The Duchess of Northumberland’s primary residence is Alnwick Castle, where Harry Potter and Downton Abbey were filmed. But, like the aristocratic set, she and her family also have homes in London and the Scottish Borders. She spends her life spinning from one residence to another, often on the train, and often takes the “strange dog” who needs a change of scenery. Her dogs are “almost like her friends,” she says.
Nothing unusual about that, surely? In fact, there are. The dogs she talks about are dead. Stuffed. One of his big interests (aside from gardening and trying to get coca plants from the Colombian ambassador, but we’ll get to that) is taxidermy. All of this is revealed in The Duchess And Her Magical Kingdom on More 4, which will see 65-year-old Jane Percy open the doors of her castle for a series on the wall about her activities that rather oddly features drag queens, naturists and warriors. the cage.
She currently has “about 20” stuffed dogs that she moves around her various homes. So on the train, do the dogs have a seat? “No, they go in a bag. I remember asking someone to wrap a really big one once and he put bubble wrap around it, but let the feet stick out. I thought, ‘We can’t have that.’
The Duchess’ family – she has four children and five grandchildren – does not share her passion. ‘I tell my kids, ‘Which one of you wants my stuffed dogs when I’m six feet under?’ and they all rush at the same time to say: “Not me!
It turns out that she not only collects stuffed dogs, but also stuffed rats and even stuffed sheep. “It was not my own pets who died. I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t stand it. Mine are cremated. I get them from a taxidermist who sometimes stuffs people’s pets on them, but when they come to get them they can’t stand it because they’re too realistic. He will call me and say, “I have a lovely collie.
The Duchess and Her Magical Kingdom on More 4 will see Jane Percy, 65, open the doors of her castle for a flying series on the wall
“Sometimes I give them as gifts. If I’m going away for the weekend, I’ll bring my hosts a stuffed rat instead of a box of chocolates. I think people like that. Or they tell me they like it. I hope they’re not just being polite.
She is a woman who evolves in the most upscale circles. Please tell me, say I, you gave a dead rat to King Charles? ‘Haha, no. It’s not a bad idea, however. He might like that. I gave someone a stuffed sheep as a housewarming gift.
Why, you have to wonder, hasn’t anyone done a TV series about this woman before? Luckily they have it now. This is a specific and epic project – the construction of a £15million ‘Magic Village’ in Alnwick Park. The Lilidorei attraction – his brainchild – is a giant playground (think more akin to a theme park) full of hobgoblins and fairies, aiming to bring in a different type of tourist than one who would visit Alnwick Castle for its history.
But the real attraction for the viewer will undoubtedly be the Duchess herself. The stuffed dogs make her look quirky, but she’s really down-to-earth about her life, which sometimes looks suspiciously like Downton Abbey.
She says that while Downton crews were filming, they told her that her staff didn’t need to set the table so formally. She pointed out that “this is exactly what we do. I guess what people will see in this program is that we are Downton Abbey, but for the 21st century. When we receive guests, we set the table like this. We have staff, rows, problems…just like Downton.
Not enough. You can’t imagine the Countess of Grantham eating baked beans one night, the way she does. Also, Lady Grantham never opened a branch of Greggs, unlike the Duchess. “I’m sure I’m a constant disappointment to those with preconceived notions of what a Duchess is. Once I was asked to visit a lady who had reached her 100th birthday, so I went to have a cake and chat with her. After half an hour she said, “It was lovely talking to you, but I’m expecting the Duchess of Northumberland, so maybe you should go.” Maybe I should have tried harder to dress in something grand.
The King with the Duchess at Alnwick in 2018. Running Alnwick Castle, which has over 150 rooms, is not for the faint-hearted. Much of the documentary delves into the constant renovations needed
Viewers of this documentary might be surprised to find out what happens in the castle grounds. It’s a long list, but it includes nail trimming (“we have a drop-in center where retirees can get treatment”), drag queen events (they hosted Mr Gay Europe), cage fights (“isn’t it fascinating?”) and nudist conventions. “I said that naturists could come as long as I didn’t have to undress too,” she says.
Jane was not born to be a Duchess, but comes from a wealthy Edinburgh family. She was a talented figure skater who trained for five hours a day “which taught me discipline and made me quite independent”, and met her husband Ralph at a party when she was 16 and him 18 years old. So young ! “Yeah, but we became best friends and now we’ve been married for 44 years. I think there’s something to be said about getting married young so that when your kids grow up and leave, you’re still pretty young to do things with your life.
Her husband never expected to inherit the title, or own large swaths of the country, but when his older brother Henry, 11th Duke of Northumberland, died of heart failure after an overdose of amphetamines (“c’ was a self-medicating depressive’), Jane’s world was turned upside down. Suddenly, when her eldest son was just five years old (and now heir to the family fortune), she was a duchess.
“There is no manual,” she agrees. “In 24 hours, our lives have changed, just like that. I’m sure there was a part of the old guard that thought I would wait to be told what to do. I don’t really like being told what to do.
Running Alnwick Castle, which has over 150 rooms, is not for the faint-hearted. Much of the documentary delves into the constant renovations needed. There are exorbitant costs for new silks on the walls (£30,000 to spruce up a living room, anyone?). “When we showed the new version to my mother-in-law, she didn’t notice any difference,” she says.
At the turn of the century, she suggested to her husband that she “try” the gardens. He thought she could plant some rose bushes. It has created one of the greatest tourist attractions in the Northeast. She became “obsessed” with poisonous plants and created her own poisonous garden, where every plant can kill. This obsession brought her some interesting encounters – she had great difficulty obtaining the coca plant (where the cocaine comes from) and “ended up writing to the Colombian ambassador”.
The Duchess of Northumberland’s main residence is Alnwick Castle, where Harry Potter and Downton Abbey were filmed
She is candid about the challenges of being a duchess. We talk a lot about duty, and living with the understanding that the castle must be preserved to pass. George, his eldest, will be the 13th Duke of Northumberland. She says her ‘biggest parenting challenge’ was making sure her second son Max – the ‘reserved’ one (although she would never use the word) – grew up with his boosted confidence. “I made sure he didn’t feel in his brother’s shadow. I was like, ‘Remember Max, you’re the lucky one. The world is your shell. You can work where you want to work, live where you want to live.
We all know what can happen in these situations. His children grew up hanging out with the royal family and his daughter Melissa’s girlfriend is Chelsy Davy, Harry’s ex-girlfriend. Since she knows the two princes, what does she think of their estrangement? “Having two boys who don’t communicate, one on the other side of the world, is the saddest thing. Let’s hope they communicate. I’m sure there are a lot of things we don’t know.
Protecting his own children, even from themselves, was paramount. She and her husband went to court to stop George from benefiting from an archaic trust fund that would give him access to staggering wealth while he was still in school. “Anyone with half a brain would do the same,” she says. “The kids you see with problems are the ones who had too much too young.”
She says she was desperate to instill a work ethic in her children. “You see those TV programs with young girls wasting their days with a dog in their purse. How sad? Don’t they understand all the good they could do?
Her dog mark in the purse is very different indeed.
The Duchess and Her Magic Kingdom, Wednesday, 9 p.m., More4.