Ancestral Homes In The Modern Age: Alnwick Castle
The Duke of Northumberland Ralph Percy and his family live in one of the most recognizable buildings in the United Kingdom: Alnwick Castle, which was used as a backdrop to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films as well as a setting in the Downton Abbey series. It's also a place for weddings and corporate events, and a beloved family home. Bisnow talked with the Duke of Northumberland about Alnwick Castle, his peerage and his commercial real estate development company.
The Duke of Northumberland’s role within his company, Northumberland Estates, is “equivalent to being president of a very varied business,” he says. He works with a substantial team and a board of trustees. “I am not involved with the day-to-day running of the estate but help to make the important decisions—and inevitably, as far as the outside world is concerned, the 'buck stops with me,'” he says. (He's shown with staff launching a Royal Mail stamp featuring Alnwick Castle, to mark Capability Brown’s 300th Birthday.)
Most of his decisions focus on helping local people. The Duke says, “the most exciting deals to me are those that make a significant contribution to the future of the estate, our ability to employ people, maintain the heritage and environment, and support the local community." He recently gave land for the building of a new high school in Alnwick, partially funded a new academy school in Ashington, made a significant contribution to the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University and provided affordable housing for local people.
Though his development team specialises in obtaining planning permissions to deliver new projects throughout the North East of England, Northumberland Estates has a substantial international portfolio of office, retail and industrial properties.
The Estate also maintains a large residential portfolio and considerable farming and forestry interests throughout Northumberland and the Scottish Borders, amounting to some 100,000 acres.
He takes his role within Northumberland Estates as seriously as he takes his title and his heritage. He studied history at Oxford and then land management at Reading University, doing a correspondence course whilst working at Arundel Castle as a junior land agent. “Having an interest in history and land certainly helps in the role I have,” he says. “An evolving passion for history means that I am constantly finding interesting things about my forbears and their role in war and politics from the 11th century.”
The Percys have lived at Alnwick Castle for 700 years. “It is both my family home and a national treasure—in my care during my lifetime,” he says. “To some extent, we are defined by our history and each generation has a responsibility to look after it—but it's important not to be shackled by that responsibility and Alnwick can be a wonderful, vibrant place to live.”
And visit. The castle and Capability Brown-designed gardens have been drawing tourists for at least a hundred years. Alnwick Castle has been open to the public since Victorian times, the Duke says, but his father opened it more formally after the World War II. In the last 20 years, the Alnwick Garden, Harry Potter and Downton Abbey have raised the profile of Alnwick, and the Duke has invested significantly in the visitor experience. “We’ve raised the number of visitors to over 200,000 per annum,” he tells us.
The visitors make a significant contribution to the cost of maintenance; the castle costs close to £2M/year to maintain.
“It is absolutely right that the castle should be open to the public,” the Duke says. “It is part of the nation's heritage and the tourism it generates makes a huge contribution to the local economy—hotels, restaurants, pubs, tea rooms, shops. My involvement in the business side of the house varies but the final decision on the use of the house for events, filming or any other use rests with my wife and I.”
The Duke is working on putting together various exhibitions in the castle. “Recently we have done Capability Brown, the Battle of Waterloo, Downton Abbey and the First World War. The latest will be based on the 950 years that the Percys have been in England, from the Norman Conquest to the present day,” he says.