The Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle, in Northumberland (a northeast region of England) taught me about the chemical properties of many common plants. Here is a sample list from the notes I took.
The beautiful poppy flower is the source for opioid medications as well as the dangerous illegal drug heroine.
Willow tree bark contains salicylic acid, an ingredient of aspirin. This compound is a natural pain reliever, not a poison.
The Rhubarb leaf and about 3″ of the stem near the leaf contains oxalic acid, which in enough quantity can cause liver failure.
Laburnum has a pea-like berry. Four of them could kill a child. However, the entire plant is toxic.
Periwinkle lowers your blood pressure, and is now used to treat childhood leukemia.
The seed of berries of the Yew are toxic, yet are used in chemotherapy for breast cancer.
Giant hogweed, Heracleum, causes a horrible rash that can last up to four years when skin that has contacted the plant is exposed to sunlight.
The bitter honey of the common Rhododendron is poisonous.
Foxglove can give you heart palpitations if you handle it. All parts of the plant are poisonous, even deadly, if swallowed.
Break a laurel leaf and smell the almond scent at your own risk. You are inhaling cyanide, which prevents oxygen from bonding with your blood. People who trim laurel or handle the trimming must be careful.
Rosemary oil and Juniper berries? Avoid them while pregnant. They can cause miscarriage.
After touring Edinburgh Castle, Bamburgh Castle, Lindisfarne Castle, Durham Castle and Alnwick Castle in North England and Southern Scotland, my favorite one (hands down) was Alnwick Castle in England. All of them are interesting and worth a visit, and there are even more to see in the region — Stirling, Duane and more. I’ll tell you why I enjoyed Alnwick Castle the best.
Upon arrival on the castle grounds, I quickly joined the film tour where I heard fascinating details of the filming of Downton Abbey (Christmas scenes) and Harry Potter. Those are the recent ones, but other films include Mary Queen of Scots with Vanessa Redgrave, Elizabeth I, Robin Hood with Kevin Costner, and Hollowed Crown.
Soon after, I joined the History Tour where the guide explained which parts of the castle were built at what time, and the purpose of each. After the Norman Invasion of 1066, the English built huge stone castles. A substantial stone castle was built here in 1133. This castle was never taken by force.
Next, I joined the tour of the castle interior where the Percy family has lived for the past 700 years. The interior was updated in 1750 and again in 1850. Current residents are the 12th Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, who life here five months of the year, starting in October. The public may only tour Alnwick when the Duke and Duchess are not in residence, in the summer months. (No photos allowed of the inside). I took copious notes throughout each tour, just so I could remember the information.
About 5 pm, I was still feeling curious and walked down to the gardens, just in time to join the last tour of the day, the Poison Garden. The fenced in section contains numerous poison plants, and the guide shared even more fascinating stories.
With no break for lunch, I was hungry, and luckily was able to buy fish and chips near the garden around 6pm. What a full day!
Pittsburgh PA, you have met your match. Newcastle, England, like you, is a city of bridges and a former coal and steel center making a successful transformation into a technology center with an entrepreneurial spirit.
This innovative pivoting pedestrian bridge is a great symbol of the new Newcastle. Admire the Gateshead Millennium Bridge connecting pedestrians on the wharfs of sister cities Newcastle and Gateshead. These are two university towns with an abundance of pubs, many of them taking full advantage of the riverside waterfront.
The pedestrian bridge closes to foot traffic and pivots, lowering the high arch and raising the lower arch when a large vessel needs to pass through. Have you ever seen a bridge like this?
Roaming around Durham Cathedral in Northeast England, I was busy learning about Norman architecture, the imprisonment of the Scots in the Cathedral and the bishop-princes appointed by William the Conquerer. But there was over a thousand years of history made here, and scores more facts to absorb.
Then, my attention was drawn to some unmarked tombs just outside the Cathedral.
Later research on the web provided the names of a bishop, a priest and a dean of the Cathedral buried outside the walls, but there are many more tombs than three, leaving the mystery of the tomb’s identity or date unsolved.
Perhaps it is better to consider this site a place for meditation and prayer. The questions raised by death and the what happens to each of us after death have vexed the human mind for millennia. It may benefit us more to reflect on the human condition and our questions about life after death than to seek the identity of any one particular grave.
Touring the majestic Alnwick Castle in Northeast England, I expected to learn about the twelfth Duke and Duchess of Northumberland who currently live here and the history of the castle. What I never expected to learn was the story of their ancestors, which includes the gift that founded our American treasure, the Smithsonian Institution.
