Alnwick (pronounced A-Nick) Castle has been the home of the Percy family for over seven hundred years. It is a castle in Northumberland and traditionally protected the rest of England from the naughty marauding Scots. And last week I spent two days in Alnwick Castle enjoying the hospitality of the Duchess of Northumberland, with a group of bloggers and competition winners.
This dream trip came about thanks to the publication of Nightshade, the second novel in The Poison Diaries series. The Duchess of Northumberland conceived the original idea, and Maryrose Wood has written the two novels so far. They are dark fantasy novels, telling the sweet but doomed romance between Jessamine and Weed. Alnwick Castle and Hulne Abbey are absolutely integral parts of the novels, and so the Duchess of Northumberland wanted people to see this part of the story brought to life.
The cottage in Hulne Abbey where Jessamine and her father lived
That was how I ended up on a train at nine o’clock on Wednesday 27th July, embarking on a seven hour journey to the north of England. Over the course of the train journey I read the first Poison Diaries novel and rather fell in love with Weed, it has to be said. On arrival at Alnmouth Station a group of VERY excited bloggers were shepherded onto three minibuses and we headed for the castle.
The Duchess of Northumberland
The first part of our trip involved a minibus tour through the castle grounds to reach Hulne Abbey. This has never been opened to the public before and it was thoroughly beautiful. The grounds are extensive, comprising river and forests and open grassland. I spent most of this trip staring out of windows and trying to decide which of the many awesome panoramas to take a picture of.
One of the many stunning views in the castle grounds
Hulne Abbey, as I say, is key to the tale of Jessamine and Weed, and we spent a good half an hour wandering around the Abbey and marvelling at the little cottage which is where Jessamine lived in the novel. The Duchess of Northumberland was on hand to answer any and all the questions we had about the book, the characters, and the poisons described.
A pack of interested bloggers listening to the Duchess speak
After that it was back to the castle and possibly my most favourite and jaw-dropping moment of the entire day. We were ushered into the State Rooms for high tea – and it was just AMAZING. The long table was set with silver, there was a roaring fire in the huge feature fireplace, ancestors of the current Percy family stared down at us from beautiful portraits on the wall. I cannot express how much this thrilled and delighted me. And the food! Delicate cucumber sandwiches with the crusts removed, lavender biscuits, tiny cupcakes with glittery icing. I don’t think I have ever experienced anything quite as unique as this.
Once we had been pampered with tea and delicious cakes, we headed to the immense library for a candlelit reading of the first chapter of Nightshade. All I can say is a) I want a library like that one day and b) I’m SO glad we were given advance copies of Nightshade because the first chapter sounded really good! We were allowed to spend some time wandering the library after the reading, although a sharp eye was kept on us bloggers considering the number of books around!
The reading in the library
Some of the books on herbal lore, poisons and recipes had been taken down from the shelves and opened so that we could see the books that Jessamine’s father, Thomas Luxton, would have been eager to own and read.
A very ancient book
After all this excitement we went back to our rooms (which were Spartan, to say the least, but who could pass up an opportunity to stay in the ACTUAL CASTLE) and got ready for the evening meal. I have to say, it was utterly surreal wandering around the grounds of a castle when the public have vanished for the day – it just helped to emphasise how special this trip was.
We played Spot the Hedwig!
The evening meal was held in a treehouse restaurant, which looked utterly beautiful all lit up with fairylights. The meal was themed around poisons and the idea of “kill or cure”, and the place settings were gorgeous. I loved the food and there were lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ when the pudding was brought through with hidden dry ice making smoke drift out from the dishes.
The Treehouse Restaurant
Finally we had our candlelit tour of the Poison Garden, led by the aforementioned Thomas Luxton (a gentleman dressed to look the part, with a truly frightening knowledge of how to kill people!) It was eerie wandering through the garden, watching the candles flicker in the wind and knowing that the plants being talked about are utterly deadly.
Our evening meal place settings
After a VERY long day we wandered back through the grounds in the dark, and us bloggers spent a blissful hour or so talking books in the deserted castle courtyard. Very cool.
The Poison Garden by candlelight
The next door dawned bright and early, and we had breakfast Harry Potter-style on long tables in a large castle dining room. Then it was a tour through the underground tunnels that were used by servants to bring the food from the kitchen to the main part of the castle without having to head out into the snow and inclement weather. Those tunnels were VERY creepy – especially when we were told about the possible ghosts – and I was glad to head back out into the sunshine.
Finally, we had another walk through the Poison Garden in the daylight, and then were able to get our various Poison Diaries books signed by the Duchess before heading to a rather lovely form of transport to take us back to the train station.
It was a long way to go, and a lot of travel, but this truly was a unique and brilliant opportunity, something that I shall never be able to do again. I drank in the sights and sounds and tastes, and left feeling incredibly privileged. I would like to extend my thanks to the Duchess of Northumberland for opening her home to us, and for being so enthused about the idea of crazy bloggers talking to her about The Poison Diaries. I’d also like to thank the Kdot team who worked tirelessly before and during the event to ensure that we had the very best time.
Y’all, it was awesome. I shall never forget it.