Day Sixty Eight

Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hogwarts. Yay! The sun is out and we are off!
In reality, we are visiting Alnwick Castle and Alnwick Gardens in
Northumbria which are separate, but side by side attractions. The
castle has been in the Percy family for 900 years, and is a popular
film destination with the first two Harry Potter films shot there, as
well as Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, and Elizabeth. The garden is
privately owned, as is the castle.
Everything as we approach tells us that it’s going to be a busy day.
The car park is filling fast and there are people everywhere.
Mercifully there is only a short queue for tickets as we are quite
early, and we are in shortly thereafter. Even the car park and walk in
is meticulously manicured, so I am very eager to see what’s ahead.
We tackle the garden first. I was expecting a minor adjunct to the
castle, but this is spectacular in its own right. We pass a tree house
earmarked for last exploration on exit, then a lake, then walk
through a meandering cherry orchard.
At this point, we start to twig that perhaps this isn’t just a minor
attraction, it’s going to be fabulous. There are 350 white blossomed
Tai Haku Japanese cherry trees, under which we read are 650,000
pink “Mistress” tulips. Which of course we don’t see – it’s summer,
vs spring. I do my maths. They would flower around April, my school
reporting season. The only way I will see the sight of cherry
blossoms over 650,000 tulips would be to retire. This makes me
rather sad and I have a quiet sook about it.
This garden, throughout, would be unbridled joy in spring. I would
give almost anything to see it at that time of year. Except perhaps,
my career just now. It will wait for me though. The nice thing about
attractions here is they measure time in decades and centuries vs
years. There is hope for me yet.
From the cherry orchard we move to the ornamental garden. It’s a
classic design, set in squares separated either by hedged mazes, or
high espaliered crab apple trees. It’s a riot of colour and flowers and
so pretty that I want to move in with a few bunnies, squirrels and
song birds to live a Snow White existence.
It’s that pretty.
From the ornamental garden, and at first entrance, now that I think
if it, we can see the major water feature, the “Grand Cascade” a
series of 21 weirs that cascade across two hills with spectacular
water displays on the half hour. It’s set in sandstone and is the key
central point to the garden.
Our next stop is the rose garden which has 3,000 David Austin roses
planted beneath pergolas of clematis and honeysuckle. Being
summer, the roses are in full bloom. There both new and heritage
roses, most are highly perfumed and the walk through them is a
sensory extravaganza. I sniff everything in sight, dodging bees along
the way. Gorgeous.
Rolling on from the rose garden we burrow through a bamboo
tunnel. If we lived in burrows, this is what they would look like. Thin
bamboo criss crossed overhead to close over into tunnels and it’s a
maze! Kids squeal with the pleasure of being lost and not quite sure
from whence their salvation will come.
The bamboo labyrinth opens into the Serpent’s Garden. Not sure
why its named this, as it’s a series of seven interactive water features
including a meniscus display, a whirlpool, a waterfall which you
stand in, and best of all a water fountain that the kids are playing in.
It’s based around a central tower that trickles with water until it’s full
and then erupts into a circle of upwards water shoots trapping the
children inside. Much screaming and fun had by the little ones.
We watch a little brother and sister team for a while. He’s about 3,
she about 5 and he’s much more daring than she is. He runs in and
out of the fountain, daring it to come on whereas she pokes a toe in
and then runs straight back out. Others join them and it becomes a
waiting game, waiting for the outside wall of water to come on and
trap them. The longer it takes, the more kids join, and the braver
they get. More and more adults watch, we all can’t wait for the kids
to be jolted out of their bravado…and when it does its a joy to
behold. Happy wet kids having almost as much fun as happy wet
puppies. The only one not enjoying it is the little, previously brave, 3
year old. Having been braver than all the others, he lost his nerve at
the last hurdle. His sister takes his hand and tries to pull him in, but
he won’t budge. Their parents video everything. It’s a joy to watch
these two, especially when the little girl came out to try to get him
to join in.
We grab some lunch afterwards, and head to the “Roots and
Shoots” garden. It’s a formal vegetable garden with separate plots
kept by schools and individual children. They’ve done a great job –
the gardens are bulging with corn, fat red and golden beetroot,
broad beans, onions, dinosaur sized zucchini and kale. Lots of
variety. At the back of the garden are scarecrows made by the
children and a tee pee with bean bags which is a teaching area.
There is also a bee observatory, where a cross section of a hive can
be seen and the bees busy within. We see the queen, and workers
coming in to perform their “this is where the honey is” dance. On
the way in I save a bee from a spider’s web. My good deed for the
day. On our way out from the garden he is resting still, having
exhausted himself trying to get free.
The garden has just blown me away – we have seen some
spectacular gardens and this one is right up there. Each lovely in
their own way, the sheer scale of this one is eclipsing.

With our tour of the garden complete, we head to the castle. It’s
immediately recognisable from its exterior and we can hear excited
small people milling about.

The castle has tried to maintain a balance between its actual history
and Potter mania. I suspect there are a few copyright laws and
contractual agreements between them and the all out Potter mania
they could turn it into.
There are historical displays heralding back to 1305, a museum,
military history, and a truly magnificent display of formal state rooms
with an extraordinary collection of oil paintings, china and books.
One of the inhabitants from the 1700s was a collector and she was
prolific. The castle owes much to her life’s work.
Balancing all the history, pomp and circumstance are a series of
Potter and historical activities for children: flying lessons complete
with broomsticks and Professors, archery, sword fighting, village
stocks and a captive dragon. Well, a model captive dragon, anyway.

Chris explores the history and museum, and I take off to watch the
Professors teach the kids how to fly. The two boys (Professors, they
say ) have the crowd in the palm of their hands. Half the kids,
average age between 4 – 6, are convinced they are about to fly and
are bouncing around in excitement. They are completely caught
between a fantasy world and the real one. How do you explains CGI
to a 3 year old? I hear “is the dragon real? (answer, quickly: no, real
dragons are too expensive), and “where’s the quidditch
pitch”(harder), but the guides do try hard to preserve their
innocence.

It’s all very charming and the kids, and I, just lap it up. One little one
is pulled out of crowd for a centre stage performance. He takes
fright at a spell and runs to hide behind his mother. You can hear the
crowd collectively go “awwwww”. Too cute.

The castle is surrounded by a defensive battlement and we tour this
from above and ground level. It’s a very scenic setting, and I can see
why it’s been selected as the setting for a number of movies. It
really is beautiful. A magnificent lion guards one of the towers – he’s
carved out of the stonework.

We also take a look at young knights in sword battle, in full costume
provided for them, the archers, and I have a go in the stocks and
nag Chris for a black cherry ice cream.

I like this second childhood. Much more fun than the first one.

It’s getting late in the day, and Chris starts to make noises about
having been here for 5 hours and haven’t you had enough yet (um…
no…..I could go for another 5 at least) …but all good things must
end, and we start to head out.
Our last stop is the tree house. We missed one exhibition of
poisonous plants which was too crowed by the time we caught it on
the second pass. Shame, but tree house it is. It’s hard to explain…
but it’s a three story tree house. Set in a tree. Lots of little rooms
with separate displays and cafes, and in the centre, a restaurant. On
the outside is a circular rope bridge that the kids are having a
fabulous time bouncing around on. People with prams and one
brave soul in a wheelchair, less so.
In the end I have to be dragged away. I could do it all again.
It was, simply, a great day and one I will look back on with much
happiness.

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