Saturday, 1 October 2011

Cage fighting and the unconventional Duchess...

Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
ALNWICK, England…

The Duchess of Northumberland, no stranger to controversy, is to stage a televised cage-fighting tournament in the grounds of the 1,000-year-old Alnwick Castle, the (London) Sunday Times reported.

On October 21, the Northern Free Fighters and Team Shotai Kai will slug it out, not in an aircraft hangar, a dingy social club or a smoke-filled pub, but in a stunning glass atrium usually reserved for elegant weddings, silver anniversaries and 60th birthday parties...

This is not, however, a last-ditch fundraiser to pay the heating bills. Her husband, the 12th Duke of Northumberland, was ranked joint 248th in this year's Sunday Times Rich List with a fortune calculated at £315 million. Proceeds from the event will go to the Help for Heroes charity.

It is, instead, the result of the 52-year-old duchess' improbable love of martial arts.

"I've been doing boxing for years and it's great," she said. "Particularly after a bad day. You can thump away at something, imagine it's whoever has annoyed me in the last meeting and it's really satisfying. I've got a fairly good jab but the rest of
it is not great."

From boxing she has progressed to kickboxing and fighting with sticks, a discipline she describes as "tricky."

Her plans to stage extreme fighting at Alnwick, 30 miles (48km) north of Newcastle, have caused upset in some quarters. Two years ago, several volunteers walked out in protest during a smaller cage-fighting event.

"They said it wasn't what the garden was about," she said. "But excuse me, they couldn't have been more wrong. The garden was built for every age group and sector of the community. It isn't exclusively for 50-year-old-and-over women who like flowers."

Alnwick made headlines in 2005 when, with permission from the Home Office, it opened a poison garden stocked with specimens of cannabis, opium poppies, magic mushrooms, tobacco and the coca plant, the source of cocaine.

Widespread disgust met the release last week of footage showing two boys of eight and nine cage-fighting at a Preston working men's club. But don't assume this kind of behaviour is to do with class, for I can disclose that the Duchess of Northumberland, whose son George is a close friend of Pippa Middleton, is a fan of the sport. Indeed, she is a member of a martial arts club, and is hosting her very own cage fight in the grounds of Alnwick Castle next month to raise money for her garden. There is no suggestion that the practice is illegal, and only adults will compete at Alnwick. But it was an unfortunate moment for the duchess to begin promoting her event.

Asked whether it will go ahead in the light of last week's news, a spokesman says: "Yep, all still going ahead! The duchess is excited about inviting the cage-fighting crowd to the garden."

HER £50 MILLION garden nicknamed “the Versailles of the North” includes cannabis and opium plants, she collects stuffed dogs that sit among the Louis XIV furniture and paintings by Titian and Canaletto, and she says she would feel she had failed as a mother if either of her daughters had wanted to be a debutante (the eldest was a mechanic and a racing driver who makes parts for guns, the youngest is a tennis coach).
“I’m not someone who is interested in doing things the same way as every­ one else,” says Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland. “I have a million and one ideas.”

The latest example of her resolutely unconventional approach to life is the televised cage­ fighting that will take place next month in the grounds of 1,000 year ­old Alnwick Castle she lovingly refers to as Hogwarts (her home was chosen to represent the school in the Harry Potter films).

A martial arts proponent and boxer herself – “there were times when you were really worried or really annoyed and to be able to hit something or someone was wonderful”
– The 52­ year­ old wife of Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland, makes no apology for her cage­ fighting event.

“The garden was built for every age group and sector of the community. It isn’t exclusively for 50­ year ­old and over women who like flowers.”

Her previous innovations would appear to bear out the truth of that statement. In 2005, with permission from the Home Office, the Duchess opened a Poison Garden stocked with specimens of cannabis, magic mush­room, opium poppies and the coca plant, the source of cocaine.

“I know that I was a difficult child to educate,” she explains.

