A 2018 ranking of Yorkshire’s towns and cities put Harrogate in 12th place. “Same as Ripon [14th], but with worse tea-shops,” said CityMetric with questionable logic. It’s an ungenerous verdict in any case, and careless of Harrogate’s best-known attractions. Those are summarised in the title and location of Harrogate: Britain’s Floral Resort, a book on display in Harrogate’s Royal Pump Room Museum. This sets the tone for a visit.
Harrogate’s beds, borders and hanging baskets have been winning awards regional, national and European for more than 40 years.
As Harrogate in Bloom makes clear, it’s a community effort. Schools and homeowners, pubs and hotels, even solicitors get involved in beautifying Harrogate by competing for local awards. Events like the Harrogate Spring Flower Show in late April remove any lingering doubts over the town’s credentials: if you like flowers, this is the place to come.
I had booked us into a hotel overlooking the green space, the Stray, that surrounds central Harrogate like a gargantuan 1970s collar. The Stray, perversely, is an expanse of grass unbroken by so much as a daffodil bulb. As J (veteran of Portsmouth and Southend United) and I walked towards the centre through the Queens Parade/North Park Road area, our first impression of the town was of how attractive its built environment was; trees and shrubs played supporting roles.
In the vicinity of the railway station it’s the Jubilee Memorial (Victoria under an elaborate canopy) that will catch your eye, and the arch over Station Road, and the statues lounging in front of the inverted ship’s hull roof of the Victoria Shopping Centre. That building, by the way, is not yet 30 years old, but the inspiration is Palladio’s Basilica at Vicenza, from 1617.
Then you’re into the Montpellier Quarter and Harrogate languorously unfurls its petals. In a sequence of public squares, parks and gardens, amid elegant buildings from Regency to Edwardian, the Bath of the North becomes the Wisley of the North. The ‘squares’ are all kinds of shapes; from above they look like a geometrician’s sampler. Ronald Searle’s wonderful illustrations for the Molesworth books come irresistibly to mind.
Valley Gardens blends floral and sulphuric Harrogate. Beautifully laid-out and maintained, the park claims 36 springs of which “no two are exactly alike in chemical composition”. More active visitors will find a paddling pool, skate park, tennis, crazy golf and pitch-and-putt. For walkers, there’s a route through Pinewoods to RHS Harlow Carr – it takes about an hour.
Back at the town end, in what was known as Low Harrogate, the Royal Pump Room Museum stands at the entrance to Valley Gardens. As a museum it’s modest but very distinctive; not many museums announce themselves first to your nose. The Pump Room is built around the Old Sulphur Well, otherwise known as the Stinking Spaw.
This being Yorkshire, the museum naturally has an Egyptian section. Two local ‘collectors’ had associations with Flinders Petrie and Howard Carter. Most of the exhibits are small and charming, but a 3,000yr-old painted wooden coffin of a priest of Amun broods over the displays like a cigar-store Indian.
Other themes included shopping, the railway, treatments and, in the Pump Room, an exhibition of wedding dresses. The exhibits ran from 1870 to the present and there were many highlights. The 2008 Bra-ra dress, constructed by Julia Triston from 59 faded white and grey bras, was magnificent.
Along Swan Road from the museum is the Old Swan Hotel, where Agatha Christie turned up after going missing for 11 days in 1926. The Swan was known then as the Swan Hydropathic Hotel, and the writer chose to be known as Mrs Teresa Neele. It was an odd alias behind which to hide from those searching for her – Neele was the surname of the woman for whom Archie Christie left his wife, precipitating her furtive flight to Yorkshire. A nervous breakdown was suspected; two doctors diagnosed amnesia; and some thought it a publicity stunt or perhaps a classic red herring.
Also on Swan Road is the Mercer Art Gallery. At Easter 2019 the two exhibitions were Linescapes, by digital artist Ian Mitchell, and Views of Harrogate from various sources. The Views were much the more interesting and included material the Royal Pump Room would no doubt have been pleased to display, if it had the space. Two embroidered silk gloves by Serena Partridge were particularly impressive and surprising, as was the note explaining the inspiration for them – from Dickens, no less, who wrote: “Harrogate is the strangest place with the queerest people in it, leading the oddest lives of dancing, newspaper reading and dining.”
Other images on view were similarly unconventional: Matthew Ellwood, portrayor of places as towers, has Harrogate and Knaresborough among his subjects. Musical associations were represented by displays relating to Harrogate’s hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest in the days (1982) when Britain performed respectably; and in even earlier times – 8 March 1963, to be precise – the Town Hall hosted “The Sensational Beatles (‘Recording stars of Please Please Me’)”.
Sumptuous posters from the Golden Age of rail travel made Linescapes, the products of more recent times, difficult to like. Both exhibitions will have been rotated by the now; there will be something else on the walls. Perhaps drawing and colouring-in (as long as nothing complicated like shading is required) will be among the tasks taken over by robots, leaving us free to explore our creativity in other ever-diminishing areas.
Harrogate’s contemporary spa, the Turkish Baths, must remain unexplored. The proprietors recommend you allow 1½ to 2hrs, and we were running short of time. Instead, we visited Hales Bar, which claims to be Harrogate’s oldest pub. It certainly had some of Harrogate’s oldest drinkers but was welcoming, atmospheric and full of character.
The football match confirmed Harrogate Town’s place in the National League play-offs at the end of their first season at this level. High stakes and bright sunshine prompted a large turn-out; it apparently took the catering manager by surprise, and we counted ourselves lucky to be able to sustain ourselves at half-time with the most unpleasant cheese pasty in the history of the world.
Harrogate Town 2 Gateshead 0
CNG Stadium, 22 April 2019