Looking for reasons to visit Harrogate, North Yorkshire? The spa town was once a destination of choice among members of European high society. Royalty, nobles and people of influence would enjoy lengthy stays to “take the waters”, which were believed to have properties beneficial to health, and spend time socialising together. By contrast, I popped there for a day trip with aim of having a cuppa at Bettys Café Tea Rooms.
The outbreak of World War One, in 1914, resulted in a marked downturn in the patronage of Harrogate’s spas. Inevitably, members of Europe’s elite now tends to favour jetting to tropical climes for luxury spa breaks and fashionable detox programmes. Harrogate, meanwhile, remains a charming place to visit.
Parks and grand buildings
Swathes of greenery plus grand Georgian and Victorian houses plus make Harrogate a pleasant place to stroll. Some visitors come because the town is a handy base for visiting the Yorkshire Dales National Park, whose boundaries are less than a half-hour’s drive away. The Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, home of the Brimham Rocks, is another nearby attraction.
Bathing in Harrogate
Though the town’s heyday as a spa has passed, it’s still possible to de-stress in the multi-room Turkish Baths and Health Spa (tel. 01423 556746). Aesthetically impressive, the atmospheric bathhouse in Parliament Street features Moorish-inspired interiors replete with painted ceilings, colourful screens and horseshoe-shaped arches.
It once formed part of the grand Royal Baths, which were declared open by the Duke of Cambridge on 23 July 1897. Modern bathers can sit sweating in the steam room before moving through a series of heated rooms. The hottest is the Laconium, where the latent heat opens bathers’ pores, stimulates circulation and is reputed to have a detoxifying effect. For those robust enough to withstand the shock of cold water, a dip in the chilled plunge pool flushes out toxins while closing pores.
Constructing the Royal Baths, between 1894 and 1897, was a huge undertaking. Baggalley and Bristowe, a firm of London-based architects, won a competition run by Harrogate Corporation. A budget of £120,000 was set aside for the building — that amount was then an enormous sum but now represents less than a week’s pay for some star footballers in England’s Premier League.
Electric hydrotherapy, peat baths and mud baths counted among the range of treatments once offered to guests after consultations with the Royal Bath’s doctors.
The story of the spa
The Royal Pump Room Museum, inside an early Victorian building, tells the story of Harrogate’s spa heritage and exhibits artefacts formerly used by bathers.
The restorative, health-giving properties of Harrogate’s iron- and sulphur-rich water was discovered in the late 16th century. Over time a range of curative treatments evolved for rheumatism, skin diseases and ailments such as gout. Some meant drinking Harrogate’s water, others involved bathing.
Inevitably, guesthouses sprang up to accommodate visitors undergoing treatments. Health tourism, long before that term became fashionable, was a major contributor to Harrogate’s economy.
Spa tourism and enclosure
Spa tourism began to boom at a time of radical change in Britain. During the 18th century vast swathes of English common land were enclosed by acts of parliament, a development generally unpopular among the common people. Enclosure was a key development in the Agricultural Revolution of that era, an important facet of British history yet much less frequently discussed than the steam-driven Industrial Revolution that resulted in Harrogate acquiring a railway station in 1862. Once enclosed — that meant being fenced off or demarcated by hedges — land could be intensively farmed, under private ownership, using scientific methods of land cultivation. The origins of The Stray, one of Harrogate’s many areas of greenery and parkland, dates from that era.
After the Great Forest of Knaresborough was enclosed, in 1770, locals expressed concern that they may be in danger of losing the right of public access to Harrogate’s mineral-rich springs. On 19 August 1778 land between the villages of High and Low Harrogate was set aside for public use in perpetuity. “200 acres shall be forever hereafter remain open and unenclosed, and all persons shall and may have free access at all times to the said springs…and enjoy full and free ingress, egress and regress…,” says the grant recording the origins of The Stray, across which footpaths now meander.
