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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 22nd November 2011

A regular theme of this blog is the way the media fails to scrutinise stories and, as a result, publishes things that don’t make sense. Obviously, ricin, from Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, is the best example of this but it happens with Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort, and things like the annual summer panics about Datura stramonium, jimsonweed.

And, of course, it happens all the time with stories about substance use but, in that instance, you often feel the particular media outlet is checking that what it publishes conforms to its agenda on the issue.

I know that times are hard, especially for the printed media, and cost-cutting has reduced the time journalists can spend on a single story but, in a lot of cases, it wouldn’t take very long to realise that there are things in a story that don’t stack up alongside previous stories. I’m not saying every such disconnect should be traced back to its roots but it would be helpful if reporters would, at least, raise the question.

The reality is, of course, that local newspapers, in particular though not exclusively, often just take a press release from an organisation and put it in the paper without any journalistic intervention.

It seems to have happened, last Thursday, with the local newspaper for Alnwick, the Northumberland Gazette. By chance I knew what the story was about because I’d recently made a visit to the Alnwick Garden.

When the Pavilion was completed, in early 2006, the marquee, next to the Poison Garden that had provided catering facilities was removed. A temporary fence was erected to store a variety of materials pending removal from the site and it was said that the fence would remain until work on the third phase began.

There have been, as I recall, three launches of the fund-raising effort for the third phase the most recent being just last year. When ‘friends’ of the Alnwick Garden were invited to attend a reception to hear about plans for the future, many of them assumed that it would be announced that the original third phase had been abandoned due to the lack of funding in favour of something more modest. Instead, what those who attended heard was a repeat of the plans for the third phase as set out in the original garden design from the 1990s.

And, so, the ‘temporary’ fence remained though it did receive the occasional repaint. But, when I went to the garden, at the beginning of November, the fence was down and work was going on to landscape the area exposed. There was, also, work going on to complete a small wooden building next to the gate of the Poison Garden to replace the small shelter, actually a garden sunroom, that had for five years provided somewhere for the guides to get away from the rain between tours.

The new building is rustic in design with a log fire in the centre and a chimney in the apex of the domed roof. I learn from last week’s Northumberland Gazette that it is to be called ‘The Hovel’ and will be fitted out to look like the home of a spooky collector of various occult items. I’m sure the guides will welcome having somewhere to warm up between winter tours though I don’t know how they feel about sharing the space with a variety of stuffed birds and animals.

But, my interest is centred on a quote from the Duchess. According to the Northumberland Gazette (and I’m pretty sure that means ‘included in the press release from the garden’) the Duchess said “We plan to extend The Poison Garden and The Hovel will sit within the completed space and will become an integral part of the design”.

“Plan to extend the Poison Garden.” What? Anyone who knows the history of the Alnwick Garden, and, given that it is the major attraction in the area covered by the Northumberland Gazette and about the only thing that gets national and, occasionally, international interest, you would expect journalists for the paper to be in that category, knows that the Duchess has frequently stated that she intends to see her original vision completed and that the garden, as designed by the Wirtz family in the late 1990s, will be built.

This fixation on sticking to the original design in spite of all the experience of how visitors like to use the garden, this notion that it is to be as required by one person rather than adapting to the needs of the broader community of users, is the reason a number of people who love the garden have fallen out with the Alnwick Garden Trust. As the charity responsible for the Alnwick Garden, the trust is supposed to act for the benefit of the public and there are those who think it has failed in that duty.

The original design makes no provision for extending the Poison Garden. That one sentence from the Duchess raises a couple of questions. ‘Has the original third phase been abandoned?’ ‘Have the Wirtz’s been involved in modifying the original design to accommodate an increased Poison Garden?’

In the original design, the area next to the Poison Garden was supposed to become a a ‘Quiet Garden’. I just went to the Alnwick Garden website to check that and found that the links to all the features of the third phase now go to the home page rather than, as used to be the case, giving details of what these new gardens would be. The pages for the Alnwick Garden Trust, however, still list all the gardens for the third phase so I don’t know what’s going on.

It’s the sort of thing you’d expect a journalist to want to pursue but, instead, it seems the Northumberland Gazette is happy to be spoon fed and not do its job. This may not be as serious as, say, swallowing the nonsense talked about ricin as a terrorist weapon but it is another example of how the public is being let down by those who claim to be in a position to keep it informed.

I shall have to think about editing this into a suitable length for a letter to the paper.