The Poison Garden at Alnwick Gardens

Have you ever fantasised about poisoning someone? Be honest. Well, if you have, you will, perhaps, feel a little less ashamed in knowing that you are not the only one. Testament to this is the notorious ‘Poison Garden’ sprawling, beautiful and deadly, right in the middle of the gardens at Alnwick Castle in northeast England.

I must admit that when I first visited Alnwick Castle, my main motivation for going was the fact that it was one of the main castles used to portray Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter movies. Fandom apart, I love exploring castles whenever I’m abroad and while reading about the various historical attractions one can find in Northumberland, of which there are many, Alnwick caught my attention for many reasons.

Originally built during the 11th century, Alnwick Castle is the second largest inhabited castle in England being the seat of the Duke of Northumberland, who with his family, actively occupies part of the castle to this day.

While trying not to buy too many souvenirs at the gift shop, right after we had purchased our tickets, I was amazed as I looked through the free visitor’s map and pamphlet they had given us, realising how much we had to explore.

Although the castle itself was enormous (all the different parts were labelled in a diagram), the gardens seemed almost to dwarf it, featuring several differently themed sections formally landscaped around a central water cascade. The pamphlet promised a bamboo maze, a large wooden tree house, a number of water fountains and features, a cherry-tree orchard complete with tree-swings, a deer park and many other attractions which I couldn’t wait to see, however what really piqued my interest as soon as I read the sinister-sounding title on the tiny map, was ‘The Poison Garden’.

After asking about it at the gift shop, I was told that this garden was always kept under lock and key, due to the dangerous plants and flowers growing inside and that one could only enter with an official guide at various prescribed times.

Fortunately, the next guided tour was scheduled to start within 15 minutes, so off we went to find the entrance. The cloudy sky and intermittent rain seemed to be the perfect foil for such a grisly tour and as we waited in front of the iron-wrought gate with a number of other visitors huddling underneath rain-jackets and umbrellas, I couldn’t help but wonder at the giant lock and painted skulls warning us off.

Finally, a lady with a jolly smile greeted us, cautioning us against touching anything within  the garden once we were inside. This, she said, was because every tree, plant, leaf and flower inside was highly poisonous, not only through ingestion but even through touch. The gate was opened and we filed in slowly, only to have it clang shut behind us and padlocked once more. Every tree, plant, leaf and flower inside the garden is highly poisonous.

Every tree, plant, leaf and flower inside the garden is highly poisonous.

The first thing we saw as we shivered in the rain and waited for the guide to start explaining the different plants to us, was a large black coffin. Smiling, our guide told us that even though it was not Halloween, that coffin was always there as a warning and to further set the stage for a number of macabre stories relating to the venom-filled bulbs, roots and plants found inside.

The use of poison dates back as far as spiritual and mythical beliefs have been recorded. Our ancestors knew much about the power of plants. They knew not only which parts of the plants were poisonous, but also what quantities to use to kill, cure, drug, or relieve pain.

The multicoloured trees, shrubs and flowers within the Poison Garden glittered sensuously with rain-drops as we made our way around them while hearing stories about their various uses and the gruesome incidents and murders caused by the plants, which had been historically documented.

The pretty blue flowers of Monkshood, also known as Wolf’s Bane, had been used to poison enemy water supplies during times of war in ancient Europe and Asia, which caused numbness of the throat, intense vomiting, diarrhoea, muscular weakness, spasms, paralysis of the respiratory system, and convulsions which could be fatal.

Yet another innocuous-looking shrub was revealed by our guide to be ‘wormwood’, which is one of the ingredients used to make Absinthe. Sporting tiny yellow flowers, wormwood is both a hallucinogenic and an emetic, it is in fact banned in most countries.

Although the ancients knew how to use herbs and plants to heal, it was very easy to misconstrue their dosage or use, thus resulting in a number of ailments and deaths.

Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, is well-known today to be made of foliage and berries which are highly toxic, however Venetian ladies used the juice from this plant as a cosmetic. It was, in fact, distilled as eye drops with the aim of enlarging and darkening the pupils, making the eyes look larger and more mysterious, hence the name ‘bella donna’ which means ‘beautiful woman’ in Italian.

The guide told us that the poison in this pant is so effusive, that just three of its tiny sweet-tasting shining black berries are enough to kill an infant.

Our guide also explained that many of the poisonous plants found within the garden at Alnwick grow avidly in the wild and can be erroneously ingested by a pet or child left unsupervised.  Even the common daffodil, that is the narcissus, can be poisonous, since the bulbs contain toxic alkaloids.

As we walked even deeper into the garden, I noticed that one small section in particular was dramatically cordoned off with chains. Seeing me looking at it in undisguised curiosity, the guide smiled and showed us the small sign at its edge. This in fact, was the ‘illegal drug’ section.

 The Poison Garden at Alnwick was often a site for teachers and parents to bring students and children, in order to educate and caution them on drug abuse and the misuse of illegal substances.

