Harrogate is widely known as “the rich posh bit” of Yorkshire. It’s tea at Betty’s. It’s cherry blossom on The Stray. Flower shows, the Great Yorkshire Show and the home of Yorkshire Tea. In short, Harrogate is everything traditional, stately and genteel.
All of the above is true of course, but only up to a point. It takes much more than money and good tea to get Rightmove to declare it “the happiest place to live in Britain again. As a long time resident of the town one of my fancy London friends refers to as “Kensington-Under-Dale” I confess that I love all that stuff as much as the silver haired tourists disembarking from their coaches in search of tea and cake do.
However the shocking truth is that Yorkshire Tea is blended in a big warehouse ’round the back of Morrison’s in Starbeck and if you actually live here the Great Yorkshire Show is a week of inconvenience and traffic jams. Lurking behind the scones and floral displays there’s another, less well known but equally historic side to this refined little spa town that attracts an entirely different kind of visitor. Settle back, dear traveller, and prepare to enter the world of the retro geek!
Start at Betty’s. Look at the queue and decide you’ll get yourself a nice cup of coffee somewhere else. Don’t get me wrong – Betty’s is every bit as good as its stellar reputation and they serve an awesome cup of coffee there. It’s just that I’m kind of impatient and I don’t queue for anything if I can avoid it. Wander down the hill a bit and you’ll find the black painted, ornately wrought cast iron frontage of the Westminster Arcade.
Now, venturing inside you’ll see exactly what you’d expect from Harrogate high end clothiers, smart jewellery, a traditional toy shop crammed with puppets, kites and wooden yachts. But make your way upstairs and you’ll find Destination Venus – Harrogate’s premier source of comics and all things graphic narrative. Various iterations of this little store have bounced around the Westminster Arcade since it opened in September 2001, and in now resides in the gallery that runs around the upper floor.
Here you can find all manner of comic book goodness, from new releases to collected and back issues, all curated by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff. Whether you want to read about gaudy heroes in skin tight suits or something a little more cerebral they’ll be able to point you in the right direction while engaging you in conversation about anything and everything pop culture.
Eventually, after spending waaaaaay more time there than you thought possible you’ll leave, with comics in hand, and now you’ll really need to get that coffee you were thinking about back at the top of the hill. You could head back up the hill hoping that the queue at Betty’s has diminished somewhat – but it won’t have and besides, who likes walking uphill?
Instead, cross the road and make your way down “The Ginnel”* (which is more a street than a ginnel, but I didn’t name the thoroughfares) and you will find yourself facing this:
“What is this?” You ask.
I’ll tell you what it is. It’s probably the coolest building in the whole town.
On the ground floor, you will find “SPACE”, the most eclectic emporium of esoteric ephemera you ever will see. It prides itself on being the home of all things retro, and you can buy pretty much anything there so long as it isn’t new. They have clothes, they have bags, they have cameras, TV sets, clocks, watches, jewellery, record players. books, magazines, a mint condition Vespa – you get the idea. The place is in no way genteel, but it is beyond doubt utterly enthralling. There is something there for every interest, and for every price range. Honestly, you could browse in there for hours and still not see everything. Personally, I always find myself wanting to spend way too much money on things I really want, but really don’t need, so I always try to keep my browsing sessions short.
Besides, you’re still going to be wanting that coffee, right?
So, time to explore upstairs.
I’ll be honest – it’s still not genteel. Betty’s has carpets and pristine hardwood floors. This place has a floor made of varnished chipboard, but this place has something that Betty’s seriously lacks – at the top of the stairs you are greeted by “Wall of Sound”, perhaps the smallest record shop you’ve ever seen, tucked away in what is basically an alcove to your right. If rare vinyl records and associated CDs, DVDs and memorabilia are your thing, this is one cool little alcove to spend some time in.
You’ll find no coffee there though so keep going into the big room at the top of the stairs and you’ll find yourself in Major Tom’s Social. It calls itself a “cafe bar”, but what it really is is a youth club for grown ups. You can sit and read the comics you just bought in Destination Venus with a coffee and a slice of cake (the choice is more limited than Betty’s, but you can also play board games at Major Toms…) or review your purchases from SPACE or Wall of Sound. Whatever you want to do – that’s the point.
The decor is more “student house” than “sophisticated tea room”, but that adds to the laid back unhurried atmosphere. You can lounge back on one of their comfortable sofas, or you fancy a spot of lunch you can tuck into one of their excellent pizzas or pork pies comfortably seated at a table. And of course, should your preference not be coffee, they also sell a wide range of excellent beers.
All this just scratches the surface of Harrogate’s other side. So, next time you’re in the “Gateway to the Dales” ignore the beaten path and look for something different – there is an awful lot to find and enjoy!
Written By: Regie Rigby
*You’re reading an article on “I’m from Yorkshire”, so I assume you know that a “Ginnel” is an alley or passageway – but then again, where I’m from in South Yorkshire we call them “Snicketts” and I understand that in York they are often referred to as “Snickleways”, so, y’know, don’t worry if you didn’t…