During the summer months when the Duke and Duchess live in their summer home near the Scotland border, the public may tour the Castle inside and out. Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed inside the private quarters. The Dining Room walls are filled with large painted portraits of the Percy family, one of whom is Hugh Smithson.
Hugh Smithson became the First Duke of Northumberland and with the Queen’s permission became a “Percy.” Only the legitimate children of Hugh Smithson/Percy could take the name “Percy.”
James Macie, born in 1765 in France, is the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Keate Macie and Hugh Smithson. His mother had royal roots in France. At his mother’s death, James inherited her fortune and took his father’s name “Smithson.” James devoted his life to academia, studying science at Oxford University. When James died in 1829 without an heir to his fortune, his will revealed his wishes: to donate his estate to found an educational institution in a country that does not have an aristocracy and would never have a monarchy.
Here are a few more details about the founding of the Smithsonian from the Smithsonian Magazine:
Unsure of whether or not he had the authority to accept the gift, President Jackson sent the issue over to Congress where a spirited debate ensued.
“This is pre-Civil War, 1830s, and states rights versus federalism is a hugely hot issue,” Henson says. “Southerners vehemently oppose this because they believe it’s a violation of states’ rights to create such a nation entity but John Quincy Adams, really takes this on as his case and pushes it through and he eventually triumphs.” Congress authorized the U.S. to accept the bequest on July 1, 1836.
If agreeing to accept the money was complicated, deciding what to do with it was almost impossible. Smithson, who had never set foot in the United States while living, apparently never discussed the provision in his will or his plans for the Institution with anyone. So, for ten years, Congress debated what “increase and diffusion of knowledge” meant and what such an establishment would look like. Several ideas were suggested, including: a scientific institute, a teacher’s training institute, a school of natural history, a university for the classics, a national observatory, a national library and a national museum. Eventually, a political compromise was reached, which provided for many of the different ideas suggested, and the Smithsonian Institution was founded, signed into law by President James K. Polk on August 10, 1846, and funded.
Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/this-day-in-history-remembering-james-smithson-1765-1829-23450134/#gFQuEVceuvJi4Amz.99
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Inside Durham Castle, where Durham University students live during the school year, photography is not allowed. That’s too bad in my opinion, because I’d love to share with you the beautiful Norman chapel, 14 century Great Hall and more. Instead, I can share a story with you.
The grand Black Staircase curiously has pineapples carved into the wooden banister. Pineapples in England? Yes, you see it was very hard to grow a pineapple in England, and so fresh pineapples were very expensive. Back in the day, you would do your guest a great honor to serve pineapple, while at the same time, the host would have his wealth and status on display. In fact, there were stories about the Prince Bishop who lived here displaying a real pineapple as a centerpiece, and then serving a fruit that resembled pineapple, in the hope that guests might assume it was pineapple. In fact, the carved pineapple doesn’t really look much like a pineapple, so perhaps the artist had never seen one.
Finding this tale rather humorous, I asked our guide if this grand gesture of honoring a guest by serving pineapple might be the origin of the pineapple as a symbol of welcome or hospitality. (The pineapple is described this way in Newport, Rhode Island, where it also serves as a symbol of the town.) Our castle guide didn’t know the answer, but I have a good hunch about it.
Have you heard of a Prince Bishop? As the story goes, there were three earls in Northumberland. Two earls dueled and killed each other, and the third one rebelled against the king, so the English King Henry VIII had the great idea to appoint bishops as princes, give them taxing authority. They minted coins and organized an army. Not surprisingly, the bishops were fine with this idea.
For more stories, stay tuned. There is an interesting story tied to the door knocker of the Durham Cathedral, where again no photographs were permitted.
I spent the day exploring Durham, England. I caught the train from Newcastle, and walked into town, finding the central square and market. Strolling up the road, I took some photos of lovely storefronts and stopped into a few shops. (I should have titled this piece “Shopping Durham,” as my “shopping” blog posts are the most popular!)
I explored the beautiful Castle and Cathedral – more on those in the next few blog posts! One of the outdoor cafe tables at Cafe on the Green, between the Castle and the Cathedral called my name. My guidebook and journal kept me company during lunch. Then, I had the good instinct to cross the River Wear and walk along the far side, looking up at the town and the Cathedral in its summer greenery. Why? I realized that the Cathedral facade would be lit by the afternoon sun.
I was even able to position myself just right so the construction cloth over the tower that is under restoration was blocked by the leaves. It was a beautiful and peaceful afternoon, part of an unusually sunny summer of 2018.