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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 4th March 2012

I took some friends to Newcastle Airport this morning for the start of their trip to Australia to meet their new granddaughter and, as I was passing the door, I thought I would stop in to the Alnwick Garden on the way back. I visit so infrequently these days that I’ve cancelled my ‘Friends’ membership but my card is still valid until June so it seemed like a way to get some value from last year’s payment without any fuel costs.

But, I reckoned without the weather. The forecast possibility of light rain turned out to be fairly heavy rain with a tendency to turn into sleet and also, briefly, full on snow. It never got bad enough to make driving a problem but it was leaving a light coating of white on the roadside verges.

Visiting a garden in early March you don’t expect there to be much to see so doing so in rain and sleet just didn’t strike me as a good way to spend part of a Sunday. And that, of course, is the problem for any outdoor venue; even if it is being managed very well, poor weather can cause problems.

Given that the weather hasn’t been good for the past two years, at least, it is obvious that the Alnwick Garden will have been struggling. And the most recent published accounts show that.

I don’t think the Charities Commission has changed its procedures since the days of pen and paper accounting so the deadlines for submitting accounts are generous. This means that the Alnwick Garden Trust accounts, published at the end of January 2012, refer to the year ended 31st March 2011. Furthermore, because the Alnwick Garden is, mostly, a summer business the key events in the report relate to summer 2010 and, of course, there’s been another summer since then.

The summer of 2010 would stand out as a particularly poor one were it not for the summer of 2011 that was just as bad if not worse. This means that all the problems flowing from that bad weather in 2010 reported in this latest set of accounts were repeated in the summer of 2011, though it will be January 2013 before the numbers are available.

The most telling number in the accounts is that there were 263,653 visitors to the garden in the year to March 2011 against a total of 472,000 ‘site’ visitors and 353,000 ‘ticketed’ in the previous year. I’m not sure whether the 263,653 is ‘site’ or ‘ticketed’ because the report just calls them visitors. Whichever it is, the fall is substantial especially when, in the 2006/7 and 2007/8 annual reports, numbers were very close to 600,000.

A significant fall in visitors to the Poison Garden is also reported. Numbers are given as 108,165 in the latest accounts against 235,000 the previous year. When I worked at the Alnwick Garden I was never able to establish who was counting Poison Garden visitors since no separate ticket is required for the tours but someone must have because the report doesn’t say anything about this being an estimated number.

With that fall in numbers, it is hardly surprising that the charity has needed increased support for its day to day activities making this the fourth annual report in a row to detail the need for additional loans and overdrafts. The latest accounts note that, since the balance sheet date, a further £500k overdraft facility has had to be provided by Northumberland Estates so we know that the next set of accounts will continue this trend.

I don’t write this as a criticism of the Alnwick Garden. I would be devastated if it were to close because I know how important it is to a great many people in the area. My criticism is levelled at the media, especially the local media, that never looks below the surface of the garden’s press releases.

Those ‘great many people’ for whom the garden is important include many whose own businesses (accommodation, retail and visitor attractions) depend on the flow of visitors to the Alnwick Garden for their livelihood. The local media should be asking what action needs to be taken to ensure that this flow is not suddenly cut-off.