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Duke opens castle gates to students

The Percys have lived at Alnwick since 1309, untroubled by the attentions of schoolchildren. Not any more, reports Elaine Carlton

Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland, has made his own gracious contribution to the battle between countryside and town. Anxious to spread the rural message, he is promoting his magnificent privately-owned castle - built in the 11th century - as a resource for GCSE and GNVQ students.

However, his commitment does have limits: he does not give interviews about the initiative. Nor, despite an invitation to see his home at Alnwick Castle, did he invite The TES into his living room.

But in a written statement the Duke said that the idea, which was pioneered by his advisers, was an attempt to bridge the gap between his empire and the outside world.

He said: "Countryside matters are not understood by the majority of people, including many politicians. They react to individual issues stirred up by equally ignorant but vociferous action groups without appreciating that each issue should be seen in the context of the whole countryside tapestry and this demands greater understanding. I would like to influence another generation by making it more aware."

Forty acres of land, a luxurious banqueting hall and paintings by artists from Canaletto to Titian are being employed to tempt pupils through the gates of the castle in Northumberland from next month to September - when the Duke and his family live elsewhere.

Leisure and tourism students at schools and colleges throughout the area are being urged to look at the castle as a live resource for their coursework.

Horticultural students have been invited to plan the transformation of a large derelict corner of the castle's grounds.

Steve Manion, a former history teacher and the castle's new education officer, said: "Surrounding schools have always seen the castle as grand and distant. Even the Duchess's County high school in Alnwick has been prepared to travel 50 miles to a museum rather than come to the castle.

"Now I am working with teachers on ways that pupils can see the castle as a business, a tourist attraction and an employer and use it for coursework."

A seminar room with audio-visual equipment is being installed near the stables while a storeroom has been adapted as a cloakroom.

Mr Manion is working on material which can be used by pupils during their visit and taken back to the classroom.

"For students working on developing the derelict garden we will provide aerial photographs and a history of the area.

"Tourism students could be asked to study the castle for their customer care module. They could look at whether it needs a car park, if the lavatories are good enough and how to organise a tour around it. We are looking to tap into as many curriculum areas as possible."

The 150-room castle has been in the family since the 1st Lord Percy of Alnwick took it over in 1309 and set about restoring and rebuilding it. In addition to its paintings, it has an impressive sculpture collection and fine 19th-century furniture.

The cost of adapting the castle to its new role and creating educational materials is set to run into thousands of pounds, yet the Duke is not expecting to make money from the programme, according to his advisers.

Schools with up to 500 pupils will have to pay a pound;75 fee for unlimited use of the castle, while those with more than 500 pupils will pay pound;100.

Persuading schools to use the castle as an educational resource is not the only problem Mr Manion is facing.

He is also charged with educating the castle's staff to change their attitudes and prepare for the arrival of hundreds of visiting schoolchildren.

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