The Royal Horticultural Society gardens near Harrogate are famed for their diversity,
but this month there’s something rather different  to see. MATT CLARK goes on the trail of the lonesome willow.

PHIL BRADLEY calls them the Harey Bikers. Three bunnies on bikes he sculpted in willow for RHS Harlow Carr to celebrate the Tour de France coming to Yorkshire.

But that sunny weekend in July seems an age away now and, as if to prove the point, autumn has already arrived at the gardens outside Harrogate, turning many of the trees into a blaze of fire-engine red.

Fall is about three weeks early this year, thanks to those unseasonably chilly nights in August, but September is generally one of our most settled months and with forecasts of an Indian Summer, Harlow Carr has to be an ideal place to spend a balmy day, now the schools are back and everything is tranquil once again.

It's especially worth paying a visit this month, because Phil is presenting a willow trail that will take you past five of his never-seen-before sculptures, including a leaping salmon and three little pigs.

"Willow is such a versatile material, I love the stuff," he says. "You can use it pragmatically, for fences and screens, or sculpturally for pieces that are a bit more fun.

"At Harlow Carr we've got examples of both, from the sublime to the ridiculous to the practical and functional."

Phil has been proving that point at Harlow Carr for the last 15 years and regular visitors will already be familiar with his work, which includes characters such as the iconic boxing hares, willow spiling along the stream and living willow fences.

But wait until you see his giant horse.

"I must admit I haven't done one before and it was the hardest to do," says Phil. "Also, my other half is a keen horse woman and just as I thought I was getting the hang of it she would say things like the fetlocks aren't quite right. In my head representation is okay, but to a horsey person, bang on is required."

A trained basket maker, Phil grows all his own willow, without resorting to pesticides or artificial fertiliser and spends most of his time teaching willow-working and creating willow sculptures.

"The ones that I have helped to build at Harlow Carr have been a collaborative process, working with the garden team in this most inspirational place. They don't tend to look at my portfolio, but ask me to do things I haven't done before, which stretches me creatively."

And Phil is certainly up to it, his creations are simply extraordinary. Take the dragon, which you half expect to breathe fire, and aren't those poppy head amazing? Then there are the twigwams, tent like structures for children to play in.

So how does he come up with these intricate designs?

"I tend to worry about things, sit in the bath and sketch, then try to translate that into 3D. It's not like cranking a handle and turning out plastic animals. Sometimes it comes at first time of asking, the pigs came very readily, although the horse took a bit of finding."

They were all well worth the effort, though. The look on people’s faces as Phil drove around the gardens with his sculptures on a flat bed trailer was a picture. But not quite as dumbfounded as the ones he attracted along the A59.

"Especially so at the bacon butty van at Skipton. It's half way, so I always stop and everyone comes out to have a look. There's that sort of double-take, people don't quite know what to say."


• Phil Bradley's willow trail at RHS Harlow Carr opens on Saturday and runs until September 30. The gardens are open every day from 9.30 to 6pm. Last admission is one hour before closing time. Entrance charges apply. For details of more autumn events visit


• The Royal Horticultural Society was founded in 1804 by Sir Joseph Banks and John Wedgwood for the encouragement and improvement of the science, art and practice of horticulture.

The RHS held its first flower shows in 1820, was granted a Royal Charter in 1861. In 1878 the society acquired its first garden at Wisley in Surrey.

Now the world’s largest gardening charity the RHS took over the Harlow Carr gardens in 2001 following its merger with the Northern Horticultural Society, continuing the objective of promoting and developing the science, art and practice of horticulture with special reference to conditions in to the north of England.