Tea-dancing, tinsel and a big treehouse

_0000_duchessReally, doesn’t everyone want to know if Jane Percy’s life is Downton Abbey shaped?

The title, the castle, the privilege, the profile. The devoted dogs, lavish lawns, the Farrow and Ball-painted scullery?

A world of endless scones, visiting royalty, haughty staff and below-stairs shenanigans?

Ponder all we like on such things; this Duchess of Nothumberland wants to talk the very 21st century topics of bus drivers and loos, McDonalds and cannabis – a mix that would surely send the feisty Dowager Countess Grantham into a spin.

The imagined and real worlds of Alnwick and Downton are to collide again this festive season. In the Downton Abbey Christmas special, the Granthams will be heading to Northumberland for an outing to Brancaster Castle, a role ably played by Alnwick Castle in the TV series.

Filming took place in the summer and the Duchess admits she watched a few takes when the film crew was in town.

“Yes, I peeped from behind a curtain”, she laughs.

Will she and the family find themselves cosying up on the sofa come Christmas Day to see their home take centre stage in what will be Downton’s farewell screening watched by millions?

“We will be in Scotland not Alnwick, but yes, it will be watched”, she says.

Downton has shone a priceless spotlight on Alnwick Castle and brought a much-appreciated audience to both castle and the showcase Alnwick Garden.

And while a storyline in the current series exposes the Granthams’ distaste at the paying public being allowed inside Downton Abbey, this savvy Duchess couldn’t be more welcoming.

Her passion is to maximise the potential of small and big screen publicity to secure financial success for the castle and especially the garden, thus ensuring the future of charities she has created within it.

I knew what I was doing and who I was doing it for. I had to do what I said I was going to do so some people called that my ‘vanity garden’

Yes, there’s been a Downton ‘bounce’ in terms of attracting visitors – but nothing compared to the bounce of the Harry Potter broomstick in terms of attracting visitors to the castle that starred as Hogwarts in the highly successful movies.

Full of energy, the diminutive Duchess at 58 continues to capitalise on both with a vigour that puts paid to the oft-cited ‘vanity’ of her Alnwick Garden project. It is hard work convincing people to part with their millions or chasing an affluent market in China who she feels would love the opportunity to take over the castle for a weekend and call it their own.

“Any seasonal attraction makes most of the money in the summer but it is tough for the rest of the year. It is my job to get the money and make sure we have the attraction to bring people here. Our location on the A1 is really important.”

So important that we come to the subject of bus drivers and their loos.

_0002_a5The Duchess is planning to build an airport lounge-style ‘comfort stop’ for bus drivers, complete with Sky TV and good food so that Alnwick Garden will become the obvious stop-off on any journey.

There is good reason to do so this winter. The Garden will come to life more visibly than ever before with ‘A Christmas Tale’ transforming the grounds into a visual theatre with animations, projections, lighting and sound created by the duo behind the projections on Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Jubilee.

Award-winning artists Ross Ashton and Karen Monid have created projections for Durham Lumiere and Illuminating York, projections onto Buckingham Palace during the Diamond Jubilee and the Houses of Parliament during the London Olympics of 2012.

Director Robin Morley is a well-known artistic producer in the North East who has successfully produced and developed the popular Gateshead’s Enchanted Park for six years and Odin’s Glow in 2009.

The show adds another dimension to the Alnwick Garden, maximising the seasonality of the attraction alongside a vibrant series of festive activities happening throughout November and December.

The Duchess talks about it with all the enthusiasm she has had since her grand design for the 21st Century garden was first revealed.

The grand garden for the people that the Duchess has lived and breathed for nearly 20 years has more than come to fruition but she is going nowhere until its future is financially secure.

That could mean anything goes, even the giant arches of the McDonald ‘M’ sponsoring what is the largest children’s playground in the world?

“I’m not too sure I can afford to be choosy”, she says, talking about potential naming and sponsorship opportunities for different areas of the gardens.

“I need another £15 million more and I will never step back until I finish. When I have that I will have the endowment to secure the future for the charities here. There are fabulous naming opportunities for the playground, the pavilion and for gardens still to be developed.”

So the job is far from done. We take photographs of the Duchess at one of the newest attractions, two ornate gates, created by Northumbrian blacksmith Stephen Lunn and his daughter, Ashlee.

They are gates that ‘sing’ – nothing is ever simple in the Alnwick Garden.

