An education in Alnwick

Date Posted: 11/11/2013

Child dressed up at Alnwick Castle.

The Alnwick Garden and Alnwick Castle: a dual Northumberland treat for school trip organisers arranging a visit to this north eastern region. Carrie Martindale reports.

Alnwick Castle is bound to be a huge draw for teachers, considering the medieval castle’s history and heritage, alongside its claim to fame as ‘Hogwarts’ in the Harry Potter films.

I was on a trip to The Alnwick Garden, the dream child of The Duchess of Northumberland, and decided that a jaunt to the castle was too much of an opportunity to miss. The attractions’ proximity to one another is a major factor; with a visit to one naturally leading to the other, as you simply walk up a drive to reach the castle from the gardens.

The Alnwick Garden

A garden inspired by the Medicis

Although home to the usual – rose garden, kitchen garden, formal gardens - Alnwick is also home to the unusual. There are stunning water sculptures, which were commissioned by a modern artist and were created with children in mind, as well as quirky elements.

The Duchess was inspired to create the Poison Garden, which after visiting Padua in Italy, where the infamous Medici family also had a poison garden. But here, the big difference is that the garden at Alnwick is there to educate, and not to find more effective ways of murdering one’s enemies.

“I didn’t want to put anything in that didn’t kill. In fact, the same plant that kills, also cures, but I thought, why go by the cure angle when you are trying to engage people, especially children,” the Duchess told me.

The Poison Garden raises £18,000 a season in donations (deposited aptly into a coffin-shaped donation box), and that money goes to a theatre group which specialises in drugs education.

Tours of the poison garden are regularly held; we experienced one for ourselves, and the tour guide was full of ominous tales and dark humour – I recommend that your pupils do not miss this aspect of a school visit.

Chef at Jamie Oliver's Ministry fo Food at Alnwick.

A hotbed of learning, workshops and planting sessions

For school groups that like to get their hands dirty, there’s the perfect opportunity to ‘have a go’ in the potting shed down at the Roots and Shoots area, which allows students to take part in workshops and planting sessions.

Each year the Alnwick Garden Trust invites ten schools within Northumberland to take part in the Roots and Shoots project which allows the school groups to develop and maintain their own gardens – picking and tasting fresh herbs, vegetables and fruit along the way.

I experienced a tour, a talk and an interactive session with one of the gardeners. I even got to try a ‘cucamelon’ (a cross between a melon and a cucumber) for the very first time.

In fact, the entire food cycle is covered at The Alnwick Garden. Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food was opened at the garden last year by HRH The Prince of Wales and its cookery workshops and lessons, using produce grown locally - including from the aforementioned Roots and Shoots garden - aims to make cooking fun and to teach children all about healthier lifestyles.

Alnwick Castle

Forget Harry Potter, the castle is impressive on its own merits; a spectacular stone edifice which is still family home to the Percy family, and has been so for the last 600 years.

There is a choice of complimentary workshops and tours available for teachers to choose from at the castle, included within the school admission rate; all of which can be altered to suit your school group’s Key Stage.

The Capture the Castle self-guided tour, which is suitable for school trips of Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 pupils, provides children with the opportunity to learn about life in a medieval castle, the fear of attack and the strength of defence. Click here for all of the schools activities on offer.

Costumed characters at Alniwck Castle.

I was impressed by The Knight’s Quest area for schools. You walk into what is essentially a medieval jousting ring – for ‘real life’ contests – and there are a selection of hands-on activities located around the outside of the ring, including dressing up, learning to ride a broomstick a la Potter, and medieval crafts.

There are also costumed guides and characters milling around and the Dragon’s Quest interactive area, where pupils solve riddles to get to the heart of the dragon’s lair.

Finally, I would recommend a tour of the State Rooms, which are unusual in their combination of grandeur and homeliness – there’s not many stately homes or castles that you can visit in which you see a television in one of the state rooms, or modern framed pictures of loved ones. It really is something very different.

For further school trip information contact:

Alnwick Castle:

The Alnwick Garden:

School Travel Organiser's Guide