Last week, I made my first visit of the year to the Royal Horticultural Society’s Gardens at Harlow Carr, which I had last seen the previous November.
To be honest, for an amateur gardener such as myself, there was not a lot to be seen, apart from crocus, snowdrops, and sprouting cornus. The advantages of an early spring visit however, are that visitors can see the extent of the improvements carried out over the winter period before they are hidden by flowers and foliage. Spring visits always leave me marvelling at the improvements the administration manage to introduce, so that each year, every familiar vista seems better.
Another advantage of a spring visit is that it is possible to read all the labels clearly, many of which become less visible in summer, when maximum growth is achieved. Indeed, the RHS does a splendid job with its labels, with trees included, although for an amateur like myself, common or garden names are easier than the long Latin ones. There is one feature of the gardens which woefully lacks a descriptive label, and that is the most important and tallest architectural relic on the site - at least I couldn’t locate a label!
In 1818, a mineral well was discovered in a field at the corner of Ripon and Kings Roads, which analysis proved to be a most important addition to the range of Harrogate’s mineral wells. These wells were the town’s most important source of income from visitors who came seeking health and relief from suffering. Accordingly, an enterprising businessman, John Williams, purchased the site, and commissioned a well-respected Leeds architect named Clarke to design a grand assembly rooms that would be a magnet for the high society that was flocking in ever-increasing numbers to Harrogate.
Designed in the form of a Greek Temple, the new building was opened in August 1835 on the day of the King’s birthday. Thereafter the Royal Cheltenham Spa and Concert Rooms or Spa Rooms for short, were the centre of the town’s social life, until the building of the larger and neighbouring Kursaal in 1903. By 1939, the century old Spa Rooms needed some roof repairs, but in order to “save” about £700, the council ordered their demolition, an act that informed opinion subsequently regarded as the greatest folly, and an act of unparalleled vandalism.
This week’s photograph was taken by the Advertiser’s photographer in the spring of 1939, and shows the Spa Rooms’ most magnificent external feature, the great portico of six fluted Doric columns. Despite the Council’s suggestion that the columns could be “broken up to repair the roads”, wiser opinion prevailed, and they were put into store, and forgotten about during the troublesome years of the Second World War.
During the 1950s, several townspeople began suggesting that if the town needed to have a new exhibition or conference hall, it should be built next to the Royal Hall, and that the Spa Rooms columns should be re-erected to form an imposing frontage. Others suggested that the columns would make an impressive entrance to Valley Gardens, or an attractive “folly” in the new Horticultural Gardens which was been opened at Harlow Carr in 1949.
The last named suggestion was eventually adopted, thanks to the support of the Yorkshire Archeological Society, and several local people, including architect John Miller, John Sigston Thompson (an honorary director of the gardens) and the Advertiser’s historian HH Walker. The council formally presented the columns to the then named Northern Horticultural Society in January 1961, and after fund raising, the columns were re-erected on a site overlooking the gardens, directly opposite the main entrance gates.
In 1964, the former Spa Rooms Lions were re-erected in front of the columns, and the plan was to use the rest of the surviving stonework to construct a back wall, a roof, and the finish the frontage with a proper pediment atop the columns. By 1968 it had become clear that the cost of this restoration was too high, so superintendent Geoffrey Smith laid out a “lawned terrace” as a setting for the imposing woodland feature. More recently, I have had great pleasure from the outdoor theatrical performances in the gardens, but have always wished that the area of undergrowth behind the columns could not be cleared to provide a seating area for a woodland theatre, using the columns as a backdrop. I also wish that the administration would make more of the gardens unique mineral wells, but they will have to wait for a future article.