To say that the Alnwick Garden has a new take on horticulture would be an understatement. It features the work of internationally renowned designers and has a fantastic collection of plants, yet it manages to make the leap beyond attracting just those of us who love horticulture, effectively capturing the imaginations of people of all ages and backgrounds. Trevor Jones, the head gardener, arrived at Alnwick two and a half years ago, having previously been head of the School of Horticulture at National Trust Scotland's Threave in Dumfries & Galloway. Leading a team of ten gardeners, Jones has the friendly, sociable attitude that's required here, along with several decades worth of horticultural know how.
"It's part of the garden team's remit to answer questions from visitors," he says. "If someone asks us something, we will put our tools down and do our best to help and we have radios to ask other members of staff in case we don't know the answer. This means that the majority of our gardening work gets done between 7:30am and 10am, before the gates open." Jones is hugely enthusiastic about the garden, explaining that over the next five years there are plans to build another eight gardens within the grounds, including a Garden for the Senses, where visitors will be led around blindfolded, and a Quiet Garden which will feature tables and chairs in a large shallow pool of water where visitors can take off their shoes and socks and enjoy the feeling of water around their toes.
These innovative ideas are very much driven by Jane Percy, the 12th and current Duchess of Northumberland. When she discovered the garden, in 1997, it was a ruin filled with brambles. A keen gardener, she decided to bring it back to life, envisaging a huge public garden filled with people. The site was donated to a new charity, the Alnwick Garden Trust, with the duchess acting as a trustee.
The brief which the Trust gave to the Belgian landscape designers Jacques and Peter Wirtz, was to create a garden that combined quiet and busy spaces and diverse themes all brought together by the repetition of strong, green structural shapes. Walking around the garden, you can see that this brief has most definitely been met – hornbeam covered pergolas, yew topiary and box and beech hedges form the bones of the garden upon which everything else hangs.
That's not to say that these hedges don't bear the brunt of being in such a popular garden. Trevor Jones explains that when the garden first opened, it was expected that about 60,000 people a year would visit. That figure has now been multiplied almost by ten and walking around the Serpent Garden, where yew hedging snakes around a series of stainless-steel water sculptures, you can see where the hedges have been squashed by people leaning over to take a closer look. Jones looks on the bright side, saying: "This is a very interactive garden and you won't find any 'keep off the grass' signs."
Alnwick is very much a contemporary garden, although there is a more traditional ambience in the Ornamental Garden. It's Trevor Jones's favourite area, with pathways edged with lavender and box, and beds filled with roses, delphiniums, cut-flower species and bulbs. Pleached crab apples are an unusual feature, offering scented blossom in spring and bright red and yellow crabs later in the year.
At the very centre of the Ornamental Garden you'll find a bubbling pool that spills into the rills that run throughout the garden, and into two small secret gardens. "The other end of the garden is fun and interactive and noisy," says Jones, "whereas the Ornamental Garden is quieter, the pools are calmer and it has really good quality plants."
If you visit the gardens in springtime, you'll be wowed by the sight of the Cherry Orchard. White-flowered prunus taihaku trees, 350 of them, show off their blossom above a sea of 260,000 pink mistress tulips. The cherry trees can be dedicated to a special person, day or event as one of the garden's fundraising programmes and there are plans to plant another few hundred thousand tulips in the coming years. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the pink loveliness of the Cherry Orchard, you'll find the Poison Garden. With locked, wrought iron gates, visitors can enter only with a guide, so deadly are the plants within.
"People are surprised to find lots of common garden plants inside," says Jones, explaining that rhubarb, foxgloves, belladonna, laburnum and poppies are a few of the well-known plants with a darker side which gets explained by the guides. Mandrake, tobacco and hemlock can all be found in the flame-shaped beds, then there are the plants that are grown under special licence from the Home Office, including coca and cannabis.
Backing up all of the garden features is a series of community projects, including educational ones such as the Roots and Shoots garden where ten local schools make repeat visits to the garden to grow their own veg which eventually gets turned into a soup for them by the restaurant chef. The Elderberries Project includes tea dances and guided visits for older visitors and one particular group of ladies is currently working on a knitted miniature Alnwick Garden.
Head Gardener Trevor Jones seems nonplussed that there's a tiny knitted version of himself running around, as it seems to reflect the quirky and upbeat nature of the Alnwick Garden.
"It is a unique place – a garden for everybody, even if you're not a gardener," he says. "We are aiming to create an experience so people feel better when they leave than they did when they arrived." And judging by the hundreds of smiling visitors spread out across this beguiling garden, that vision is being achieved.
The Alnwick Garden is open all year (excluding Christmas Day). Tickets: adult 9.50, concessions, 7.20, child 1p (for up to four children per adult). To find out more, tel: 01665 511350, visit www.alnwickgarden.com
This article was first published in The Scotsman, Saturday June 5, 2010