Towns / Cities Visited: 129
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 11,052
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,243,219
Our morning began, like so many before it, with an early start, a lengthy drive, and our eventual arrival at a castle. Today would see us basking in the world of Alnwick castle and its gardens. Now, much like how a large portion of Australian’s pronounce our country’s name without half of its letters, and thus dub it Straya; Alnwick is similarly, although confusingly to those out of the know, simply pronounced Anick. Regardless of its blatant disregard for several of its consonants, it has a full and rich history, which I will share with you when this story finally makes its way to the castle itself.
Firstly however, we directed ourselves to the site’s gardens which, despite the long history of the castle, were only constructed relatively recently. As you duck through the gate into this spectacularly landscaped place, you are faced with a rather stunning water feature which cascades down the hill in a rather curvaceous fashion. The trickling of water fills the air, and makes its way down the airy hedge covered arches that stretch out from it. It is a picture of peacefulness and wellbeing. With that being said, there was something more sinister here that we had come to visit. You see, given my fascination with chemistry and medicine, I had long since discovered that this unassuming place houses a rather impressive poison garden, and it was over to its forboding rough iron gates that we headed. Now, for obvious reasons, you are only allowed to enter this area under the sensible direction of a guide, and thus finding out that the next tour was to being in a quarter hour, we filled the interim by admiring the aforementioned water feature.
Finally, the time came to enter the garden, and, joining the small group that had gathered, we filed in through the gates with our umbrella wielding guide. To answer the immediate question here, no it was, rather uncharacteristically, not raining. So why the umbrella then? Well, a number of the plants in this deadly garden, are so dangerous that to simply touch or smell them can do you great harm, thus the paths are wide, the plants are set back from the edges, and the guide uses his handy umbrella as a makeshift pointer. Although the garden is small, and the tour only lasts twenty minutes, the contents of it are truly fascinating. There are some familiar and some less than familiar flora and vegetation here, about which our guide indulged us in some rather in-depth descriptions as to how they administer death; some cause great agony, whereas others send their victims to the afterlife in a flurry of painless drugged euphoria. A number of the plant names brings forth mental images of cackling witches over bubbling cauldrons; from Atropa Bella Donna, more commonly known as Deadly Nightshade and who’s tempting berries were historically used to make eye drops which dilated the pupils; to Aconitum, more commonly known as Wolfs Bane or Monkshood, which it poisonous to the touch and was used to kill wolves which were attacking livestock. Others conjure up thoughts of more recent usages; from Strychnos Nuxvomica, more commonly known as Strychnine and used in pesticides; to Ricinus Communis, more commonly known simply as Ricin and infamously used as a poison in biological warfare.
Not all of the plants here are familiar to the majority however, and it was fascinating to learn about some of the stories and histories behind them. Plants like Angel’s trumpet, which despite sounding harmless, is actually a hallucinogenic and can cause paralysis and heart attacks; or Giant Hogweed, which is phototoxic, and if touched removes the skin’s ability to protect itself from sunlight, or can cause blindness if it comes in contact with eyes. In a cage right at the end, sits a rather pretty plant with burgandy leaves, which we learned is called Khat and is native to Africa. When chewed, it works similarly to amphetamines, stimulating the user and speeding up the messages between the brain and the body. It also creates a sense of euphoria, and due to its ability to essentially make you feel ten foot tall and bulletproof, it has been used questionably as a stimulant for young African soldiers, essentially putting them into berserker mode for fighting. For obvious reasons Khat, and other plants which are classed as illicit and are often used recreationally, are locked away to prevent theft.
Amongst the mildly terrifying plants, there sits a few that many people use everyday, like tobacco and marijuana, both of which can cause cancer when smoked. On the way out, we were also shown a few seemingly harmless plants that we cook with everyday, for example: rhubarb, which despite having edible stems, is topped with leaves which can be poisonous in large quantities; and rosemary, which when concentrated into an essential oil can cause miscarriage in pregnant women, and thus was used throughout history as an abortive in a time before surgical abortions were safe and available.
By the time we shuffled back out into the more harmless decorative gardens, our brains were reeling with all of the new information. As we processed, we decided it would be best to do something a little less stimulating, and thus headed off for a leisurely stroll amongst the other areas of the grounds. Passing the lake, zig zagging through the cherry orchard, meandering around the ornamental flower garden, strolling past the 11th century gatehouse, wandering amongst the roses, and shuffling beneath the bamboo forest, we found ourselves ending our visit betwixt a collection of small water features which demonstrate the science of water movement.
By this point we were famished, and we ducked into the cafe to discover, much to our delight, that they offered a carvery. Thus with plates almost overflowing with vegetables, gravy smothered beef, and a crispy, golden Yorkshire pudding, we sat down and tucked in as we looked out over the gardens once more.
With our stomachs full to bursting, we waddled off towards the castle we had come all of this way to see. Now, the construction of Alnwick Castle began as far back as the early 11th century, and like so many others was expanded and fortified over the centuries until it became the rather impressive site it is now. It is owned by the Percy family, and has been since the early 14th century century; thats more than 700 years of being owned by the same family, a rather impressive feat if you ask me. That being said, there was a few periods during the many battles in this country where the castle was surrendered to opposing forces under threat of bombardment, and was damaged and fell into disrepair multiple times, but it always eventually returned to the ownership of the Percy family, and was eventually restored to its current glory. It is the seat of the Duke of Northumberland, and is currently owned by Ralph George Algernon Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland, but is open to the public despite its private ownership.
