The Deadliest Garden in the World: Visit Alnwick’s Poison Garden in Northumberland, England

The mind reels to think of all the early humans who sacrificed themselves, unwittingly, in the prehistoric quest to learn which plants were safe to eat, which were suitable for healing, and which would maim or kill whoever who touched them. Even now, of course, the great majority of us rely on experts to make these distinctions for us. Unless we’re steeped in field training and/or folk knowledge, it’s safe to say most of us wouldn’t have a clue how to avoid poisoning ourselves in the wild.

This need not overly concern us on a visit to The Poison Garden, however. Nestled in manicured lanes at Alnwick Garden, “one of north England’s most beautiful attractions,” Natasha Geiling writes at Smithsonian, the Poison Garden includes such infamous killers as hemlock, Atropa belladonna (a.k.a. Deadly Nightshade), and Strychnos nux-vomica, the source of strychnine, in its collections. Just don’t touch the plants and you should be fine. Oh, and also, guides tell visitors, “don’t even smell them.” It should go without saying that tasting is out.




The Poison Garden is hardly the main attraction at Alnwick, in Northumberland. The castle itself was used as the setting for Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. The 14 acres of controversial modern landscape gardens–designed by the flamboyant Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland–have become famous in their own right, in part for violating “England’s architectural patrimony,” a scandal you can read about here. (One garden designer and critic called it a “popular entertainment, the dream of a girl who looks like Posh and lives at Hogwarts.”)

The duchess responds to criticism of her extravagant designs with a shrug. “A lot of my ideas come from Las Vegas and Euro Disney,” she admits. The Poison Garden has a much more venerable source, the Orto Botanico in Padua, the oldest extant academic botanical garden, founded in 1545, with its own poison garden that dates to the time of the Medicis. After a visit, Percy “became enthralled with the idea of creating a garden of plants that could kill instead of heal,” writes Geiling. She thought of it, specifically, as “a way to interest children.” As the duchess says:

Children don’t care that aspirin comes from the bark of a tree. What’s really interesting is to know how a plant kills you, and how the patient dies, and what you feel like before you die.

What child doesn’t wonder about such things? And if we teach kids how to avoid poisonous plants, they can keep the rest of us alive should we have to retreat into the woods and become foragers again. The Poison Garden also grows plants from which common recreational drugs derive, like cannabis and cocaine, “as a jumping-off point for drug education,” Geiling points out.

Provided visitors follow the rules, the garden is safe, “although some people still occasionally faint from inhaling toxic fumes,” Alnwick Garden’s website warns. And while it’s designed to attract and educate kids, there’s a little something for everyone. Percy’s favorite poisonous plant, for example, Brugmansia, or angel’s trumpet, acts as a powerful aphrodisiac before it kills. She explains with glee that “Victorian ladies would often keep a flower from the plant on their card tables and add small amounts of its pollen to their tea to incite an LSD-like trip.” You can learn many other fascinating facts about plants that kill, and do other things, at Alnwick’s Poison Garden when the world opens up again.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Anti-Gluttony Door in Portugal’s Alcobaça Monastery Shamed Plump Monks to Start Fasting

Consider that you eat the sins of the people

—inscription carved above the entrance to the Monastery of Alcobaça‘s refectory

Apparently, the Monastery of Alcobaça‘s resident monks were eating plenty of other things, too.

Eventually their reputation for excessive plumpness became problematic.

A hefty physique may have signified prosperity and health in 1178 when construction began on the UNESCO World Heritage site, but by the 18th-century, those extra rolls of flesh were considered at odds with the Cistercian monks’ vows of obedience, poverty and chastity.




Its larders were well stocked, thanks in part to the rich farmland surrounding the monastery.

18th-century traveler William Beckford described the kitchen in Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha:

On one side, loads of game and venison were heaped up; on the other, vegetables and fruit in endless variety. Beyond a long line of stoves extended a row of ovens, and close to them hillocks of wheaten flour whiter than snow, rocks of sugar, jars of the purest oil, and pastry in vast abundance, which a numerous tribe of lay brothers and their attendants were rolling out and puffing up into a hundred different shapes, singing all the while as blithely as larks in a corn-field.

