A visit to Harlow Carr is always a bitter sweet experience, the gardens are so exquisite and pristine you rue the fact your own patch will never, ever come anywhere near its quality. You see the odd employee decked out in their RHS uniforms but know that it must take an army of gardeners and a Herculean effort to maintain the 68 acres of lawn, beds, allotments and woodland. Not to mention the excellent Alpine house, stream, lake and show gardens.
At the time of visiting, early June, it was £8.95 for adults and half this for children. I think this compares favourably with competing attractions and most of the money is ploughed back in to improve things still further. And the RHS is one of the few organisations these days that doesn’t take a draconian approach to you taking in a picnic and enjoying it at one of the numerous idyllic spots. Isn’t this what a beautiful garden should be partly about. Not so at many we visit these days which seem to view eating your own food and consuming supermarket bought drinks as a crime worthy of capital punishment.
Betty’s tea rooms are supposedly world famous and a must-do on anyone’s itinerary. Sorry, but I don’t visit wonderful locations like this to queue for half an hour and then pay two or three times the going rate for refreshments that are just a bit better than many cafeterias these days. It’s getting ridiculous when some entertainment complexes (the waterpark in Tenerife for example) reserve the right to search you and confiscate any ‘contraband’ like a pork pie or can of coke. Doing so of course means they have a captive audience and they can exploit this situation. If it helped to keep the admission prices down I’d have no qualms with it, I’ve rarely found that to be the case though. My main gripe is I can prepare a very tasty and nutritious picnic, to my own particular tastes, and I prefer to eat it when I’m ready and pretty much wherever I like. What’s so hard to understand about that. So a big thumbs up to Harlow Carr who up until the present are doing little to discourage this.
There did seem to be a total lack of bins anywhere in the gardens and I ended up putting our refuse in the back of a worker’s tractor trailer. I’m all for not leaving litter and keeping things tidy, but you can’t spend the remainder of the morning carrying empty cans and sandwich wrappers.
We started off in the Alpine house as the morning was cold and windy. I was pleased to note the plants had been rearranged significantly since our last visit. This is symptomatic of the efforts and attention-to detail so obvious at Harlow Carr. It would be easy to save time, effort and money by leaving first rate exhibitions unchanged. But they know members make several visits a year and they don’t short change them. As ever these delicate plants were in tip top condition and arranged expertly. I’m sure many an enthusiast first fell in love with Alpines right here in Harrogate.
We were told two flowers in particular were vying for the honour of most spectacular this year, the mauve Alliums and the black Tulips. Both were magnificent but I’d give my vote to the Alliums. There must surely be thousands rather than hundreds of them. Nearly all stood proud against the inclement conditions and complementing superbly the numerous herbaceous plants nearby. The black tulips weren’t far behind in their grandeur, huge tubs of them again standing bolt upright in the fierce wind. Of course they’re dark purple rather than noir, but let’s not be petty. A special mention has to be made for another HC speciality, the light blue poppies that throng the banks of the stream. OK, Meconopsis to you experts. They were in abundance and it was here that we chose to enjoy our picnic, a lovely spot which give sweeping views of the lawns and those impressive Alliums.
Refuelled we decided to venture into the woodlands. We’ve witnessed spectacular Rhododrendons at nearby Harewood House and HC now has a collection to rival them. There is clearly something in the Yorkshire soil that gives rise to these giants, they aren’t shrubs, they’re trees. And the range of colours and their vibrancy would gladden the darkest of moods. The blooms were enormous and the contortions of the branches defied the laws of nature. How boring, normal and diminutive my own Rhod’ now looks.
One aspect of Harlow Carr I’ve always loved is learning from the experts. They aren’t afraid to experiment with ideas and they inevitably get even the quirkiest of notions right in the end. Some of the framework for the sweet peas and other climbers was pure Heath Robinson. But they worked. The recycling of discarded materials and the extensive use of willow and cane is always fascinating as well as educational. Most gardeners must come away determined to employ some of the techniques in their own gardens and allotments.
Clearly the RHS is always going to try to be kind to the environment. Hence the wind turbine near the main lake. I’m not so sure this works for me though, I did hear a few visitors saying they thought there was a railway line nearby as they approached the ‘windmill’. Visually it’s also a bit at odds with one of the most tranquil spots at HC. Maybe it’s there to stay, maybe not. I’m sure the management will take on board the comments from visitors and act accordingly. It definitely isn’t obtrusive enough to detract from the beauty of the place though.
A very relaxing, enjoyable and thought provoking morning. And one that has further convinced us to go to Wisley, the flagship garden of the RHS. It claims to be one of the finest in the world and you don’t make a boast like that unless you’re VERY confident. If it beats Harlow Carr hands down it must be something very special indeed.