As you near the castle, you begin to grasp the scale of this mighty fortification, with its great curtain wall and defensive towers coming into view. As you pass through the gate however, you are delivered to a scene that is anything but medieval. Despite the grand castle in the centre, it is the frivolities on the lawn which catch your eye. Now any die hard Harry Potter fan will recognise this space immediately. You see, it was here that the first Harry Potter movie was partially filmed, and this lawn was the backdrop for the flying lesson scene where Harry first learnt to ride a broomstick. As such, the lawn is now filled with fans wielding brooms, and frolicking around as their families snap the memory of such amusement for them.
Deciding to forgo attempted flight, we headed over to the towers in the wall to explore the tiny museums within them, as we waited for the afternoon free historic tour of the grounds to begin. Although small, these rooms held a plethora if intriguing bits and bobs, so much so that in one, even the ceiling displayed powder horns. There was also a short video which explained the lives of those who worked here over the century, and it helped provide a sense of scale to the long and colourful past of this place.
Finally the time came though, and we were soon linking into the much smaller group who were electing to take the history tour over the film locations tour. Our guide was a jolly old Alnwick native, full of spit and wit, and it was with great amusement that we followed him around as he recounted a time here before wizards were the draw card. The castle was originally built to guard a crossing over the River Aln. A crossing still stands here, although with a much fancier bridge than I imagine the original was. Also, due to its role as a defensive structure, we were unsurprised to learn all of the strategic elements of this place, from gun loops and ramparts, to a selection of statues posed on the rooftops in order to give the illusion that the site was heavily manned; although, surely even a short stake out period would have revealed to the enemy that not one of them ever moved an inch.
We were then led into the barbican, which was once the only way into the castle, aside from a concealed rear entrance. Its great wooden outer gate would be hard enough to penetrate, but if by some luck it was breached, the attackers would then have to make it through the portcullis to find themselves in the narrow passage to the secondary gate, after which was a second portcullis and a third gate. If they were particularly unlucky they would have been allowed through the first gate willingly, then locked into this passage, which is less of a jolly entryway, and more of a gauntlet of death. From atop the surrounding walls the trapped foe would have been shot at with arrows and other projectiles, from the murder holes above the gates they would have been showered with burning hot water or oil, and to top it off there is even a deep pit filled with sharpened stakes to prevent them scaling the walls. I’m sure you’ll be unsurprised to discover that the barbican was never breached; shocking I know.
The tour continued on as our guide regaled us with the truely hilarious story behind those stone statues which stand as sentinels atop the castle. Apparently, many of them were rather questionably acquired by the first Duchess in the 18th century during the castle’s restoration. She would go to visit her equally as well off noble friends, and spotting statues at their homes that she liked, she would constantly tell them how much she adored the works of art until eventually they would offer them to her as a gift. Nothing like manipulating your friends into gifting you their expensive possessions. Anyway, as a result some of the statues are exactly not the kind of figures you would expect to see guarding an English castle; from a Roman soldier in full centurion get up, to a nun. Yes you read that right, there is a statue of a nun protecting Alnwick castle; I guess she could always pray for God to smite down the foe.
Eventually, we made it full circle around the ageing stone walls, and found ourselves being delivered into the inner courtyard of the castle; another familiar scene for Harry Potter fans. A short recount of some more of the castle’s history, and a look at the centuries old well with its well-worn wooden crank, and we were bidding farewell to our friendly guide.
With only one thing left to do, we scurried inside to join the tour of the state rooms which was to begin momentarily. Unfortunately, we were soon to discover that due to a number of private tour groups traipsing through, the free tour was not running for individuals today, alas we would have to explore the rooms unaccompanied. Like most privately owned castles, photography here is not permitted but I will add a few photos courtesy of the internet to help illustrate the beauty held within. The interior has a distinctly Italian feel, as during a refurbishment in the 1800’s the 4th Duke decided to move away from the previous gothic style and move towards the style of an Italian palazzo. The rooms are as lush and lavish as you would expect for such a genre of interior decoration, with elaborately carved and gilded ceilings, Romanesque statues, marble fireplaces, huge gold framed artworks, and massive overmantel mirrors which scream opulence and excess. There is also an impressive collection of Meissen porcelain displayed here. Despite all of it, it was the library which stole my heart. Its rich red carpet and damask wall coverings; coupled with its plush sofas, tempting drinks trolley, and multilevel bookcases; all illuminated with a smattering of lamps, candelabras, and a chandelier; made it a most enticing room if ever I’d seen one. I could have happily have sat and read in there for hours, if that was allowed of course.
On the way out you are lured into a room filled with the long history of the Percys, and a family lineage that spans back far beyond the construction of this castle. It was fascinating to look at such a well documented family tree, as is custom for aristocratic kin.
With the shadows growing longer, and an hour long drive still ahead of us, we made our way back to the car, past the gorgeous artsy garden gate and via the gift shop, of course. Still full from lunch, we forwent dinner and settled on snacks, before tumbling into bed. As I thought back on the castle, I couldn’t help but chuckle once again over the first Duchess’s rather devious method of statue acquisition. My mind cobbled together images of impeccably dressed ladies walking amongst expertly manicured gardens, chatting about upcoming aristocratic events and gossiping about other, less-in-favour, ladies. I then pictured the Duchess systematically directing them back past the same statue, and simultaneously complimenting it every time. I imagined her coming back the next week, sitting in the conservatory of her friend, sipping tea and mentioning the statue again and again; sliding it into conversations in which it had no place being. I thought about the ridiculousness of social etiquette back then, that stipulated it was in the best interests of the statue owner to relinquish it to their peer in order to keep good relations between the houses. How reputation and shows of wealth, like giving away ludicrously expensive statues like it was nothing, was the norm, but to modern eyes it seems to be what kids these days would call a ‘weird flex’. History is so often doom and gloom, wars and tragedies, and it is comforting to find the amusing tales amongst all of the horrors; a reminder that despite the often stiff rigidity and strict behavioural rules of historic upper class life, they were often just as farcical and petty as the rest of us.