Travelling with ten- and seven-year-old boys, you come to see the U.K. as one giant Harry Potter theme park. In Oxford, you can do a Harry Potter tour of colleges used as film locations. In Edinburgh, you can sit in the back room of the Elephant Cafe and gaze at the view of Stirling Castle that inspired J.K. Rowling when, as an unemployed single mother, she penned the first two books in the series. (And of course, you can purchase the indispensable "Birthplace of Harry Potter" muggle...er, mug.) But our best day of Harry Potter tourism took place at Alnwick Castle, the "Hogwarts" of all eight movies, where Max and Milo took broomstick-flying lessons.
Fortunately for me, Alnwick is the site of what is reputed to be the most ambitious current garden project in Britain. The castle, built after the Norman Conquest and renovated many times to fit the tastes of different eras, is the home of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. The family is in residence for part of every year, and Alnwick Castle Garden is the project of the current Duchess, Jane. Many of the gardens I've written about have the goal of historical re-creation, attempting to showcase a classic design from another period. This garden is decidedly contemporary. Work did not begin on the garden until 1996. Since then, Jacques and Peter Wirtz, the stellar Belgian garden design team, have been working with the Duchess to bring her vision of a "garden for gardeners" that is also a "garden for families" to life.
The first thing you see is a spectacular water feature by William Pye, The Grand Cascade.
that run throughout the garden. At the top of the Cascade is the Ornamental Garden, where this hard/soft tension is expressed through the contrast between the perfectly-trimmed, sharp-angled box and beech hedges
and the lush shapes and intense colors of the plantings.
Once again I greeted the familiar coneflower (ecinachea), which it turns out is as popular a garden flower in England as in Texas, where we like it because it can tolerate drought and heat. Apparently it doesn't object to temperate climes and lots of rain either.
This part of the landscape garden is walled, and makes imaginative use of the textural contrasts between stone and shrub. Often, the relationship is a delightful surprise: it is the artfully-shaped yew topiary that seems hard while the warm, weathered stone looks soft.
In addition to well-known posionous plants such as deadly nightshade and stinging nettle, there were familiar garden plants such as laurel and vinca that I had not realized "can kill." Opium poppies, cannabis, and even tea had their place, for as our guide (no one is allowed in the poison garden without a guide) reminded us, addictive substances work because they are just a tiny bit toxic. I'll bet this is where the the students in the Hogwarts Potions class do their fieldwork.