An interview with Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland
With an instantly recognisable rugged coastline, an outstanding collection of castles, acres of stunning countryside and some of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, the North East of England is known far and wide for its rural offering.
But what surprises many is the proximity of the coast and countryside to the vibrant city life – from NewcastleGateshead to iconic locations like Alnwick, Hadrian’s Wall or Bamburgh is only around an hour by road, meaning that even a short visit to North East England can take in both.
That proximity is one of the many things the Duchess of Northumberland points to as to why she loves the North East. Originally from Scotland, the Duchess is now a proud North East resident and has lived in Alnwick Castle – the UK’s second-largest inhabited castle, behind Windsor Castle – since her husband, Ralph Percy, inherited the Dukedom in 1995. The illustrious history of the Percy family has been part of North East folklore for over 700 years – Harry Hotspur, killed in battle against King Henry IV, was even immortalised by Shakespeare in his play King Henry IV (Part 1).
During that time, the Duke and Duchess have transformed Alnwick Castle into one of the UK’s most popular visitor attractions – with appearances in Hollywood blockbusters including the Harry Potter and Transformers franchises – and the Duchess has overseen the creation and ongoing development of The Alnwick Garden, which has become an international success in its own right, welcoming visitors from across the world.
“This is a wonderful region, many people have no idea until they actually come here. During the winter months we have people staying in the Castle from around the world, and they just can’t believe what we have here. People who have travelled the world, they have seen it all, but then they come here and they have never seen anything like it,” said the Duchess.
“I believe the unique selling point of North East England and what is so great about this region is that we have everything. We have an unbelievable coast, a great history that can’t be rivalled by other regions in the UK – where else can you find eight castles within ten miles? – and we have incredible moorland.
“But then 45 minutes away, you could be visiting a state-of- the-art exhibition at BALTIC or having dinner there, or seeing a concert at Sage Gateshead. There is so much to do.
“I think all of this, combined with the welcome you get when you come to the North East which you just don’t get anywhere else, makes this region truly special.”
The Duchess is known as a passionate advocate for the region, who fought hard in the mid-1990s to make her plans for The Alnwick Garden a reality, overcoming much criticism along the way in her battle to add to North East England’s offering.
Now a huge tourist attraction – with fundraising underway for the final stage, which will see the creation of the world’s biggest children’s play centre – the Duchess remains incredibly involved in all aspects of the project and its running.
Sitting at her usual table in The Treehouse, the famous treetop restaurant in The Alnwick Garden – with her usual order of tea with milk, no sugar, served in a mug adorned with a photograph of The Treehouse – the Duchess said:
“I am proud to live in this region. I wanted to create a community garden, which would also bring people into Alnwick and the North East from much further afield. I believe and have always believed strongly in the North East, and whatever happens in the South, there is no reason for that not to happen in the North. With The Treehouse, I knew I had to build something that would make people invite their relatives from the South or from elsewhere to come up here for lunch or dinner, something that they wouldn’t have seen before.
“What we have created here is unique, there is nothing like it. I want to bring things to the North East that hopefully haven’t been done before in the UK, or are a world first. Like the play centre, which will be a ‘Treehouse on steroids’, there will be nothing like it anywhere. I really believe that we as a region deserve that.”
Once The Alnwick Garden has been completed, the Duchess is planning a journey of a different kind – a world tour of speaking engagements.
“I have had many requests from around the world over the years, but when I finish this project, I am going to do a world tour, I have wanted to do this for a long time. I will talk about the mistakes I have made along the way and the lessons I have learned,” she said.
“It is also an opportunity to talk about North East England to people who may not have been and don’t know what we have here in this region. We have so many amazing things here – this is a very special place.”
The content and photography in this editorial section were produced by North East Times.