Parterres Bright with Flowers


A history of the walled gardens at Alnwick Castle as revealed through excavations and standing building survey

Victoria Ridgeway and Jennifer Proctor, 2019.

PCA Monograph 21

ISBN 978-1999615505


The Alnwick Garden, now a major tourist attraction, has had a chequered history spanning over 250 years. The recent transformation of the gardens by the current Duchess of Northumberland, Jane Percy, allowed for a programme of archaeological excavation and building recording, supplemented by extensive archival research. This book is the culmination of that work.

By the mid-17th century the medieval fabric of Alnwick Castle had fallen into a state of disrepair; the building was only partially habitable, having lain unoccupied for over a hundred years. A major program of renovation began in the 1760s under the direction of the first Duke of Alnwick. This work, overseen by the pre-eminent designer of the period, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, included a programme of landscaping and planting to place the castle within a ‘picturesque’ setting. The creation of a walled garden east of the castle followed soon after. With its central vinery and hot walls, which encouraged the early ripening of fruit, this kitchen garden would have helped supply the household’s table; but it served another purpose, being used to grow the trees needed for the newly landscaped parks and pleasure grounds surrounding the castle.

As a new century dawned the garden was expanded, and further hothouses and conservatories were constructed, allowing growing seasons to be extended. Pineapples were cultivated, as were melons, figs, peaches and grape vines, alongside other exotic fruit and flowers. In 1842 the gardens were opened to the public for the first time. Around 1860 Algernon, the fourth duke, began a radical programme of improvement and expansion, which almost doubled the size of the walled garden and imposed a new and more formal Italianate design.
A decline in the garden’s fortunes saw the land revert to its original use as a nursery for young trees by the 1950s, yet the layout and many of the buildings that had formed part of the fourth Duke’s design remained visible into the 21st century.

This volume includes detailed descriptions and illustrations of the layout and buildings within each successive Duke’s garden design. These are set alongside discussions of the plants and produce grown and the people who worked there, concluding with a consideration of the garden in its wider landscape setting.

  1. Tony Wilmott (Archaeologia Aeliana Book Reviews)

    This describes archaeological work, in the form of earthwork survey, building recording and excavation, undertaken in 2000 and 2004 during the most recent transformation of the walled garden at Alnwick Castle. This transformation has created the ‘Alnwick garden’, which the report shows to be the seventh major redesign of the space. The work has revealed a series of changes in the layout of the garden which both mirrors trends and fashions in garden design, and the methods and technologies involved in the food production for a great estate, and the cultivation of exotic collections. It is not often that an archaeological report can be described as ‘beautiful’, but this is one of those occasions. Lavishly illustrated, the book is exceptionally well produced, right down to the floral endpapers, based on illustrations of 1796. Throughout the book, early maps and plans and documentary sources are skilfully woven into the structural and archaeological narrative to give the most detailed possible account of the successive phases. An introductory chapter details the background to the fieldwork, and the historical and landscape context of the garden. A summary timeline is presented, and two very useful 3D reconstructions are introduced. These allow reconstructions of views of the gardens in the 1830s and the 1870s to be illustrated from various viewpoints, and extracts from these models are used throughout the relevant descriptions.
    Chapters 2–7 are descriptions of the archaeological remains of the six identified garden phases. Unsurprisingly, there are scant remains of the earliest of these, built by the first Duke of Northumberland, 1766–1786, however the enclosing wall on three sides with its arched gateways, a heated wall for fruit growing, the remains of a hothouse and a central pond were recorded. The remains are consistent with the depiction of the garden on early plans. The garden of the second Duke (1786–1817) owed much to the desire to cultivate exotic fruits, and included a pine stove, for the growing of pineapples, vineries and a mushroom house. This was the first phase in which excavation is an important source, revealing a major heated structure with associated furnace. Surviving structures include hothouses and the gardener’s house, which remains in use. The third garden (1817–1847) is the first for which a reconstruction model can be created. The heated structure of the earlier phase was demolished and replaced with a building known from early and detailed plans to be a hot house and conservatory, reflecting a more recreational aspect to the garden. Older hothouses were changed, and new ones built, as was a crenellated water tower in Gothic style.
    The fourth Duke (1847–1865), while retaining earlier elements in the garden, went for a major redesign on Italianate lines, with terraced parterres and a formal symmetrical layout of paths, garden beds and borders extending southwards of the original garden, and arranged around a large central pond. Original plans of the garden layouts of this phase form part of Chapter 8. A major new conservatory replaced part of the original north wall. More alterations took place to the heating systems of hothouses. The fifth garden plan (1867–1899) did not involve a great deal of new construction, but did involve the re-planning of the parterres, as revealed by excavation. The northern conservatory became a palm house, and one of the hothouses was converted into a garden staff bothy. The 20th century largely saw the decline of the garden, reflected in Chapter 7.
    Chapters 8–10 comprise the wider discussion of aspects of the garden. Chapter 8 brings the structural, archaeological, documentary and cartographic evidence together into a narrative describing the development of the gardens. Chapter 9 details the technological developments through time, with particular emphasis on the heating systems, variously employing hot air and hot water piping and steam. Systems of glazing and ventilation and water supply are described. The extraordinary lengths to which the garden designers went in order to create precise growing conditions for particular plants are described at length.
    The final chapter looks variously at the types of plants and produce cultivated, the people responsible for the cultivation, and the wider landscape context of the gardens. Documentary sources are useful for this, but direct archaeological evidence is provided by 19 lead tags, all but one of which were recovered by metal detector survey, and labelling 13 varieties of fruit trees, from the familiar Conference pear, to the Pineapple Nectarine (this tag dated 1872). Garden staff are listed in paylists, and included women and children. Working conditions and tasks are described. At the other end of the social scale, the 18th-century notebook, from which the endpaper illustrations are derived, demonstrates the interest in exotics of the second Duke. Finally, the way in which the walled garden fitted into the wider landscape of the Alnwick estate is discussed, referencing the contribution of local man, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.
    The archaeology of gardens and designed landscapes is an expanding field, and the authors of this report can be congratulated on producing an exemplar of such work.

  2. Gillian Mawrey (Historic Gardens Foundation newsletter)

    The historic gardens at Alnwick Castle, which include a Capability Brown park, have been eclipsed by the notoriety of its modern formal gardens and its 2005 Poison Garden – not to mention the Harry Potter fame of the castle itself. So it is good that research is going on, and being published, into what was created in the past. When Brown worked there for the 1st Duke of Northumberland, as well as laying out a park, he created a walled kitchen garden, intended not only to grow fruit and vegetables but also to act as a nursery for the trees he needed for the park. ‘Parterres Bright with Flowers’, the quotation that gives the book its title, comes from an 1891 description of the walled garden as improved by the 3rd Duke, who added extensive hothouses, and the 4th, who enlarged it and created Italianate terraces. In the 20th century, like many kitchen gardens, it became run-down and eventually was designated as the space for new gardens designed by Jacques Wirtz. Archaeology was carried out while they were being built and much research was also done in the ducal archives. This beautifully produced book describes the six phases of gardens that were developed before the present ones. It is sometimes technical – for instance, when tracing changes in hothouse technology – but always readable, with a wider relevance than as the chronicle of one single garden. This is how the gardens of many big estates were managed in past centuries. A page from the 1867 garden accounts is typical; it shows that men were paid more than twice as much as women for “Raking Leaves”: 2 shillings and 8 pence per day compared with 1 shilling.

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