As signalled by the unsubtle skull and crossbones on the gate, we're entering the danger zone.
To the left is deadly hemlock, to the right meddling mandrake roots, and in the middle are children staring agog at the guide who is reeling off the horticultural horrors of the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle.
We've already woven through a verdant arch of entwined ivy and popped our heads into a hut full of taxidermied animals at the entrance. Now the unusual enclave rammed with plants -- from foxgloves and poppies to Helleborus -- is captivating us with heartbreaking histories; how ingesting or in some cases just touching the wrong one can end in disaster, or how Datura, for example, is poisonous, and yet is also an aphrodisiac.
Punctuating the don't-touch-anything tour is a propped-up coffin that doubles as a donation box -- all part of the brainchild of the endearingly unstuffy Duchess of Northumberland. For at the heart of this macabre collection dotted among faux gravestones is a serious program on drug abuse. So when those kids later leave talking loudly of visiting a garden "where everything kills people," you can bet this creator of the garden opened a decade ago will be beaming.
"That's exactly what I like to hear and what I set out to do," the Edinburgh native enthuses, as we wander around the grounds of what's been the seat of her husband's family (the Percys) for the past seven centuries. "Grab attention and then educate by stealth."
Grab attention, she certainly does herself. Only seconds after meeting the duchess -- who likes to be known simply as Jane North -- not only does she quickly enthuse about how she has "a licence to grow drugs" (from cocaine to marijuana and magic mushrooms for educational purposes), but also how she has recently conjured up the "ultimate" marketing tool.
"I'm being scattered on the Poison Garden when I die," she laughs blithely. "Then they can say, 'She's here and she haunts it.' Talk about making use of my life and death."
I'm not entirely sure if she's joking, but what is certain is how the duchess has been on a passionate mission for more than a decade to drive interest in this bucolic but economically challenged part of northern England. As well as the small, but thoroughly entertaining Poison Garden -- inspired by her visit in the '90s to the famous Medici family-built one in Padua, Italy -- she's also the architect of a $63-million scheme including the centrepiece fountains fast heralded as the "Versailles of the North."
She may like to be known as Jane (and always points out how the garden is its own charity and separate to the castle), but it feels like this type of ducal overload belies such a plain name. Today, the cascade is in full throttle surrounded by hornbeam hedges and children rushing to play with toy diggers and trucks at its expansive base, transferring its water around the pathways. Adults check out the encyclopedic array of plants (from clematis to roses) that are part of the transformation of these 18th-century walled gardens, which also boasts a Jamie Oliver Ministry of Food eatery.
Even then, as if there weren't enough wizardry in the garden alone (and plenty big enough to accommodate the 800,000 visitors it draws annually, one of the most popular in the country), a short stroll away looms the drama of the ochre-hued Alnwick Castle itself, most notably known in recent years for the Hogwarts setting for the Harry Potter films.
Up there, it's time for broomstick training as the children whirl around the grounds of the 150,000-acre estate, some designed by the famous landscape gardener Capability Brown. Inside, the gilt-dripping stately rooms of Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland, are equally rammed either with 14,000 books in the library or with weapons. Ancient pistols and rifles are pinned on every inch of the room to look more like an arts and crafts pattern than a guard chambers.
From Turner to Canaletto, there's also a virtual shrine to classic artwork. (The duke, after all, famously sold Madonna of the Pinks, Raphael's Renaissance masterpiece, to the National Gallery in London for $55 million a decade ago.) Other rooms, such as the formal drawing-room, feel as if the family has just left the room and are plump with personal photographs.
Of course, that's likely Jane's personal touch, too. As well as the gardens, the duchess has also lent her name to the fun and fruity side of owning such a palatial spot -- from her creation of a marmalade jammed with an aphrodisiac to the cheeky offering of cocktails in the giant Treehouse restaurant to the side of the gardens. (What's your poison, Dirty Jane or Desirable Jane?) There's even a Deadly Jane skin-care range, and a run of successful books called The Poison Diaries, with the author Maryrose Wood.
Returning to the garden, it's worth losing yourself in the maze of the bamboo garden. Once you work out the circuitous routes, you'll spy a saying that's absolutely made for the way the unusual duchess lives her life: "Only dead fish swim with the stream."
And with England enviably wallowing in stately homes, you'll soon discover this is no standard visitor attraction swimming with the stream either.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013