Harrogate’s new edge

by Simon Willis  |  Published August 9, 2015

For years Harrogate has enchanted visitors with its spas, tea rooms and pristine gardens. Now, this elegant North Yorkshire town is picking up the pace as it embraces new activities and leads the way in modern international dining.

Montpellier, Harrogate

Montpellier Street, Harrogate (Photo: Visit England)

For thrills and excitement, I expected little from Harrogate. Driving in, I readied myself for middle-aged women in fur coats and men in expensive gilets queuing patiently – as only we Brits do – outside Bettys Tea Room. I imagined crescents of perfectly pruned flowers skirting green gardens, and rows of imposing Georgian houses with huge windows. What I found, though, was a town with more than just a penchant for flawless foliage and elaborate tea slurping.

Despite lying a mere hour from where I grew up, I have no memory of visiting Harrogate as a child. While my parents insist we did visit, “at least three or four times,” this North Yorkshire town passed me by, leaving me with only the visions created by its well-known traditions.

A morning wind chill swirled in my face as I sauntered past a golden crown sitting in the middle of the roundabout outside the 300-year old Crown Hotel. Encircling it, red and yellow bedding plants bloomed. The cold draft, ignorant of the fact it was June, pushed me past grass plots so well maintained they could’ve been flown in from Wimbledon’s centre court. Horse chestnut trees and copper beeches provided shelter from the breeze before I reached the town centre and a scene I’d predicted.

The charming Montpellier Street wound alongside delightful duck-into shops and 19th century street lamps. Above, a man wished me “good morning” as he leant over a tiny balcony with a steaming mug. And, there on the corner, Bettys tea shop, regal in its black and gold decor and displaying diners through its giant windows.

Spurred by a surprising thirst for more quintessential Harrogate, I headed to the Royal Pump Museum to explore tales of the town’s spa history. As far back as the 16th century, European Royalty descended on the town in search of healing sulphur waters. Today, visitors sample the high-society lifestyle of old at the revamped Turkish Baths which still has its Islamic arches and vivacious brickwork decor. Although unconfirmed, residents say Harrogate holds the most varied mineral wells in the world. (32)

“Well, I haven’t heard of anywhere with more, so I have no reason to doubt,” said VisitHarrogate chairman Mike Newby.

Mr Newby, who hung up his mayoral chains last year, knows more than most about the history and tradition of the town.

“This ground we are sitting on,” he said waving his arm over The Stray, a 200 acre grassland sprawling up from the centre. “It’s vital to Harrogate and is protected. If part of it is removed, it must be replaced elsewhere in town.”

Harrogate also boasts: a housing market more costly than most other northern parts, the beautiful RHS Harlow Carr Gardens and a mysterious tale of Agatha Christie’s 11-day disappearance and eventual discovery in the Old Swan Hotel.

Inspiring a generation

Yet, despite its long-lasting traditions and intriguing history, there’s change in the air. Thanks to last year’s hugely successful staging of Le Tour de France, Harrogate is moving through the gears to a new future.

“It was just fantastic,” Mr Newby said, “Even before the tour people were cycling the route, and it’s continued from there.”

Along with this year’s Tour de Yorkshire, the debut of the BigBikeBash aims to rekindle some of the cycling magic with various races (both professional and amateur) live music and bike stunts.

“We need to keep the legacy going,” Mr Newby said.

And it seems to be working. Alongside the ostentatious crowns and golden deer lauding atop affluent hotels are glistening golden bikes. Painted inside giant windows are bike silhouettes. There’s even a cycling-themed coffee shop (shhh, don’t tell Betty). Prologue, located on Cold Bath Road, provides a menu of energetic grub for cyclists and replays past races on two widescreen TVs. Its central location is handy for local cyclists who use it as a meeting point before or after rides.

The cycling enthusiasm has spread throughout surrounding towns and villages too, in particularly at Pateley Bridge. Here, at Coldstones Cut a jeep-sized yellow bike is marooned in the ground looking over the Coldstones Quarry and the stunning Yorkshire Dales.

Food for thought

It’s not just two-wheeled activities which Harrogate is embracing. It’s also marking new trails in gastronomy.

New York inspired Yorkshire Meatball CO. opened this year, becoming one of the first specialist meatball restaurants in the country. From American-style meatball subs to cheesecake balls, this restaurant is never empty and has a burgeoning reputation in Yorkshire.

Alvera Court residence, ideally located on Kings Road, is part of VisitHarrogate’s new green scheme – successfully merging sustainable practices with traditional Victorian charm. Rooms are reasonably priced and its owners, Colin and Brenda, are not only fountains of local knowledge but serve up an English breakfast to rival most in Harrogate. The residence is smoke free and food is also locally sourced, including bottles of the finest water in the land, which are waiting in every room.

So, an intriguing and mysterious history coupled with trending activities and gastronomy, like meeting someone stunningly hansom and then uncovering a sparkling personality, I began to wonder “where’s the catch Harrogate?”

Maybe there’s something wrong with its people, maybe they’re so keen to protect their town they snarl at visitors and throw scone halves at cars as they leave. Apparently not. For the last two years Harrogate’s residents have been voted the happiest in the UK and visitors are regularly paying tribute to their friendly welcome.

Ok, well, prices surely must be too high. Wrong again. While prices in its designer stores and bespoke boutiques are expectedly sky high, other shops parade tags of 30%, 40% even 50% discount. I grabbed lunch at Carluccio’s quietly hoping for an extortionate bill I could hold aloft and yell “ah, ha!” But, again I was hit with an affordable price and a goodbye chocolate to really rub it in.

Rather than allowing last year’s Tour de France to flitter off into memory, Harrogate is admirably using the event’s success as a springboard to a fresh tourism approach. This doesn’t mean neglecting its history and traditions, rather merging them with a passion for cycling.

Driving away it became clear that the town, which I’d so effortlessly forgotten two decades ago, was now etched in my memory. With Harrogate’s new adventure edge, future generations should have no problem avoiding my mistake.