Later he has the opportunity to sample some of the dishes issuing from that kitchen:

The banquet itself consisted of not only the most excellent usual fare, but rarities and delicacies of past seasons and distant countries; exquisite sausages, potted lampreys, strange messes from the Brazils, and others still stranger from China (edible birds’ nests and sharks’ fins), dressed after the latest mode of Macao by a Chinese lay brother. Confectionery and fruits were out of the question here; they awaited us in an adjoining still more spacious and sumptuous apartment, to which we retired from the effluvia of viands and sauces.

Later in his travels, he is taken to meet a Spanish princess, who inquires, “How did you leave the fat waddling monks of Alcobaça? I hope you did not run races with them.”

Perhaps such tattle is what convinced the brass that something must be done.

The remedy took the form of a porta pega-gordo (or “fat catcher door”), 6′ 6″ high, but only 12.5” wide.

Keep in mind that David Bowie, at his most slender, had a 26” waist.

Allegedly, each monk was required to pass through it from the refectory to the kitchen to fetch his own meal. Those who couldn’t squeeze through were out of luck.

Did they have to sit in the refectory with their faces to the walls, silently eating the sins of the people (respicite quia peccata populi comeditis) while their slimmer brethren filled their bellies, also silently, face-to-the-wall, as a reader read religious texts aloud from a pulpit?

History is a bit unclear on this point, though Beckford’s enthusiasm waned when he got to the refectory:

…a square of seventy or eighty feet, begloomed by dark-coloured painted windows, and disgraced by tables covered with not the cleanest or least unctuous linen in the world.

According to a German Wikipedia entry, the monks passed through the porta pega-gordo monthly, rather than daily, a more manageable mortification of the flesh for those with healthy appetites.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

If you are assembling a bucket list of destinations for when we can travel freely again, consider adding this beautiful Gothic monastery (and the celebrated pastry shop across the street). Your choice whether or not to suck it in for a photo in front of the porta pega-gordo.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Rome’s Colosseum Will Get a New Retractable Floor by 2023 — Just as It Had in Ancient Times

Rome wasn’t built in a day. But one of its most renowned attractions could be returned to its first-century glory in just two years — or at least, part of one of its most famous attractions could be. In our time, the Colosseum has long been a major Roman tourist destination–one that lacks even a proper floor. Visitors today see right through to its underground hypogeum, an impressive mechanical labyrinth used to convey gladiators into the arena, as well as a variety of other performers, willing and unwilling, human and otherwise. “Eyewitnesses describe how animals appeared suddenly from below, as if by magic, sometimes apparently launched high into the air,” writes Smithsonian‘s Tom Mueller.

“The hypogeum allowed the organizers of the games to create surprises and build suspense,” the German Archaeological Institute in Rome’s Heinz-Jürgen Beste tells Mueller. “A hunter in the arena wouldn’t know where the next lion would appear, or whether two or three lions might emerge instead of just one.”




Now, the Italian government has announced plans to return the element of surprise to the Colosseum with a restoration of its elaborate “retractable floor.” This has drawn the attention of media concerned with history and travel, but also the world of architecture and design. With €10 million already pledged by the state, the worldwide call is out for architectural proposals, due by February 1 of this year for a tentative completion date of 2023.

The Colosseum, which once seated 50,000 spectators, hasn’t put on a battle since the fifth century. The hypogeum’s long exposure to the elements means that any architectural firm eager to take on this project will have its work cut out for it. Few restorations could demand the striking of a trickier balance between historical faithfulness and modern functionality. Whatever design gets selected, its trap doors and hidden elevators will be employed for rather different entertainments than, say, the death matches between slaves and beasts to which so many ancient Romans thrilled. The Italian government intends to use the Colosseum’s new floor to put on theater productions and concerts – which should turn it into an even more popular attraction when we can all once again go to the theater, concerts, and indeed Italy.

via Smithsonian

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Why Japan Has the Oldest Businesses in the World?: Hōshi, a 1300-Year-Old Hotel, Offers Clues

Perhaps, when the state of the world once again permits reasonably convenient travel, you plan to visit Japan. If so, you’d do well to consider staying at one of the country’s ryokan, the traditional inns often located at hot springs. No accommodations could appeal more deeply to those in search of “old Japan,” and many ryokan deliver on that adjective in the most literal sense. Take the Nisiyama Onsen Keiunkan, whose 1300 years of operation at its hot spring in Yamanashi Prefecture make it the oldest hotel in the world. But it has yet to get the documentary treatment by Fritz Schumann, a German filmmaker with an eye for Japan previously featured here on Open Culture for his video on the “mountain monks” of Yamagata.

