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The local gardening group, ‘Pals with Trowels’ (I like to imagine they have an inner committee known as the Pollen Eight), organised a visit to Harlow Carr. If you are a keen gardener, especially in Britain, and more particularly in the North of England, you will know that Harlow Carr is a public garden near Harrogate run by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). If you are none of those things, there is no shame in admitting that you’ve never heard of it; I hadn’t – I can barely distinguish a dahlia from a dandelion and my gardening skills are of the slash and burn variety. But I like gardens. Indeed, there are few more agreeable ways of spending time than meandering through a pleasant garden, especially if you haven’t had to do any work on it. So when Mrs Britain mentioned that she and the other diggers with figures (for some reason, ‘the Pals’ appear to be almost exclusively female) were planning a trip to a famous garden I’d never heard of, I was happy to tag along. Besides, any visit is potential fodder for A Bit About Britain and the excursion came with the added enticement of a picnic.
In fact, Harlow Carr additionally boasts a branch of Bettys Team Rooms (no apostrophe, apparently), the elegant up-market café brand of the Bettys and Taylors Group, based in Yorkshire. These are the people that bring you Taylors of Harrogate coffee and genuine Yorkshire Tea. Given that Yorkshire isn’t primarily renowned for its sub-tropical climate, which most mortals consider a prerequisite to enable flourishing tea and coffee plantations, I have always felt that Bettys and Taylors must be a pretty remarkable company. Anyway, the promise of a visit to Bettys increased interest no end, and a mixed party of at least nine set off in an assortment of carriages to see what Harlow Carr had to offer.
The gardens at Harlow Carr were developed on the site of a former spa hotel by the Northern Horticultural Society in 1950, when they leased 26 acres of mixed woodland, arable land and pasture from Harrogate Corporation. The main objective, apparently, was to see how various plants coped with the challenges presented by northern English weather. You may wonder why they didn’t simply talk to the owners of already long-established gardens in the frozen north, including Scotland (“How are your coffee plants doing this year?”), but I gather the approach was a little more scientific than that. Eventually, in 2001, the Northern Horticultural Society was grafted onto, or was overgrown by, the Royal Horticultural Society; thus the place is now called RHS Garden Harlow Carr.
Harlow Carr has come on in spades since the NHS set out to assess the North’s ability to sustain plant life. It now covers an area of 68 acres, which is quite enough for the average Flymo, has three car parks and the inevitable gift shop as well as – and this will surprise you – a plant shop.
Some of us felt unable to face the rigours of trekking through luxuriant foliage without a coffee first; and, to be fair, no one needed much persuasion. This was my first experience of Bettys and I liked it very much. It was open, clean and attractive. Tempting cakes and other morsels were thoughtfully displayed in glass-fronted cabinets. Strategically placed potted fronds added to an atmosphere of by-gone gentility (actually, I prefer anemones, but with fronds like that, who needs them?). Suited gentlemen showed us to a vacant walnut-veneered table, where we sat in wicker chairs and were waited upon by unpretentious, cheerful, polite, neatly attired waitresses. In contrast, some of the clientele looked distinctly scruffy; I do wish people would make more effort, don’t you? Though we had but a snack, my coffee and scone were perfect and I noted that the menu offered a broad choice without being unrealistically huge in scope (always a bad sign, I feel). And it was reasonably priced, considering – though it’s not the place for a cheap bacon butty and a mug of tea. As a footnote, apparently, Betty’s identity remains a mystery; in itself an interesting piece of marketing.
A blow by blow account of touring Harlow Carr would be tedious, and anyway the garden ingeniously produces different things at different times of the year. So I merely present my inexpert observations and a selection of photographs from our visit in late summer. Generally, I admire but am not over-fond of highly formal gardens with symmetrical, rigid, displays. Harlow Carr is not like that. It offers a kind of organised informality; your head tells you that it takes a considerable amount of thought in design and effective management to achieve that. So you get borders packed with colour that are obviously not natural, but which look just right. There are perfect vistas that nature had little hand in. An arboretum which is evidently planted, yet seemingly uncontrived. A kitchen garden, where you would expect a certain necessary formality, with homely willow-wand paths and contrasts of colour. Even a little touch like a wrought-iron and wire teapot, some 5 feet across, festooned with flowers by the tea house, looked as though it belonged. It was fun, too, to spot an effigy of Roald Dahl’s BFG through the trees and then come upon him later with an enormous spade nearby. Curiously, these alien features blended in as well. A piece of inspired thinking has resulted in children’s play areas being sited, not adjacent to the entrance, café and shop, as is painfully often the case, but tucked away in discrete woodland areas. At Harlow Carr, the kids have to work for their pleasure like everyone else and their shrieks of delight are reasonably muted by distance and undergrowth. One feature is a slide disguised in timber called ‘the Logness Monster’ – terrific.
The sulphur springs upon which the old spa had been based were capped ages ago, but apparently the odour occasionally seeps out. So I did think that the accusing look I received from a haughty woman in tweeds as we passed by close to where the springs are located was unjustified. Well, I assume it was the springs.
Eventually, after several hours of walking, stopping, starting, a break for a picnic (very nice, thank you) and a shorter pause for a cup of tea, Pals with Trowels and friends found themselves, as if by magic, near the exit outside the plant shop (which the RHS euphemistically calls a ‘plant centre’). There was a certain amount of debate along the lines of, “Of course, we don’t really need anything, so I won’t be buying…” when, as if by osmosis, we found ourselves inside the emporium. I distinctly heard pleasurable cooing noises coming from several of my companions and I have to say that even I was impressed, dragging Mrs Britain off to look at some particularly beautiful roses. Interestingly, RHS plants come with a five-year guarantee; I suppose this covers parts and labour, but it probably excludes excessive attention from the feral cats that frequent our little patch at home. Still, the chocolate mint has survived so far.