Alnwick Castle, with its thick stone walls, towers and battlements, perfectly matches the popular idea of what a medieval castle should look like.

Once visitors have crossed the outer bailey, where Harry Potter and his Hogwarts friends learnt to fly on broomsticks when the site was used as a location for two of the Harry Potter films, the approach continues through a 14th-century middle gate into the inner bailey and passes through an ancient arch to the keep, the heart of the castle.

Today the enormous door, adorned with a 17th-century Venetian bronze door knocker depicting Neptune with a seahorse and a unicorn, swings slowly open and this visitor continues through the Guard Chamber, lined with pistols and swords, up the grand staircase. There, on a landing, stands Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, with Fuzzy, her doleful spinone.

In any other home, Fuzzy would look huge. Here, amid the castle’s state rooms, he and his owner, an elfin presence, are almost engulfed by their surroundings. “We’ll go in the library, there’s a fire on,” says the duchess. The kitchen, she explains, is still a bit messy from breakfast.

The library is overwhelming too: the ceiling is coffered in the 16th-century Roman-palace style, there are floor-to-ceiling oak bookshelves inlaid with sycamore, and tens of thousands of leather-bound volumes. But down at one end, beneath a lofty marble fireplace, a tray of tea and coffee has been laid out.

“I always believe these buildings are far more important than their residents at any time in history,” the duchess says. Almost without exception, human activity here is “a blip in the ocean,” she adds. “I know I’m a speck of dust.”

Fuzzy eyes a plate of biscuits before settling down, unperturbed by a large stuffed basset hound lying on the carpet and a stuffed cat with a stuffed rat in its mouth, perched on a nearby table. Despite her disclaimer, the present Duchess of Northumberland has been much more than a speck on the Percy family’s 700-year history. Of all the women born or married into this family, through its centuries of bloody warfare with the Scots, its politicking, rebellions and, since the 1750s, its more discreet influence and wealth, she has perhaps had the most public profile thanks to the project that has become her life’s work: the Alnwick Garden. Yet the garden project would probably never have happened had fate not dictated her move to the castle.

There is evidence of a castle on this site from 1130. Henry Percy, the first Percy lord of Alnwick, acquired the building and grounds in 1309. Harry Hotspur, born here in about 1364, and later immortalised by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 1, was the son of the 4th Lord Percy who was created 1st Earl of Northumberland. Hotspur was so nicknamed because of his strikes against the Scots in the borders.

By 1752, when public life was less turbulent and the Scots no longer a threat, Sir Hugh Percy, the first duke after a succession of earls, decided to turn Alnwick Castle, by then a rundown border fortress, into something grand, but more domestic. He and his successors fashioned Alnwick into a picture-book castle, with lavish, Italian-influenced stateroom interiors. Together the castle and garden now attract 800,000 paying visitors a year. It was not, however, a place where the current duchess had wanted to live.

An Edinburgh stockbroker’s daughter, Jane Richard met Ralph, second son of Hugh, the 10th Duke of Northumberland in her teens. They married young and were living with their four children in a comfortable family-sized home north of Alnwick when, in 1995, Ralph’s elder brother Henry, who had succeeded his father as the 11th Duke in 1988, suddenly died.

Ralph inherited the castle and Northumberland Estates and the family moved into England’s second largest inhabited castle (the first is Windsor). His wife was heavy-hearted. “It was terrible; I remember it vividly,” she says. Alnwick Castle, from its emptiness to its grey kitchen lino and feuding staff, felt “all wrong”. “It wasn’t a happy place,” she adds.

The new duchess approached this unwanted move as a job. “That’s the difference between me and a lot of other duchesses,” she says. “I was very clear I was doing it so our son would feel a sense of duty and would love this place and want to protect it.”

The castle’s once-grand garden had declined over decades, ending up as a forestry nursery. The duchess, needing a challenge, began renovating it in 1996. The project escalated into a £50m scheme, which has become one of northeast England’s biggest visitor attractions. Over 10 years from 2003 it drew about 4m paying visitors and contributed up to £150m to the regional economy. It employs about 330 people full and part-time, plus dozens of volunteers.

Some garden experts have sneered at its design. There has been discussion, too, about why any project – albeit a charity – under this family’s aegis needs public funding. “There are very few people who have put in the time I have – 18 years every day, for not a penny,” she says. “I was doing this for the right reasons and values.”

The duke, as uncomfortable in the limelight as his wife is happy in it, is more focused on the commercial business of the Northumberland Estates, comprising large areas of Northumberland and Syon House in London. Disliking crowds, he tends to steer clear of the garden but has been its biggest funder. The duchess declines to say how many millions of pounds he has contributed.

There is no doubting the huge wealth of the Northumberlands, in historic buildings, land and art works. In 2004 the duke sold Raphael’s The Madonna of the Pinks to the National Gallery for £22m. This month, Sotheby’s announced that during 2014 it will sell items owned by the duke, from Roman sculptures to Old Masters, estimated to be worth more than £15m. This sale is to replace money spent on remedying severe flooding problems on Estates-owned land in Newcastle.

The duchess insists the estate cannot simply sell off items to fund the garden project. “I’m having to fundraise to replace programmes which were government-funded.” She sees community initiatives such as Elderberries, an externally funded series of health and wellbeing events for older people, as central to the garden’s purpose, and she has organised several fundraising schemes, from selling branded clothing to jams, to generate the £15m still needed.

The family live in the keep for the five months of the year when the castle is closed to visitors. We stroll through the gilt-laden saloon with its stunning family portraits, the sumptuous red drawing room and the green dining room, where the table is being set for a fundraising dinner for the Prince’s Trust, the youth enterprise charity. The duchess has overseen restoration of the main staterooms, each costing about £250,000, and in order to create a more domestic space, she looked to the keep’s top floor “death wing” – where those with infectious diseases once lingered – and also made a big kitchen and family room downstairs.

The family bedrooms are domestic in scale but history still intrudes. An old urn, containing a relative’s ashes, was found in one of her daughters’ wardrobes. And not even the Titians in the ante-library fully compensate for the inconvenience of living in a castle. “My mother-in-law used to say it was so difficult to put her dog out at night down 100 stairs.”

For the duchess, stairs are no problem. What does worry her is the state of northeast England’s economy. “I don’t think those living in the south understand the huge deprivation in this area.” She is also uneasy about Scotland’s forthcoming referendum. “I think it would be quite easy to sleepwalk into independence.” And the garden is unfinished. “I would do almost anything to complete it and secure its sustainable future,” she says.

However, one aim, she feels, has been achieved. When the time is right, she believes George, her 29-year-old elder son, who works internationally, will settle down at the castle. “I think George will love it,” she says.

Chris Tighe is the FT’s Northeast England correspondent


Favourite things

A silver dung beetle made by Patrick Mavros
© Dan Prince

A stuffed cat with a rat in its mouth is just one example of the duchess’s love of taxidermy. The rats come from land around the Berwickshire home where the family lives in the summer months, when the castle is open to visitors. “I’ve started giving them as wedding presents.” More to the taste of her two sons and two daughters, all adults, is a silver dung beetle, made by Patrick Mavros in London, which sits on a table in the library. They bought it for her as a birthday gift five years ago. They knew she had been impressed by dung beetles on a safari in Africa. “These huge balls of dung and these tiny beetles. I couldn’t believe something so small could push something so big.”

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