“If I was a child the way to get my attention would be to say, ‘Do you know this plant has killed 500 people in really nasty ways – their body curls up and their muscles tear away.’ ”

So just who is this maverick, entrepreneurial Duchess whose focus and imagination have transformed her corner of England into a huge tourist attraction rivalled only by Kew and Windsor gardens – and who has divided the gardening establishment in the process.
“She is the antithesis of the stuffy duchess,” says Richard Compton Miller, author of society bible Who’s Really Who.

“I remember staying once at Belvoir Castle with the Duke and Duchess of Rutland and people were still calling them ‘your grace’. But the Duchess of Northumberland prefers to be just Jane.

“I wouldn’t describe her as eccentric but someone rather go ­ahead and a believer in blue­ sky thinking doing remarkable things. Because she’s a duchess she’s got the power and influence to do these things. It’s another example of the middle class marrying into the upper class with great prowess.”

It is a background that the Duchess shares with Kate Middleton, the new Duchess of Cambridge, who is already livening up the monarchy by being so refreshingly down ­to earth and self­ possessed.

There is also an intriguing link between the families, with some commentators wondering if the Middletons will one day find them­ selves in a “double­ duchess” situation.

Jane’s son George Percy, heir apparent to his family’s £300million fortune, is an old friend of Pippa Middleton, Kate’s younger sister. They shared a flat at Edinburgh University and Pippa was linked with him over the summer after he was seen out and about with her.

That his own mother is unasham­edly populist is beyond doubt.

The stuffy gardening fraternity may criticise Jane’s ideas – which included planting fibre optic cables in among her waving bamboo fronds, building the largest tree­ house in Europe and positively encouraging children to run amok in the modernist waterfalls at Alnwick – but she is determinedly not trying to create a rarefied atmosphere.

A giant ice rink is planned as well as a huge relaxation facility for bus drivers to lure them into choosing Alnwick as their stopping point on trips to Scotland. If there is one word that sums up the Duchess it is inclusivity.

“I never wanted to make a beautiful garden for elite gardeners,” she said.

“A lot of my ideas come from Las Vegas and Disneyland Paris.”

And indeed her newly appointed chief executive officer is Christian Perdrier, a Disney-trained executive who now enjoys a six-figure salary.

“I didn’t want Mickey Mouse or any of the themed ideas but I wanted customer service,” she says.

The Duchess admits that she has had her share of local detractors.

“My hairdresser often tells me I’m not flavour of the month because people think the town is too busy and they can’t find anywhere to park.

“But in one year alone 100 farmers applied for planning permission to turn their outbuildings into B&Bs and every one of them cited the garden as the reason.”

She was born plain Jane Richard, the daughter of an Edinburgh stock- broker and as a child her ambition was to become a professional figure skater. At 13 she realised she wasn’t good enough and went to boarding school in Kent instead.

When she was 16 she met her future husband Ralph, then a 17-year-old Eton schoolboy. It was love at first sight. She followed him to Oxford where he read history and she took a secretarial course. They married in 1979 when she was 21 and Ralph was 22.

Jane spent the first 36 years of her life never expecting to be a duchess, although the thought that her own social elevation would result should anything befall her elder brother-in- law must have occurred to her during the first 15 years of her marriage.

Then in 1995 the troubled 11th Duke was found dead by his valet, slumped beside his bed.

“For years Jane’s husband Ralph had been running Alnwick for his older brother and she was a loyal wife bringing up four children. But when her brother-in-law died at 42 Ralph became Duke,” says Compton Miller.

For Jane and her husband this meant moving out of their farmhouse in the grounds of Alnwick and into the castle. The move was not without difficulties as Jane hunted for a way to make her new calling her own. But find it she did.

After a long battle with English Heritage, who said she was responsible for the destruction of one of the greatest gardens in the country, her garden was expected to attract 60,000 visitors in its first year, in fact it attracted 330,000 and will draw more than 800,000 this year.

“She has done extraordinary things, of which cage-fighting is probably the most extraordinary,” says Compton Miller.

“But remember there is a link between the aristocracy and fighting. The Marquess of Queensberry, a Scottish nobleman in the late 19th century, lent his patron- age to the rules of boxing all those years ago.”

Perhaps the Duchess isn’t so unconventional, after all

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