Picture Credit: Jane Keighley (IFY Community)
“The queerest place with the strangest people leading the oddest lives!”
– Charles Dickens
Harrogate is a former spa town in North Yorkshire, known for its pleasant floral surroundings, tourism and its importance for business. Recently the town has been consistently voted one of the best places to live in the UK and has some of the most expensive properties in Yorkshire, within its many leafy suburbs.
The most striking feature of Harrogate is the amount of open space in its town centre. This area, known as The Stray, is 200 acres in size and was created through an Act of Parliament in 1778 in order to link Harrogate’s springs into one area and protect them from damage. Even to this day the area of The Stray must remain the same size even when roads are widened and efforts are made to maintain its correct size. The open spaces these days are popular with residents for kite-flying, local football matches, public events and joggers. There are also over six million crocus plants to enjoy during the springtime and in the Victorian times the area housed a racecourse.
The town’s economy is nowadays based around the Harrogate International Centre, (HIC), which is the third largest in the UK and makes it the biggest place in Yorkshire for exhibitions, conferencing and business meetings. It opened in 1982, and staged that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, putting the town instantly on a Continental stage. The venue contains a 2,000 seat auditorium, ten exhibition halls and the Royal hall, used for banqueting and entertainment. It is extensively used for trade shows, event space and conferences for many organisations including business, charities, wedding fairs and political parties to name but a few.
For lovers of the outdoors the Great Yorkshire Showground and Events Centre is based on the edge of the town and in some ways is the outside equivalent of the Conference Centre. The 250 acre site, includes a grandstand, show ring and country pursuits arena. Every July, for three days, it hosts the Great Yorkshire Show, the largest agricultural fair in England and organised by the county’s Agricultural Society. The show started in the mid-nineteenth century and was held in different locations until finding a permanent home at the showground in 1951. The show’s competitions are split into twenty categories, such as sheep, goats, rabbits, pigeons and then subdivided into many different classes, which are then judged by an expert in the field. There are also equine competitions, sheep shearing and falconry displays to be enjoyed.
The show has many exhibitors displaying things from farm machinery and vintage cars through to businesses and charities advertising their services and causes. There is also a fairground, food stalls, beer tents and bandstand, where various musical acts perform throughout the three days.
The Valley Gardens were created in the late Victorian era and covers seventeen acres of shrubs, flowerbeds and woodland. Amongst this floral splendour are two historic buildings, the Collanade and the Sun pavilion, as well as many other attractions, such as café, children’s playground, paddling pool, skate park and outdoor games. Every Sunday throughout the summer there is also a programme of band concerts to enjoy.
Harlow Carr Gardens have existed since 1950, and has since been expanded to 27.5 hectares of gardens, lakes and woodland, owned by the Royal Horticultural Society. The site lies on an area known as the Forest of Knaresborough, which used to be ancient hunting grounds and a source of one of the towns’ many natural sulphur springs and bath houses. The gardens has a host of features, including rhododendron glade, limestone rock garden, rose borders and a state of the art green learning centre. There are also activities, such as guided walks, workshops and demonstrations throughout the year as well as a tea room, plant centre and gift shop.
The Royal Pump room is a museum celebrating Harrogate’s spa town history, from the discovery of its natural sulphur springs around the beginning of the 17th Century through its heyday in Victorian England. During this period visitors would come to Harrogate from around the world to drink and bathe in the town’s water, which was believed to have healing powers.
The building dates back to 1842 and was originally built to cover the well in which it still houses. The museum hosts a display of town artefacts, including some from Ancient Egypt and there is also plenty for children to do with activity areas, trails and quizzes.
Carrying on with the tradition of Harrogate as a place for healing and relaxation are the Turkish Baths, which date back to the Victorian era and is the only original spa still in use. These include guided tours of its relaxation rooms, saunas, plunge pools and massage parlours as well as the chance to have beauty treatments amongst other services.
Given Harrogate’s many floral areas and gardens it is no surprise that the town has a range of flower shows and competitions throughout the year. The Harrogate Spring flower show takes place each April at the Yorkshire showground. It is regarded as one of the largest horticultural events in the UK outside London and attracts exhibitors to its four main outdoor halls from all over the country. There are competitions for the best gardens in several different categories as well as craft stalls, food and outside nurseries.
The Autumn flower show held on the same site in September has a giant vegetable competition with several categories for the largest carrots, marrow and pumpkins. The event focuses also on cooking, with demonstrations on how to use the summer’s produce to make delicious meals.
The Harrogate festival takes place in July and features music, talks and book readings around several venues, such as The St George’s Hotel and Royal Hall. In the same month the Harrogate Crime Writing festival takes places, featuring guest speakers from authors in the genre, such as Lynda La Plante, and a murder mystery dinner.
The rich cultural scene in Harrogate is served also by two theatres, The Royal Hall and Harrogate Theatre. The former was built in 1903 and is now part of the International conference centre complex. It is famous for being the only surviving kursaal in the UK, which means “spa in which entertainment is provided.” Its programme is focused mainly on music concerts, talks and plays. Harrogate Theatre was built in 1900 and named the Grand Opera house which originally staged pantomime, music hall acts, such as Charlie Chaplin, and its own amateur dramatics plays until 1955 when it closed. In 1958 it re-opened as simply Harrogate theatre and has been refurbished both in the early 70s and in 2007. The venue puts on a varied programme of plays, comedy and music.