Schumann has, however, made a subject of the second-oldest hotel in the world, Komatsu’s Hōshi ryokan, founded in the year 718.  That Japan boasts both the word’s oldest and second-oldest hotels should surprise nobody who knows the nature of its businesses. “The country is home to more than 33,000 with at least 100 years of history — over 40 percent of the world’s total, according to a study by the Tokyo-based Research Institute of Centennial Management,” write The New York Times‘ Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno.




“Over 3,100 have been running for at least two centuries. Around 140 have existed for more than 500 years. And at least 19 claim to have been continuously operating since the first millennium.” These shinise, or “old shops,” include brands like Nintendo, founded as a playing-card company, and soy-sauce maker Kikkoman.

Dooley and Uneo highlight Ichiwa, a shop that has sold mochi — those slightly sweet rice-based confections often molded into aesthetically pleasing shapes — for over a millennium. “Like many businesses in Japan,” Ichiwa “takes the long view — albeit longer than most. By putting tradition and stability over profit and growth, Ichiwa has weathered wars, plagues, natural disasters, and the rise and fall of empires. Through it all, its rice flour cakes have remained the same.” At BBC’s Worklife, Bryan Lufkin examines Tsuen Tea, a fixture of suburban Kyoto since the year 1160, back when Kyoto was still Japan’s capital, a history that grants the city pride of place among traditionalists. There, writes Lufkin, “many long-standing businesses also tout a dedication to good customer service as an element that keeps them thriving.”

In Kyoto, or anywhere else in Japan, this is “especially the case with ryokan,” which “treat guests like family.” Like many things Japanese, this aspect of the ryokan experience will both surprise first-time visitors and be just what they expected. Whether in their look and feel, their settings, their standard of service — or rather, in a combination of all those qualities and others besides — ryokan offer something available nowhere else in the world. So do Japan’s other shinise, which also set themselves apart by having amassed the resources (financial, familial, and otherwise) to keep going through hard times. This past year has been another such hard time, and with the ongoing pandemic still causing a great deal of human and economic damage around the world, we might look to Hōshi and its long-lived kind for lessons on how do to business in the future.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

A Look into the Wondrous Life & Expansive Work of the Late Jan Morris, Who Wrote the Entire World

Jan Morris spent her long life and career writing about the world. Her voluminous body of work includes books about countries like Spain, the United States, and her ancestral homeland of Wales; cities like Oxford, Trieste, and Sydney; and even city-states like Hong Kong and her beloved (if sometimes resented) Venice. And yet, as she declared on CBS Sunday Morning twenty years ago, “I hate being called a travel writer, and I don’t believe I am one. When I go to a place, I describe its effect upon my own sensibility. I’m not telling the reader what they’re going to find there; I’m just telling people what effect the place has had upon me.” To The Paris Review she called herself a “a belletrist, an old-fashioned word,” and a belletrist “mostly concerned with place.”

“It’s hard not to be fascinated by Jan Morris,” says Observer editor Robert McCrum in the BBC profile just above. This would be true of any writer who had seen and considered so much of the Earth, which in Morris’ case also happens to include the top of Mt. Everest, conquered in 1953 along with the history-making expedition of Sir Edmund Hillary.




She reached the summit as a he, having lived for her first forty or so years as James Morris; becoming Jan, in her perception, constituted a journey of another kind. “I have interpreted this thing romantically, coyly, and tweely as some sort of a quest that has been imposed upon me,” she said in a 1974 talk-show appearance promoting her narrative of transition Conundrum — “an arrogant book, an egotistical book about myself, and I’m afraid that you must take it or leave it.”

Just as Morris never called herself a travel writer, she never spoke of having undergone a sex change. “I did not change sex,” she told her final interviewer, The Guardian‘s Tim Adams. “I really absorbed one into the other. I’m a bit of each now.” For her many readers, this greatly deepens her value as an observer. “I’ve written as an outsider, always,” as she puts it to McCrum. “I’ve never pretended to get inside the spirit, or the thoughts of other cultures, other people, other cities, even. I’m always the onlooker.” And yet this very nature made her, among other things, “the kindest, shrewdest and most indefatigable master portraitist of cities,” as her fellow writer of place Pico Iyer tweeted in response to the news of her death on November 20 at the age of 94.

