There are several family anniversaries in July, so we decided to celebrate with a day out to Harlow Carr Gardens. This was my first ’proper’ day out since lockdown started so I was really looking forward to it. Over the years we have made many very enjoyable visits to the gardens and this was no exception.
Daughter had prebooked tickets on their website. One of the downsides of this is that you can’t control the weather. The weather forecast during the previous week was for thunderstorms on the day. I was beginning to plan on wearing full waterproofs. Fortunately by the time we got to Saturday, this had changed to steady light rain. The skies opened just as we arrived at the car park, but once the rain had blown over, it turned into a dry day and the sun even managed to come out.
The prebooking system worked well with just a short queue waiting to go into reception, where masks had to be worn. Staff were socially distanced behind perspex screens. Once in the gardens, the masks could come off. The gardens are so large that social distancing is easy. The restaurant was closed except for takeaways and there was a member of staff outside taking orders.
Betty’s Tea Room and Ice Cream stall near the old bath house were open and doing a roaring trade. Staff were on hand to ensure orderly queuing and social distancing. Payment was by credit card only. Lunchtimes were slow moving as with complex orders involving sandwiches, sweet stuff and drinks. It was worth the wait for a fat rascal!
Exit is either through the garden centre and shop (where masks need to be worn) or, for those not wanting to put a mask back on, by another entrance at the far end of the restaurant which leads directly into the car park.
On the western edge of Harrogate, these gardens were originally planned as a display garden and trial ground to test the suitability of plants for growing in northern Britain.
The gardens were once part of the Forest of Knaresborough, which was an ancient Royal hunting ground. Springs of sulphur water were discovered in 1734 and a Spa was developed here in the mid C19th with hotel and bath house with six wells. Visitors were charged 2/6d to bathe in the ’especially efficacious’ warm sulphur waters. Attractive gardens were laid out around the bath house.
The hotel and land was sold to Harrogate corporation in 1915 and the spa wells were capped off. The Northern Horticultural Society leased 26 acres of mixed woodland, pasture and arable land from the Corporation in 1946 and developed it as a botanical garden. The well known gardener and TV personality Geoffrey Smith, was superintendent here for many years.
The society merged with the Royal Horticultural Society in 2001 and they have extended and developed the garden by regenerating the woodland area, redesigning the flower gardens, developing a teaching garden, introducing wildflower meadows and an alpine house.
The hotel had a checkered history of nightclub, restaurant and finally a pub before closing in 2013. Along with the surrounding area, it has been bought by the RHS who have plans to redevelop it as part of the gardens.
The gardens are on the slopes of a small stream which runs along their length. Grass with specimen trees, flower beds and rock gardens drop down the slope from the entrance to the stream. On the far side is the woodland with the arboretum and wild flower meadows. There are architectural structures around the garden, like the delightful wicker dancing hares as well as willow arbors and wind features.
Planting is carefully planned to ensure colour throughout the year. The main herbaceous border which drops down to the stream is a highlight of the gardens. In July this was bright with different colour flowers. Some of the beds have been recently dug out in an attempt to eradicate bindweed which was threatening to take over the border. They will be replanted when this has all been removed. Looking at them, there is still quite a lot of bindweed to be seen.
Near them is the newly planted sun garden with poppies, cornflower and pot marigolds. This leads to the Alpine House and the kitchen garden, which is always one of my favourites. Here vegetables and fruit are grown in raised beds along with flowers. Arches of sweet peas were scenting the air.
Don’t miss the rock gardens with their lily ponds. The stream side walk with its stone bridges is always a favourite with its clumps of massive gunnera and candelabra primulas which have interbred over the years producing many different hybrids.
The woodland is a mix of deciduous trees and a few conifers and had been planted with rhododendrons, some of which are now very venerable and very big. Notices ask visitors not to climb on them. Instead, children can run off stream in the play areas complete with a logness monster and Craggle Top Tree House.
At the far end is the arboretum and a bamboo grove with over 200 different species of bamboo. Interspersed are wildflower meadows. The yellow rattle was past its best, but cranesbill and knapweed were in flower, providing a splash of purple. The bird hide and apiary are here.
The lake with its geese and ducks is always popular. The Lakeside gardens near here were originally created for the BBC TV series ‘Gardens through Time’ with a formal Edwardian garden, a low maintenance 1970s garden and a contemporary C21st garden.
A network of well constructed paths lead round the gardens and there are plenty of seats to rest weary legs or to just sit and enjoy the gardens. Allow plenty of time for a visit and make sure you choose a dry day as there is limited shelter if it rains!
“Plan of gardens”:https://www.rhs.org.uk/gardens/pdf/harlow-carr/harlow-carr-map.pdf