The happiest place in Britain
That open space is one of the factors fostering a high-quality of life in the town. Locals are proud to inform visitors that Harrogate was voted the happiest place in Great Britain by participants in the Rightmove survey for three years in succession, between 2013 and 2015.
Bettys Café Tea Room
On busy days people queue beyond the door to take afternoon tea in Bettys Café Tea Room, waiting beneath a broad canopy on Parliament Street. The chic café, in which personable waiting staff wear uniforms, was opened in 1919 by a Swiss man, Frederick Belmont.
According to legend, Belmont, a baker and confectioner, settled in the Yorkshire because its clean air and greenery reminded him of Switzerland. Perhaps his heritage accounts for the glaring omission of an apostrophe in his popular café’s name? (Question to readers: be honest, did you think I’d missed it?)
Mystery, though, surrounds the identity of the eponymous Betty. There’s speculation that the name may be a tip of the hat to the late Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes Lyon.
Cycling to Harrogate’s attractions
One way of maximising the amount of ground covered while exploring Harrogate is to hire a bicycle. Vern Overton Cycling offers a guided-ride service. One of the district’s chief attractions is the Royal Horticultural Society Garden Harlow Carr, about one-and-a-half miles from the pedestrianised centre of town.
The Victoria Shopping Centre plus a smattering of independent stores are among reasons for keen shoppers to browse Harrogate’s shops. One of the most distinctive façades is that of Mr Arkwright’s Tool Emporium, an old-fashioned corner store with hardware stacked under a canopy supported by black-painted iron pillars.
Art aficionados, meanwhile, should look inside the Mercer Art Gallery (31 Swan Road). The exhibitions Sheila Bownas; A Yorkshire Life in Pattern and Katharine Holmes: In Grandmother’s Footsteps continue into 2018.
Conferences in Harrogate
These days conferences are a catalyst to many visits to Harrogate. The Yorkshire Showground, on the edge of town, hosts events including the Harrogate Spring Flower Show (April), the Great Yorkshire Show (July) and the Yorkshire Antiques and Arts Fair (November). The Harrogate International Centre is also a major venue.
It’s reassuring to know that a cuppa and a slice of cake in Bettys and the heat of the Turkish baths are ways of finding warmth if Yorkshire’s winter weather proves blustery and cold.
Getting to Harrogate
Harrogate’s railway station is in the heart of the town, which is near the A59. The 85-mile drive from Newcastle-upon-Tyne took around one hour 40 minutes. For travellers coming from further afield, Harrogate town centre is 10 miles north-east of Leeds Bradford Airport.
What to do in Harrogate
If you plan on staying overnight, it might be possible to purchase tickets for a show. Harrogate Theatre was built in 1900. The late-Victorian, Grade II listed building hosts a diverse programme of shows, encompassing musicals, dance and drama.
Where to stay in Harrogate
The Hotel Du Vin and Bistro (Prospect Place, Harrogate, HG1 1LB) has stylish 48 guest rooms in connected Georgian buildings.
The Crown Hotel Harrogate (Crown Place, Harrogate, HG1 2RZ; tel. 01423 567755) offers accommodation in 114 rooms in a grand, centrally situated building with a long and interesting history.
Where to eat in Harrogate
For avid foodies the presence of more than 130 restaurants represent an array of mouth-watering array of reasons to visit Harrogate. Two popular places to dine are:
Bettys Café Tea Rooms (1 Parliament Street, Harrogate, HG1 2QU; tel. 01423 814070) is a popular spot for afternoon tea but serves food throughout the day, serving breakfast and dinner, from 9.00am to 9.00pm. House specials include Swiss-style bacon and raclette rösti plus chicken schnitzel. Mu personal favourite is the Yorkshire Fat Rascal, which is similar to an almond-topped scone and served with butter). The shop is an option if you want to pick up cakes or other items of food and drink for a picnic.
The Fat Badger (Coldbath Road, Harrogate, HG2 0NF; tel. 01423 505681) serves modern British food in its restaurant. The bar menu includes Scottish mussels, roasted monkfish tail and a selection of steaks.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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