A day in…Harrogate

By | Category: Travel destinations
Betty's in Montpellier

What could be nore Harrogate than Betty’s?

Charm and individuality are two words that you could apply to this town about a forty five minute drive north of Leeds. Charm because the place has gone out of its way to use the older Victorian buildings as modern functional places and individuality because there are no swathes of well-known stores that make one high street almost identical to another. Whilst there are the nationally known stores, they seem to not overawe the local stores. In fact the town’s shopping centre is much smaller than you’d expect in a town of this size. And there is no large out of town retail site to lure visitors out of the centre. If you want large shopping centres go to Leeds. If you want something different see Harrogate.

Most people will probably drive to Harrogate. There will find a mixture of pay car parks and disc parking. The discs allow you to park in a few places for nothing but it may be for a very short time. Discs are available from local shops and the Tourist Information Centre at the Royal Baths in Crescent Road.

If you arrive by train then you’ll probably have come from Leeds or York carried by a weary, noisy diesel 3 carriage train that plies between the two. But Harrogate station has long platforms from earlier days when there were far more services and far greater links to other places. Today, early in the morning there is a daily East Coast service to London which probably fills the length of the platform and a returning service in the evening. But, just a few years ago, you could go directly to London but not get back without a change in either Leeds or York. The faster connection is via Leeds.

with flag and bicycle for the Tour de France

the Tour de France was widely celebrated

The York service takes longer and, when I returned from the Great Yorkshire Show which is held in Harrogate each July, my train had just two coaches and we stood like sardines all the way. It was hard not to jostle and one lady remarked that she hadn’t had such an exciting trip for years. A man standing next to her from another railway company said laconically and with no trace of a smile, “ we don’t do excitement on TransPennine,” which caused all within earshot to dissolve into laughter.

Or you can travel there by bus. From Ripon to Leeds, every 20 minutes runs the number 36 bus service which has an attraction of its own as it takes you through some of villages with attractions in their own right like Ripley Castle and Harewood House. A day bus pass might be a useful buy as there are quite a few hills if you are going to widely explore the town.

A chinese and a healing dose of waters!

the tourist office is to the right of the Royal Baths rooms and the Chinese restaurant

Harrogate’s claim to fame is that it is a spa town and it the spas that first attracted visitors. The mineral rich waters were noticed as long ago as 1571. Health conscious Georgians, in particular, were attracted to ‘take the waters’ bringing their prosperity with them. The town flourished. Known as having the highest concentration of mineral springs than any town in the world, visitors can still sample and bathe in the waters at the Turkish Baths, now complemented by modern day therapies and treatments. Today the Royal Baths is where the tourist office can be found- as well as a Chinese restaurant!

The town centre is quite compact but bigger than at first sight. This is because there seem to be a myriad of alleys, passageways and lanes that head off the main streets to discover little antique and craft shops, restaurants and cafes. And talking cafes, this is one town where you’ll find the institution of Betty’s, the Yorkshire landmark that has been providing afternoon teas for over 100 years.

Betty’s is in the Montpellier area of the town which portrays itself as rather exclusive. The 80 or so shops in the area tend to be small and local. Even the John Lewis that is on Montpellier parade is not the well-known department store of the same name. And the Walker Galleries has nothing to do with the same named gallery in Liverpool.

bus shelter in Harrogate

the flowing writing that matches Harrogate’s image

That Harrogate is a wealthy town is indicated by the fact that Sotheby’s and Christies have offices in the town along with the more local firm of Tennants. Needless to say, antique shops abound. Walk along Duchy Road if you want to see the extent of the wealth. The houses are large and when, I saw two bungalows, I thought they might have been garages so incongruously do they stand out! One garage up here is, it seems to me, designed as a south sea island hut There is even a Cheltenham Crescent, a reminder of a different spa town but which is similar to Harrogate in so many ways, not the least of which is that both have an area called Montepellier. Even the bus shelters are adorned with an upmarket writing style proclaiming that they are run by the borough council. Yes, it has museums and galleries with the Mercer (free to enter) being one of the most well-known Yorkshire ones along with the Pump Room Museum.  But it also has a nondescript building called Cathcart House. You can easily walk past this house yet this was once one of the most famous boarding houses anywhere. At a time when the boarding house was much more highly regarded than today, the very cream of society used to stay in places like this.

cathcart House- where empresses met

the unassuming Cathcart House

And Cathcart boast that  two empresses, at least one king, a prince and two princesses plus a grand duchess all stayed here. And on the one day! It all comes across as a little twee except for a bar called Trotters (not in Montpellier) complete with a yellow, three wheel model of Del-boy’s famous vehicle! But twee it isn’t. It’s a town comfortable with itself and the visitors love the atmosphere and what the place offers

The area is surrounded by gardens which are littered with locals on hot days as they come out from their offices, sandwiches in hand to bask in the sun. When I say the gardens are prim, Victorian, attractive and well maintained it rflects the btown. Woe betide a weed growing here. Is it any wonder that two of the most well-regarded flower shows are held in Harrogate? And in one of the gardens the bandstand is still there for concerts but now some public architecture has been added commemorating Harrogate’s role in the Tour de France.

Visitors also head for the Old Swann Inn because this was where that doyenne of the crime fiction, Agatha Christie, turned up in the 1920’s after mysteriously disappearing from Devon. For 11 days, she stayed at The Old Swan in Harrogate, ‘resting’ after a car crash and possibly some sort of breakdown.

the Old Swan Hotel

where Agatha Christie hid and today, mystery novel conferences are held

As I walked past it was advertising a brewery sponsored crime writing festival. The literary link doesn’t only extend to Christie. In the oldest pub – Hales Bar – Tobias Smollett is supposed to have written some of his famous novel, Humphrey Clinker.

As I mentioned, it was here in July that the Tour de France went twice through the town. From television coverage Harrogate and probably all of Yorkshire can expect to see more visitors in the future. I was there in the following week and the conversation was still of bikes and riders and the spectacular crash of Mark Cavendish (his mother was born here) which put him out of the race for this year. The buzz in the town over that weekend in July was mentioned by any number of people I spoke to and nary a one was critical of the congestion or the necessary transport restrictions that happened.

a Tour de France rider

te new public architecture recording the Tour de France in Harrogate

The Harrogate Tourist Information Centre experienced a 350% rise in at-the-desk tourist enquiries over the weekend according to the local tourist board with people not just wanting accommodation but what else they could also see in the area. Yellow bicycles were still attached to railings and one hotel sported not only a bicycle above its entrance but also quite the largest union jack I had ever seen.

For two years in  a row, Harrogate has been crowned the happiest place to live in Britain according to  Rightmove’s Happy at Home Index. Harrogate came first for safety, neighbourliness and recreation as well as overall number one place to live. Maybe that is why it is such a tourist attraction and why it is more than happy with what it is – a very pleasant and relaxing location for either a day out or a weekend away.

For more information about Harrogate, click here.

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