She assiduously pointed out that all the illegal plants found in this part of the garden, such as marijuana (cannabis) which is a hallucinogen and cocaine, which causes nose ulcers, convulsions and depression, among other effects, were grown with express permission from the government under a Home Office licence.

Other commonly-found poisonous plants we saw and discussed during our visit included bluebells and snowdrops, whose bulbs are very poisonous when ingested and which can cause nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting.

There was also common Juniper, whose berries can be fatal in small amounts; prickly lettuce, which is a sedative and can be addictive; oleander, which is highly toxic and may cause skin irritation if touched, and death if eaten; the opium poppy, which is a source of morphine, laudanum and heroin; and the tobacco plant, whose nicotine effects are well known.

In other words, if you find yourself walking along a wild garden or forest, be very careful what you smell, touch, or put in your mouth, because even though something may seem pretty and innocuous, appearances can be deceiving!

The exterior of Alnwick Castle.

By the way, this article was originally published by the Maltese newspaper The Sunday Times, however due to a bug embedded in the webpage concerned, I am told that I am unable to share it in any browser for now, which is why I am resorting to my blog.

The url itself, strangely enough, is still working, so if you want to take a look at the original, go here

Update: the bug has been cleared and any shares have been restored… ugh what a mess! Not gonna delete this entry from my blog now anyways. So there!

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Who are the Book Fairies?

Have you heard of the Book Fairies? No, they don’t have wings, they don’t fly on flowers and they are of a normal size.

Let me explain – In March 2017, ‘Harry Potter’ actress Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) helped launch The Book Fairies project on International Women’s Day, when she hid feminist books around NYC – titles she had chosen for her book club (yes, Emma Watson has a Book Club). She is currently continuing her Book Fairy fun with the current book club read – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which she is currently sharing around Paris. 

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Basically, this is what being a Book Fairy is all about – Book Fairies are people who leave books in public places, in order for these to be found and read, and then passed on to other readers. The aim is to promote reading!

Although the project started in New York with only a few members, today Book Fairies number over 5,000 people sharing books in more than 100 countries. In fact, anyone can be a Book Fairy! All you have to do if you have some books you’d like to share, is to head over to the Book Fairies’ website here and order some VERY cheap green ‘Book Fairies’ stickers to attach to your books. One can also decorate the books with ‘Book Fairies’ ribbons or bookmarks, which can also be found on the official website here.

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Who knows, you could be featured in the Book Fairies page as a representative of your country! Take a look here!

As for me, I know that I personally could never be a Book Fairy because I’m a book hoarder and I’m too attached to my books to give them away. Once I’ve read a book, I want to keep it forever. Fortunately, no one is as book-greedy as I am!

Do you believe in Book Fairies!?

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Oxford University – The Real Hogwarts!

Balliol College

Have you ever found yourself in a particular place and suddenly felt completely at home? I couldn’t identify this pervading feeling at first, but when I visited the University of Oxford in Oxfordshire, England, a couple of years ago, for some strange reason it felt amazingly familiar. I had never been there before and yet, that indecipherable feeling of connection could not be shaken off.

The architecturally gothic buildings and the streets thronged with bustling students, the jovial camaraderie and the many fairy-like gardens and little shops sporting old tomes and coloured school uniforms… I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Until I started visiting specific places of interest that is, and then all the pieces of the puzzle magically made sense.

Oxford is Hogwarts. It is Diagon Alley. It is Lyra’s parallel Oxford from Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials Trilogy’. It is Terry Pratchett’s ‘Unseen University’ on Discworld, J.R.R. Tolkien’s playing field, C.S Lewis’ inspiration, and Lewis Carroll’s domain. Traces of Wonderland and Narnia permeate the streets. Oxford – the place where so many literary titans met, conversed, evolved, were influenced, and created their master works.

We left our car in a small parking area outside the city proper and took a bus which left us on Magdalen Street, where the first thing we saw was Balliol College. This is the oldest of the 38 constituent colleges which make up the University of Oxford.

When one speaks of this University, one must keep in mind that the different colleges or communities in which students live and study all present different outlooks and approaches to learning, having their own various idiosyncrasies, sports teams, coloured uniforms, patron saints, facilities, and academic prospectus. And yet they all make up one University – 38 different parts of one great whole, as well as a number of academic departments divided into four divisions. Is this starting to sound a little bit familiar?

Balliol College, founded in the late 13th century, had long existed as a medieval hall of residence for students. There is, in fact, evidence that teaching took place here as far back as 1096AD, making Oxford the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

Moving on towards the iconic Bodleian Library, I passed outside the enchanting Sheldonian Theatre, built in the 17th century. Its eight-sided cupola is truly a sight to behold. However, I had no time to enjoy any of the music concerts or lectures taking place within.