Among Morris’ work not filed under “travel” one finds subjects like Abraham Lincoln, the Japanese Battleship Yamato, and the rise and fall of the British Empire. To my mind, this historical perspective did a good deal to make her a model “city critic,” and one whose work lights the way for writers of place to come. She continued publishing that work up until the end — and indeed will continue past it, a deliberately posthumous volume called Allegorizings having been completed years ago. “When I die, which I’m going to one of these days, I think people will be able to say that I’ve written an awful lot of books about the whole world at a particular moment,” Morris said in a recent interview on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb. She enjoyed a longer moment, not to mention a wider expanse, than most; through her writing, we’ll carry on enjoying it ourselves.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Watch Digital Dancers Electrify the Streets of Istanbul

Are you open to the idea of otherworldly beings moving amongst us, benign but unseen?

Director Gökalp Gönen seems to be in the above video for jazz innovator Ilhan Ersahin’s “Hurri-Mitanni” (Good News).

Things kick off in a decidedly low key manner—a young woman sets off for a nighttime stroll through the streets of Istanbul, her face deliberately obscured by a snugly tied black and white cloth.

Turning a corner, she passes an anonymous figure, wrapped head to toe in similar stripes.




Does this unexpected sight elicit any discernible reaction?

Our guess is no, but we can’t say for sure, as the camera loses interest in the young woman, opting to linger with the svelte and exuberant mummy, who’s dancing like no one is watching.

Elsewhere, other increasingly colorful beings perform variations on the mummy’s box step, alone or in groups.

As their outfits become more fanciful, Gönen employs CGI and 3D animation to unhitch them from the laws of physics and familiar boundaries of human anatomy.

They pixellate, sprout extra legs, project rays reminiscent of string art, appear more vegetable than animal….

Some grow to Godzilla-like proportions, shedding little humanoid forms and bounding across the Bosporus.

A small spiky version ignores the paws of a curious kitten.

These fantastical, faceless beings are invisible to passerby. Only one, performing on an outdoor stage, seems eager for interaction. None of them seen to mean any harm.

They just wanna boogie…

…or do they?

The director’s statement is not easily parsed in translation:

A group of anonymous wandering the streets. Everywhere is very crowded but identities are very few. Trying to be someone is as difficult as writing your name on the waves left by this fast-moving giant ship. Everyone is everyone and everyone is nobody anymore. This silence could only exist through glowing screens, even if it found itself nooks. On those loud screens, they reminded who actually had the power by entering the places that were said to be inaccessible. But they didn’t even care about this power. The areas where we had passionate conversations about it for days were a “now like this” place for us, but they looked like this to say “no, it was actually like that” but they did not speak much. They had the charm of a cat. When they said, “Look, it was like this,” they became part of everything that made it “like this” and became unnoticeable like paving stones. They just wanted to have a little fun, to be able to live a few years without worry. In five minutes, fifteen seconds at most, they existed and left.

A few creatures who got left on the cutting room floor can be seen dancing on Gönen’s Instagram profile.

via Colossal

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Last Video Store: A Short Documentary on How the World’s Oldest Video Store Still Survives Today

When was the last time you went to a video store? Perhaps your habit died with the major rental outlets like Blockbuster Video, all of whose locations closed by early 2014. Or rather, almost all of them: as fans of retro video culture know, the sole Blockbuster store on this Earth rents on in Bend, Oregon. But for all the nostalgic appeal of its blue-and-yellow brand livery, the “last Blockbuster” is at its heart the local operation it had been before the once-mighty international chain assimilated it in 2000. Back then, recall, we cinephiles saw Blockbuster and its like as remorseless corporate predators ready to swallow every independent video store, hardly sparing the ones at which we’d received our own film education.

My own teenage induction into cinephilia happened at Scarecrow Video, which continues to serve Seattle’s film obsessives today. Indeed, of all video stores that have ever existed, only the eccentric independents still stand. This holds true on both sides of the pond: though London now has no video stores at all, Bristol boasts the oldest video store in the world, one with the experientially apt name of 20th Century Flicks. You can have a look at this tenacious operation in Arthur Cauty’s documentary short “The Last Video Store,” which in the words of the shop’s owners and staff explains just how Flicks (as they refer to it) has managed to carve out an economic and cultural space in the 21st century.




