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 Peter Takes on History 

February 17, 2005

The Poison Garden

So I’m picturing myself attending a reception. Kinda high class affair, y’know. And I’m in line, waiting for my turn at chocolate fondue fountain. The guy in front of me is my age, blondish hair, blue eyes. Nice suit but he’s so skinny it just hangs on him. I’m an affable sort so extend the hand of friendship, “Hi I’m Peter” and he says, “Good aftanoon, my name is Rafe... Rafe Percy, Head of the House of Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumbalin.” And I’m thinking, “Whoa! What are you supposed to do when you meet a duke?” And he’s like, “No, no, please stand up. The Duchess and I ah mehely average folk. Spend most days knocking about the castle. Chores and all, what.” Wait, “Are Dukes considered “Royalty?” And he’s like “No, please stand up. You’re embarrassing me. It’s not that lahge a castle. Just 24,000 square metas.” “Um, that’s 254,000 square feet.” “Subs-tantial, yes, but baily haf the size of Windsa Castle … though 100,000 acres, a bit larger lawn.” And I’m thinking, “How cool would it be to live in a castle! Probably never have to wait in line for your chocolate fondue!”
But then you gotta wonder, “Is it really cool living in a castle?” I’ve lived mid-century moderns that were difficult to maintain. Ralph’s contractor came over in the Norman Conquest. Of course it was a more modest castle then. They’ve been remodeling for 700 years.
But you have to admire Ralph and all his Percy predecessors. It’s tough erecting economic battlements to protect the ancestral abode. The books balanced during the Dark Ages, the Medieval years, really, right up through Victorian times. But, starting in the late 19th Century the numbers stopped working. Tenant farming wasn’t paying the dues. Then the 20th century - a depression bookended by a couple of World Wars. Estate owners were forced to sell land to save the house. Taxes continued to rise and no one was holding bake sales to save the landed aristocracy. By the mid 20th Century half the estates in England had disappeared.
But the Percy family was smart. They diversified. Moved into commercial and residential development. A little forestry. They own wind farms. And they’ll occasionally thin their extensive collection of art and antiquities. Imagine all the dustables a family can accumulate over 28 generations!
And, to avail themselves of some generous tax credits, they opened their castle - Alnwick Castle - to the public.
Actually, it’s one of the biggest attractions in England. Not only do 800,000 tourists visit the house every year, it’s in demand as a movie location. Alnwick Castle was The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the first two Harry Potter movies!
And then there’s Alnwick gardens!
In 1995, Ralph asked his wife Jane, the Duchess of Northumberland, to “do something” with the grounds. So she did. She spent £42M and created 14 spectacular acres of gardens and fountains that attract another 600,000 visitors each year!
But, the thing that caught my eye was a little pet project the duchess developed.
On this day in 2005, Jane Percy opened a garden where visitors are specifically warned not to stop and smell the flowers; “Alnwick’s Poison Garden.”
The duchess collected something north of 100 varieties of poisonous plants. Of course there’s the usual suspects: Hemlock, Castor Bean, Henbane and Oleander. But others are surprisingly commonplace: Autumn crocus, Azalea, Buttercups! Hyacinth, Hydrangea, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Lily of the valley! Every plant is poisonous and every plant has a story. Belladonna, extracted from nightshade, was the hallucinogen of choice in Greek times. Though, a little too much and the party was over! Angel’s Trumpet is quite the aphrodisiac ... before it kills you.
And Laurel. A hardy hedge in English gardens. Turns out laurel leaves emit cyanide gas. Head gardener Trevor Jones (who does his cultivation in a hazmat suit) tells the story of a gentleman who nearly died transporting a car full of laurel clippings to the dump.
The insightful duchess realized that the poison garden would be a perfect way to drop a little education on unsuspecting kiddies. “Children don’t care that aspirin comes from a bark of a tree,” she said, “What’s really interesting is to know how a plant kills you!."
After reading up on Alnwick, I was very excited about the possibility of visiting some day - until I told Ruthy about the Poison Garden her first question was, “Do they have a gift shop?”

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