The seeds of an ambitious plan to transform Alnwick into a horticultural paradise have been sown.
A spectacular sculpture park, features around the town and a bandstand are all part of a five-year dream, which is set to cost in excess of a quarter-of-a-million pounds, and a major fund-raising drive has been launched.
The initial focus will be on Column Field, beneath the imposing Tenantry Column on South Road, where the first sculptures are planned.
Several groups have joined forces to bring the scheme, which will boost the visitor experience and improve the town for residents, to fruition.
They aim to build on the success of one of Northumberland’s top tourist attractions, The Alnwick Garden, and work together to create the Garden Town of the North.
And Garden bosses are keen to collaborate, spreading their expertise and knowledge throughout the town.
The project is being spearheaded by Carlo Bagioni, chairman of the Alnwick Chamber of Trade, with representatives from Alnwick in Bloom, the town council, Alnwick Markets and the Garden itself forming a steering committee.
“The Garden was created about 15 years ago and we believe the time is right to create a new, fresh point of interest,” said Carlo. “The Duchess of Northumberland has expressed a wish to work with the town and, through the Garden, we think we have found a way to do this.”
The proposed starting point is a large, eye-catching sculpture for the entrance to Column Field, opposite Barter Books, incorporating flowers and foliage that will last all year round. The aim is for a landmark piece that people will travel to the area to see.
“We very much like the idea of involving the community to increase the sense of ownership of the scheme,” said Carlo. “We would like to involve local schools in art projects to design features for the town.
“We have so many plans, it is going to be fantastic. I have never been so excited about any project in my life. I keep waking up in the middle of the night with new ideas.”
He added: “The key is community participation – we all need to work together – the whole town and The Alnwick Garden. This is about integrating the two.
“This can be done in several ways. We would like to continue the theme at the Denwick Road side of the Garden into Column Field by planting some of the cherry trees there. We could have name plaques on them to mirror what is done in the Garden.
“The design of the Column Field needs to have a high impact from the road to encourage people to explore the walk through it.
“We’d like to involve both local schools and the Elderberries in designing some of the sculptures. One of the ideas we have is to ask people to donate garden tools to create a sculpture.
“The concluding point is this project is very much for the local people who will enjoy it all year round.
“Obviously, this is a long-term project and all the appropriate planning permissions will have to be requested.”
A major fund-raising campaign has been launched, with a projected target likely to be more than £250,000, and work is already under way to tap into arts and culture funding streams.
“We would also like to appeal for financial support from any local businesses who would like to be a part of this exciting project,” said Carlo.
The team has already appointed a top garden designer to draw up some initial plans.
Sean Murray, from Ashington, won The Great Chelsea Garden Challenge television competition organised by the BBC and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in 2014. His prize was to design and build a garden on the main avenue at Chelsea Flower Show last year.
“I am honoured to be invited as a Northumbrian to be part of this exciting project,” said Sean. “The Column Field is an amazing space – there are such beautiful views from there. We have talked about this not being just like any other park with high maintenance bedding plants, but an all-year-round garden, with planting displays and use of stems, leaves and structures.”
Sean, whose company is Garden Narratives, has started forming a vision for Column Field.
“The way the path navigates its way round, we need to be enhancing what is already there,” he said. “We have talked about creating a picnic area, a space that theatre groups and children could use, meadow planting and permanent but manageable features, and poppies linked to the war memorial.
“This is very much about the community having its own ideas – it’s your town and ultimately will be your park.
“I take my inspiration from across Northumberland – the narrative is already there.”
Alnwick Garden director Mark Brassell said: “This project immediately captured the imagination of The Alnwick Garden. The creation of living sculptures not only speaks to our own landscaping ambitions but will create a stunning focal point for visitors arriving in Alnwick and help us to strengthen the town’s already rich cultural heritage.
“We are committed to supporting and promoting Alnwick town. It is so exciting that such artistic landscaping will be created outside of The Garden alongside residents’ already beautiful displays to establish Alnwick as Garden Town of the North.”
Alnwick in Bloom president Tom Pattinson said: “I welcome the Column Field initiative and hope that members of the public will also embrace it. At present, we are a town with a world-renowned garden, this project has the potential to lead us towards a garden town with all the associated benefits.
“This is the perspective of a founder member of Alnwick in Bloom, now approaching its 35th year. The Town Council has supported us throughout in our drive to improve the local environment in various ways over time. We have engaged with schools, businesses, organisations and residents, many of whom have worked alongside us. Aspirations have always been high – but how they have soared with the news of this project!
“The Column Field has been our focus for so many litter-picks, clean-ups and planting over the years but now for the first time there is a real opportunity to join forces with similar-minded organisations and transform it into a facility we can all be proud of.
“I am delighted to be a member of the steering group driving this forward and encouraged by the boost that the Chamber of Trade, Town Council, The Alnwick Garden and others will bring to it.
“The Column Field area is a high-profile and iconic site. Clearly any development plan must complement the existing structures. There are financial aspects to consider, not only the raising of funds to achieve our goal but also ongoing running costs. Maintenance will figure strongly in this, and I envisage a high proportion of sustainable planting, perennials that are attractive in season and in keeping with the setting.
“It’s been enlightening to visit and judge villages, towns and cities throughout the region for Northumbria in Bloom over the past decade or so, and to witness the feel-good factor such bold ventures bring to a community. I really hope this initiative is given the backing it deserves.”
Town and county councillor Gordon Castle said: “I am delighted to be part of this ambitious scheme to provide for Alnwick a major source of visual cultural interest to residents and visitors.
“Alnwick is already well supplied with visitor attractions, but the purpose of this scheme is to bring Alnwick Garden and Alnwick town closer together at a place accessible to all – we want young and old to be involved.
“The concept of Alnwick as the Garden Town needs to mean more than just the town where Alnwick Garden is and this project intends to deliver a garden of sculptures that no person with any interest in their surroundings would want to miss.
“Alnwick is a town with enormous charm and architectural interest, but it does not have to rely solely on its past and on the forward thinking of people long gone.
“It has a sense of place and identity that few other towns match and this project is to show what can be achieved when its citizens engage their minds with determination and harmony on its future.
“We are already witnessing excellent initiatives to make our floral landscape first rate and now we wish to put in place for present and future generations something memorable, creative and tasteful that shows what human artistry and craftsmanship can devise.
“We are looking for originality and tasteful impact and I am delighted that we are being soundly advised by Sean, whose practical sense of style, setting and ornamental imagination seems well in tune with our aspirations.
“Some will wonder how anything worthwhile will survive the attention of vandals, awakening perhaps memories of the recent trashing of Christmas decorations on the lawn of Wager Cottage. But technology does offer protection and I hope we can move our town forward without allowing the risk of unsociable behaviour to hold it back.
“Such a project as we have in mind will not be cheap, but we do not intend the burden to fall directly on local taxpayers – realistic major funding sources are already under scrutiny and the project will certainly not mean less money being spent on the roads and streets! Planning is too often all about more housing, transport and environmental works, but there are times when our senses need to be lifted and our imagination stirred. I very much hope that this can be a time when something extraordinary and brilliant is achieved for Alnwick and I also want the town to become involved and supportive as the project progresses.”