Harrogate has an interesting and varied nightlife, most especially in the form of café’ bars, which often provide live music and a relaxed atmosphere. There are numerous restaurants and bistros, to choose from as well as the flagship branch of Betty’s tea rooms.
Historically Harrogate was part of West Yorkshire, but is now classed as being part of the North Riding. It is centrally located and adjacent to the A1 motorways. It also has good road links to Leeds in the South, down the A61 and Bradford to the South West, on the A658. The A61 carries on northwards to Ripon and the Dales, while the A59 runs through the town from East to West from York to Skipton.
Trains first arrived to the town in 1848, through another station, known as Harrogate Brunswick, until this was replaced in 1864. The current Harrogate railway station was built in 1965, replacing this older Victorian one on the same site. It was linked to all nearby towns and cities, until it lost three of its services thanks to the Beeching Report, most notably the line to Wetherby. The route to York was saved from closure in 1966 and continues to operate via Knaresborough to this day. In the opposite direction services run to Leeds. Less than 100m away is the bus station, which has thirteen stands and can take passengers to places such as Ripon, Knaresborough, Leeds, Skipton and Pateley Bridge.
Close by is The Victoria Centre, which forms the centrepiece of the Harrogate shopping experience, with a host of high street names in fashion, food and leisure. The town is also noted for its large amount of fashion shops and boutiques, especially along Montpellier Hill and other parts of the town centre.
The town has two non-league football teams, Harrogate Town and Harrogate Railway. The former play at Wetherby Road and at the time of writing competes in the Conference North. Railway was formed in 1935 and as the name suggests is derived from workers on the town’s train network. They currently play at Station View and have recently reached national recognition for their FA Cup exploits, where they managed to reach the Second Round proper in both 2003 and 2007. Harrogate rugby union club were founded in 1871 and currently compete in the National Division Two North League.
In July 2014 the town was chosen as the finish line for Stage one of the Tour de France, attracting large crowds and celebrations on The Stray. The roads around Harrogate were also extensively used on the route during both of the Yorkshire stages.
Harrogate is beautiful spa town, which has been enjoyed by residents and visitors alike throughout its history.
Harrogate has a very unique history, which has led the town to follow a very different path from other Yorkshire places. Evidence of a Viking settlement was found in 2007, when a treasure hoard of 700 coins and other artefacts were discovered by two metal detector enthusiasts, which is now housed in The British Museum.
However, it was not until around the 1330s that the first mention of a settlement named Harewgate was made, meaning road to a “pile of stones.” The town originated from two settlements, High Harrogate and Low Harrogate, which were known as two small hamlets near Knaresborough, eventually merging together to form one town.
The reason for its growth lay in the ground, with the discovery of Tewitt Well, the first mineral spring by William Slingsby in 1571. He found that the water from this well had similar properties to those found in Spa, Belgium. The minerals contained within its waters, iron and sulphur were said by doctors of the day to contain healing powers. These theories were published in a book, “The English spa fountain,” written by Edmund Deane in 1626. Over time other similar springs were discovered and the town began to grow around them with many visitors, mainly the rich, coming to drink and bathe in them. In 1778 The Stray was created in order to protect the springs and give the town open green space for its upper class tourists to enjoy. Harrogate did not industrialise on purpose, because by the Victorian era the town was seen as the ideal getaway from the smog and filth of places such as Bradford and Leeds with its spas and open spaces. By the turn of the Twentieth Century Harrogate was a place favoured by the nobility all over Europe, being visited by royalty, members of the government and famous people, such as Charles Dickens. In 1897 the Royal baths were opened to offer spa treatments and hydrotherapy to paying customers and the influx of rich visitors brought the town its first theatres, hotels and tea rooms in order to accommodate and entertain them. This captive audience would stand the town in good stead for the Twentieth Century, when due to advances in medical science, the spas would decline in popularity and most were eventually filled in, leaving only the modern-day Turkish baths as its sole remaining working spring.
The Second World War aided Harrogate’s transformation into the town for conferencing and hospitality as it is known for today. During this conflict the town’s large hotels provided room for makeshift government offices, which had to be evacuated from London. In 1982 the Harrogate International Centre was built, hosting the Eurovision Song Contest and helping to make Harrogate a centre for commerce, exhibitions and conferencing. Nowadays Harrogate is known as one of the happiest and best places to live in the country, with its wide open spaces and excellent hospitality facilities plus the fact that it is in Yorkshire!
Ancient byelaws on The Stray prevent the playing of golf, the flying of jet propelled aircraft and the playing of a gramophone.
Harrogate hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 1982 at its newly opened International Centre.
The founder of Betty’s tea rooms was a Swiss baker called Fredrick Belmont. The reason he called it “Betty’s” remains a mystery. A popular story though is that a young girl, who went by the name interrupted a board meeting, which was discussing what to call the new tea rooms.
The first spring in the spa town was discovered in 1571 by William Slingsby.
Harrogate spring water is very popular in Russia and is sold at stores throughout the country, including its airports. In the late 19th Century the tsar’s family were regular visitors to Harrogate to take in its waters.