As we walked away from the theatre, I chanced to look up and for a moment, thought I had been suddenly transported to Venice. This is because I was passing under Hertford Bridge, also known as ‘the Bridge of Sighs’, which joins the two sides of Hertford College. Although popular for supposedly being a replica of the eponymous Venetian Bridge, it actually looks more like the Rialto Bridge of the same city.

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My target, however, was the second largest library in Britain – the Bodleian Library, which is famous for containing each and every book published within the UK. Over 11 million volumes housed on 120 miles of shelving to be precise. Are you impressed yet? I was all agog even before going inside. When I stepped over the threshold, I was flabbergasted – it was Hogwarts! Literally.

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The Bodleian Library was used as part of the set through-out four of the Harry Potter movies, not just as a library, but as the infirmary, as well as serving as the Hall where Professor McGonnagal teaches the students to dance in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

No trip to Oxford is complete without a visit to Christ Church College

Duke Humphrey’s Library, which is the name of the oldest reading room within the Bodleian, was used for the scene where Harry Potter enters the Restricted library under his invisibility cloak with a lamp to steal a book in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

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Here, one can also find a section of mysteriously chained books, which are known to have inspired Terry Pratchett’s depiction of the magical library within his ‘Unseen University’ of wizards. And what about the magnificently vaulting ceiling within the interior of the Divinity School, a medieval building which is attached to the library itself? Definitely not to be missed.

Just a side-note… the official head of Oxford University is called the chancellor, while the vice-chancellor is the one who organises central administration and the in-house professors are generally called ‘Masters’. Readers of Terry Pratchett should find themselves familiar with this state of affairs. The coat-of-arms of Oxford University, an open book with a crown underneath it and two above it, funnily looks a lot like the coat of arms of the Unseen University too.

Christ Church College

Moving on down Catte Street, I soon visited other well-known Oxford Colleges, such as All Souls, Queens, as well as Magdalen College, where C.S Lewis, author of the famous Narnia books, was a tutor, and Exeter College, where I could admire the bust of one of its most famous past students, J. R. R. Tolkien.

On the other hand, unfortunately I did not have the time to visit the cloisters found at New College, which were used as the backdrop for certain scenes of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Needing a break and something to eat after all this walking and awe-inspiring sightseeing, I paused at the Oxford Covered Market, centred in the middle of the city. This historic market goes back to the 18th century. It offers a plethora of fresh food stands, artisans’ products, traditional stalls, greengrocers, bakeries and handcrafted knick knacks. Truly a landmark in its own right.

After some well-merited refreshments, we walked on down Wheatsheaf Yard towards Christchurch Cathedral, which serves as both the College Chapel and Mother Church for the Diocese of Oxford. The gothic long-spired building, with its colourful stained glass windows, vaulted cloisters and intricately carved ceiling, is truly one of a kind.

A short walk south of the cathedral brought us finally to Christ Church College, which, for me personally, was the climax of my trip to Oxford University. I definitely know which college I’d wish to attend if I could be an alumna of Oxford University! ‘Welcome to Hogwarts’… so says Prof McGonagall as Harry is about to enter his school for the first time. And those same steps we see on screen are the same steps which actually lead up the dining hall at Christ Church College.

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The Meadow Building, built in the Venetian Gothic style popular during the Victorian period, dominates our view as soon as we enter this college. The courtyard also gives one a view of Bodley Tower, whose picturesque stone staircase was portrayed magnificently throughout various Harry Potter movies. Up the magical staircase we go to the dining hall at Christ Church College. The first thing we see on our immediate right as we enter the hall is a portrait of Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, famed author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The large stained glass windows around the hall and above the fireplace sport a myriad of Alice in Wonderland figures – from Alice herself to the white rabbit, and even the mock turtle. It was while Dodgson was rowing on a small boat near Magdalen College with the Dean’s three daughters, of which one was called Alice Liddell that he first started improvising the tale we all love and know so well.

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Christ Church Dining Hall was the inspiration for the Hall in Hogwarts, with its wood-panelled walls, its long long tables and its tiny lamps. The movie was not actually filmed in it, but a perfect replica of the place was reproduced within studio.

The many portraits lining the dining hall in Christ Church also played an important part in J. K Rowling’s novels. The table at the far end, known as ‘the High Table’ and used by senior members of the college, was also perfectly replicated as the table where Professors at Hogwarts dine and make speeches.

No trip to Oxford is complete without a visit to Christ Church College, just as no tourist worth his salt could drive off without spotting the small store known as The Alice in Wonderland Shop. Located just in front of Christ Church College, this colourful Wonderland emporium stands on the historic spot pre-viously filled by Alice Liddell’s favourite candy shop.

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The shop is full of Alice in Wonderland merchandise – different decks of cards depicting characters from the story, tiny china tea-sets, replica pocket watches, figurines, tea cosies, books and much more. If, like me, you’re an Alice aficionado, prepare your cheque book!

This article of mine was published on The Sunday Times of Malta on 23.10.2016 – http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20161023/travel/Oxford-University-the-real-Hogwarts.628830