“Flicks, because it’s got this very strange, idiosyncratic collection of trash to extreme high-brow movies, we just had this niche that we managed to survive in,” says co-owner David Taylor. Since its founding in 1982 (and through a few moves in that time), the store has amassed “the biggest collection in the U.K. by quite a long way. It’s over 20,000 movies,” which by Taylor’s reckoning is “about five times more than Netflix.” This gets at an unexpected but now common complaint about the streaming-media future in which we now live: despite their technical capacity to offer film libraries of Borgesian vastness, liberated as they are from the increasingly constrained spaces of traditional video stores, even the most successful streaming platforms maintain disappointingly limited selections.

“There’s some good stuff as well, admittedly, but it’s hidden behind all of the trash,” Flicks clerk Daisy Steinhardt says of Netflix, referring to a very different kind of “trash” than that proudly stocked by her store. “If you come here, then you can talk to someone who knows about or at least likes film, and then actually have a conversation rather than just trusting an algorithm.” It is this sense of community — which Blockbuster-style chains failed to offer, and which internet-based services can hardly hope to replicate — on which surviving video stores have capitalized. 20th Century Video have even built a pair of small theaters in the store, which customers can book to view anything in its far-reaching collection. Should a bold investor come along, co-owner David White envisions “a bar, a little restaurant, a retro arcade,” even an entire “emporium for an old-school type of experience.” And who among us wouldn’t enjoy the occasional night out in the 20th century?

via Messy Nessy

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Trips on the World’s Oldest Electric Suspension Railway in 1902 & 1917 Show How a City Changes Over a Century

Today we take a ride on the world’s oldest electric suspension railway—the Wuppertal Schwebebahn in Germany.

Actually, we’ll take two rides, traveling back in time to do so, thanks to YouTuber pwduze, who had a bit of fun trying to match up two videos discovered online for comparison’s sake.

The journey on the left was filmed in 1902, when this miracle of modern engineering was but a year old.

The train passes over a broad road traveled mostly by pedestrians.




Note the absence of cars, traffic lights, and signage, as well as the proliferation of greenery, animals, and space between houses.

The trip on the right was taken much more recently, shortly after the railway began upgrading its fleet to cars with cushioned seats, air conditioning, information displays, LED lighting, increased access for people with disabilities and regenerative brakes.

An extended version at the bottom of this page provides a glimpse of the control panel inside the driver’s booth.

There are some changes visible beyond the windshield, too.

Now, cars, buses, and trucks dominate the road.

A large monument seems to have disappeared at the 2:34 mark, along with the plaza it once occupied.

Fieldstone walls and 19th-century architectural flourishes have been replaced with bland cement.

There’s been a lot of building—and rebuilding. 40% of Wuppertal’s buildings were destroyed by Allied bombing in WWII.

Although Wuppertal is still the greenest city in Germany, with access to public parks and woodland paths never more than a ten-minute walk away, the views across the Wupper river to the right are decidedly less expansive.

As Benjamin Schneider observes in Bloomberg CityLab:

For the Schwebebahn’s first riders at the turn of the 20th century, these vistas along the eight-mile route must have been a revelation. Many of them would have ridden trains and elevators, but the unobstructed, straight-down views from the suspended monorail would have been novel, if not terrifying.

The bridge structures appear to have changed little over the last 120 years, despite several safety upgrades.

Those steampunk silhouettes are a testament to the planning—and expense—that resulted in this unique mass transit system, whose origin story is summarized by Elmar Thyen, head of Schwebebahn’s Corporate Communications and Strategic Marketing:

We had a situation with a very rich city, and very rich citizens who were eager to be socially active. They said, ‘Which space is publicly owned so we don’t have to go over private land?… It might make sense to have an elevated railway over the river.’

In the end, this is what the merchants wanted. They wanted the emperor to come and say, ‘This is cool, this is innovative: high tech, and still Prussian.’

At present, the suspension railway is only operating on the weekends, with a return to regular service anticipated for August 2021. Face masks are required. Tickets are still just a few bucks.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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