

Where there was waste­land there’s now a bam­boo labyrinth, 3,000 roses, tun­nels of green vines, bright tulips, flow­er­ing cher­ries and del­phini­ums in their own for­mal walled gar­den, sculp­tures that dou­ble as foun­tains and oneof the largest tree­houses in the world. Whenyou get tired of walk­ing, you can sit out­side on the con­tem­po­rary glass pav­il­ion, watch­ing the mon­u­men­tal cas­cade, Al­nwick’s mod­ern an­swer to the baroque wa­ter fea­tures of Ver­sailles or Peter the Great’s Peter­hof Palace.

The style and ex­pense of the gar­dens has been con­tro­ver­sial. The Percy fam­ily is es­ti­mated to be worth nearly $1 bil­lion, yet the duchess re­ceived some tax­payer money for her pro­ject. When the new Al­nwick gar­dens opened, another aris­to­cratic gar­dener, Lady Mary Keen, whose fa­ther is an earl, ac­cused the duchess of “van­ity gar­den­ing” and called Al­nwick vul­gar. The duchess hit back at her crit­ics, call­ing them “snobby” and worse, and point­ing out that the gar­dens bring needed rev­enue and jobs to an eco­nom­i­cally de­pressed area.

The Per­cys have al­ways rev­eled in be­ing trou­ble mak­ers: a 15th-cen­tury Percy re­belled against King Henry IV — Wil­liam Shake­speare im­mor­tal­ized him as “Harry Hot­spur.” Inthe 16th cen­tury, a Percy led the lords of the north against El­iz­a­beth I, hop­ing to re­place her on the throne with Mary, Queen of Scots. He was be­headed in 1572. You’d think the Per­cys had learned their les­son, but no: In1605, a Percy plot­ted with Guy Fawkes to blowup Par­lia­ment. A lit­tle closer to home, in 1829, another mem­ber of the Percy fam­ily, the il­le­git­i­mate son of the 1st Duke of Northum­ber­land, left his large for­tune to the United States gov­ern­ment to pro­mote “the in­crease and dif­fu­sion of knowl­edge.” You know it as the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion.

There was an out­cry in 2005, too, when the duchess opened her Poi­son Gar­den. Inspired, she said, by a 450-year-old “physick gar­den” in Padua, in north­ern Italy, re­port­edly used by the Medi­cis to dis­patch their en­e­mies, the duchess had to get a gov­ern­ment li­cense to grow the plants that are con­verted to co­caine, psilo­cy­bin mush­rooms and mar­i­juana “for ed­u­ca­tional pur­poses.” Since the 11th duke strug­gled with ad­dic­tion, it’s hardly sur­pris­ing that when Brid­get the guide herds us to where some young (but vig­or­ous)

Cannabis sativa grows, firmly locked in a cage, she launches into a lec­ture on how weed is now “60 per­cent stronger” than it was 30 years ago and causes ma­jor de­vel­op­men­tal dam­age in the brains of the young.

Acou­ple in our group, 60-some­things, glance at each other, clearly not buy­ing it.

But the weird­est thing about the Poi­son Gar­den isn’t the ex­otic stuff. Not the coca plant (from which co­caine is de­rived); not Artemisia ab­sinthium, from which you make van Gogh’s fa­vorite tip­ple, ab­sinthe — it makes the color yel­low look much, much stronger than it is, which­may ex­plain those sun­flow­ers. No, it’s the or­di­nary plants that turn out to have dark souls. Like daf­fodils. Did you know in­gest­ing a bulb will hos­pi­tal­ize, if not kill you? Ro­man sol­diers used to carry daf­fod­fil bulbs with them to war in case they were cap­tured and needed to com­mit sui­cide, the guide says. Or peri­win­kles (or vinca, or “sor­cer­ers’ vi­o­let,” as they call it in the wilds of Northum­ber­land). It was used in love po­tions, but too much would crash your blood pres­sure. And cat­nip— you know, weed for your fe­line? The hang­man would eat a bunch of it when he was due to ex­e­cute some­body. Ap­par­ently it makes hu­mans mean, quar­rel­some and vi­o­lent.

Many gar­dens in the Amer­i­can South have An­gel’s Trum­pet, Brug­man­sia suave­olens, grow­ing all over the place, prob­a­bly as­sum­ing, as the Poi­son Gar­den Web­site says, “its com­mon name refers to the look of the flow­ers rather than the in­di­ca­tion that this is the sound to be heard af­ter in­ges­tion of a fa­tal amount.” It’s a strong aphro­disiac and a hal­lu­cino­gen: Vic­to­rian ladies would put a lit­tle of its pollen in their tea and trip hap­pily away. Too much and, well, they tripped all the­way into the grave.

The Poi­son Gar­den is enough to make a nor­mal per­son para­noid . . . make you think you feel kind of funny. Maybe the wind blew some­thing onto your skin or into your mouth. And what about the other peo­ple on the tour: Are they mere tourists? What if they’re psy­chopaths? I ask Brid­get one last ques­tion, about a nicelook­ing plant with pur­ple-y flow­ers la­beled Aconi­tum napel­lus. “That’s monks-hood,” she says. “Also called wolf­bane.” She tells us the story of a “jilted girl” in Lon­don who mur­dered her exboyfriend in 2010. She put wolfs­bane in his curry. The strong spices dis­guised the poi­son, so he never knew what hit him.

Right, I think. That’s it. I need a drink. I make my way across the rope bridges to the Tree­house, a bar and res­tau­rant perched high in some lime trees. The Tree­house is fa­mous for its cock­tails: net­tle and jalapeño mar­ti­nis, and con­coc­tions named, weirdly, for the duchess her­self: the Dirty Jane is vodka and rasp­berry liqueur; the Deadly Jane is dark rum and white rum with apri­cot brandy, or­ange and pineap­ple juice and grena­dine. What are they try­ing to do, kill me?

I go for the De­sir­able Jane, ba­si­cally a mo­jito, with Bac­ardi, lime, mint and soda. When it ar­rives, I say to the wait­ress, “You’re sure that’s just mint.” She prom­ises me it is.

I eye it sus­pi­ciously: You can’t be too care­ful around here. Roberts teaches writ­ing at Florida State Univer­sity in Tal­la­has­see. Her book “Tribal: Col­lege Football and the Se­cret Heart of Amer­ica,” will be pub­lished in Oc­to­ber.

PHOTOS BY DIANE ROBERTS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Above, daf­fodils and hem­lock en­velop a wooden “skele­ton” and Cannabis

sativa — mar­i­juana — grows in a cage be­hind it at the Poi­son Gar­den, ded­i­cated to plants that are fa­tal or nar­cotic, of Al­nwick Castle in north­east Eng­land. Top, the castle’s Grand Cas­cade wa­ter fea­ture. Al­nwick has had a guest role in “Harry Pot­ter” movies and “Down­ton Abbey.”

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