Alnwick is at a disadvantage because of all the hype it has received. My expectations were high. I was looking forward to something really special from all the money that had been spent, all the consultants and designers involved. I wanted to be amazed, delighted, titillated, awed even. I experienced none of those feelings. Actually, thinking back to my visit in September 2008, I felt a bit blah.
Michael Hopkins? Pavilion and Visitor Centre was serviceable but not breathtaking.
It looked as though they were expecting a lot of visitors in the future. My husband, an industrial designer, appreciated the roof system and had a better feeling for the structure. As you walk through and out onto the terrace area, the Grand Cascade hits you right in the eye. To me it looked like a cardboard cut out plonked in the middle of this vast cleared space. Only a couple of the jets were spouting the time we were there on a September morning, so I have no idea how it redeems itself when in full spout.
In a row along the steps of the Visitor Centre were two dozen blobs of greenery in clay pots whose only purpose that I could see was to alert visitors to the steps, lest they trip down them gazing in awe at the Cascade. To these were added at the base of the Cascade eight or so miniature John Deere tractors.
Now, I can see pleasing the children, but did they have to be right in the front of the whole shebang? And another thing, can?t the children run about on the lawns and play hide and seek in the leafy tunnels without having to resort to plastic, made-in-China toys?
The leafy tunnels up both sides of the Grand Cascade were fun with windows and doors cut out to glimpse or walk through to the Cascade and I did like the curving paths and little ponds with rills on either side. The fastigiate trees and mounded hedges were just right here.
On up then to the Walled Garden. The impressive entryway gave way to a big disappointment at this time of the year. Where I had expected innovative autumnal plantings, I found a few mangy roses and empty boxed in beds where delphiniums had been.
Probably a lovely sight when in full flower but these beds, and visitors, deserved something more. There are so many wonderful late blooming plants why weren?t they here en masse? There were a couple of beds of Anemone japonica and Cimicifuga ramosa ?Atropurpurea? and soft hued Kirengeshoma palmata but not nearly enough.
The hedges and box edges were neat, the espaliers geometric but the in-fill lacked substance. In the rose garden proper some blooms were in evidence but where were the giant, glowing hips of some of the species roses? I liked the simple metal and wooden pergolas and these will be bowers when the roses fill in, hopefully fragrant bowers.
I really have no problem with the layout of the Walled Garden and there are some attractive features such as the square pond and the rill leading to the round pond, all on a line when you first enter the garden. I thought some interesting paving materials could have been laid around the large square pond to add interest and lift the expanse of water, especially on this grey day. Because I have a passion for herbaceous plants I missed their presence here in September.
Back now down to the main area in front of the Visitor Centre. To the left is the “infamous” Poison Garden which is kept locked and opened on the magic crossing of palms with silver. I suppose people find a fascination in this type of exhibit, judging by the queue waiting for the guided tour but it is beyond me. Having said that I haven?t been to see it so perhaps shouldn?t judge.
To the right is an area of seven or so innovative water features by William Pye with lots of splashing, shimmering, dripping, spilling, or spouting movement; each one surrounded by high hedges. I thought these were clever and delightful and in some ways I wish they had been placed separately around the garden for us to come upon unexpectedly.
There are other areas in the gardens which I don?t have much to say about. The Bamboo Maze was okay, not great. The rope bridges were scary for a person who doesn?t like heights but I did cross over them and am glad I did. The Tree House was nothing special to someone who has lived in the mountain areas of the USA where you see similar structures but that?s not a put down.
Last but not least, who could not like the colour-changing glass wash basins in the ladies? loo? That?s more like it!
I would not wish to knock anyone who creates a garden, big or small, famous or private. I admire that person. I applaud a person or group of people who encourage and cajole others to garden and promote the love of the land in children. However, to earn the right to be called the most innovative, contemporary British garden of the twenty-first century Alnwick Gardens need to step it up a notch. They need to be at the forefront of artistic gardening movements and lead the way. They need to live up to all the hype and not
March 1st, 2010