“When we do something we do it well. The gates are new and extraordinary, magnificent.”

They took two years to make and weigh in at a hefty 640 kilograms and are quite probably a world first – she does that – ‘the first interactive gates in the world’ with their chirping, sing-song sounds from the cascade of flowers.

From a distance they look ornate but only as you get closer do you see intricate thorns, leaves and branches woven through.

“Their arrived heralded the arrival of something new and unique”, says the Duchess.

The gates have been featured on Robson Green’s Tales of Northumberland – the next thing to come alive will be a Cherry Orchard in the spring.

Another sponsorship opportunity for this business-minded Duchess?

She would run with that. Even the commercial growing of cannabis has been mulled over as an income-generator, she says with tongue only partly in cheek.

“Because of the poison garden we do have a licence to grow illegal plants – but I think policing that one would be a nightmare!”

_0002_a1The Duchess was once quoted as saying the garden would be done by 2015 so she is constantly being asked when she will be taking a step back.

She is going some way towards this with the appointment of Mark Brassell, the new director of the garden who has moved from South Africa to take up the post.

“I would be turning in my grave if I didn’t finish it by the time I die. I live and breathe this project and for anyone to be left to manage what I’ve built, they’ve got to be a special person”, says the Duchess.

“Someone said you have to have the right chemistry and so Mark came for interview, then I said let’s go for lunch, then come and have tea.

“I always said there will be a time when this project is finished – there was a plan and the plan will be done but I will not step back until it is finished”, she says.

The main objective is to ensure the future of the different charities that have been set up at the garden.

These include an enterprise and employability programme for young people which sees them setting up money-making projects based at the Garden and teaching them lifeskills and interview techniques. ‘Sprouts’, is a drug education, gardening and healthy eating project for children and families and ‘Elderberries’, a therapeutic well-being programme for older people, including those with dementia.

Projects offer social, health and well-being benefits with the provision of outdoorsy activities like allotments, hen-keeping and therapeutic gardening, tea-dances, toe-nail clipping and iPad training. Projects like this provide a lifeline for older people and are aspiration-raising for younger people who live in an area with poor job prospects.

This lies at the heart of the Duchess’s grand plan.

But if the capital building programme at the Garden hasn’t been affected by the recession then it is these programmes that have been put under pressure concedes the Duchess.

“We are constantly now being asked to pick up programmes that were being run by local councils – that’s money that would be going to other things here.”

And it is in this respect that the Duchess responds to
those early criticisms of her ‘vanity’ garden.

“The criticism that I got was because people didn’t understand what we were doing. It’s easy for all of us to criticise.

“I knew what I was doing and who I was doing it for. I had to do what I said I was going to do so some people called that my ‘vanity garden’. Those people don’t necessarily come back to see 100 people tea-dancing or having their toe-nails cut!

“I have always believed that it is possible to make a beautiful place that had good values at its heart and that was good for people.

“I don’t think there’s a place that does what we do.


Crossing continents

Life has come full circle for Mark Brassell, the new Director of Alnwick Garden.

He joined the team at Alnwick earlier this year from a sunshine home in South Africa, but in many ways it is a case of coming home.

Mark’s father was a miner in Northumberland. When the pits closed he emigrated to South Africa in search of a better life for his family.

Mark worked in nature conservation in the country but an upsurge in crime persuaded him to return to his roots.

“For me going to meet a Duchess in a castle was surreal, I didn’t want it to go wrong”, he laughs.

There may be physical distance between his two worlds but there is definitely a link between castle and conservancy.

“My experience is in managing eco-tourism. I worked in Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu Natal for 20 years. I managed game estates with restaurants, shops, accommodation. Here at the Garden it has been exciting to bring in The Christmas Tale and enhance what we already do at Christmas.

“The Garden of Fairytales brings something new – a trail with clues and stories and dressing-up for children”, he adds.

Mark will be the Duchess’s right-hand man.

“My job is to get the money, Mark’s is to enhance the garden”, says the Duchess.

“Whoever came to do this job has to be allowed to manage. They have to be strong enough to say ‘you are wrong’ but also to think, ‘I’ve had this idea, let’s give it a go’”, adds the Duchess.

Mark has a dream team of his own who are handy helpers for his on-going garden research.

His family Louisa, Ruby and Joe are about to move continents to join him – and whilst the little ones might miss the sunshine, Daddy’s got them the biggest playground in the world to explore – who can say better than that?