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Harrogate: Yorkshire’s gem

By Roger St Pierre with Hazel Kempster

With property prices soaring to Home Counties levels, streets lined with expensive cars, a West End Class high-end designer-label boutique shopping experience, trendy restaurants, bars, coffee lounges and tearooms – and a wealth of excellent things to see and do for residents and visitors alike – elegant Harrogate has been busily asserting its status as one of Europe’s premier spa towns.

It was way back in 1571 that one William Slingsby unearthed the area’s first exploited therapeutic drinking well, with 87 more quickly following.

Containing traces of iron, sulphur and salt, the waters here may have smelt of bad eggs but their healing properties were soon well known and a burgeoning fashion for ‘taking the waters’ was accelerated by the opening of Harrogate’s Royal Pump Room, in 1842.

Immensely popular to this day are the Turkish Baths & Health Spa, originally established in 1896 and the subject of a massive restoration in 2004. Today, besides use of the baths, treatments are available for detoxification, muscle relaxation and improved circulation.

This Yorkshire gem of a town is located nearby the halfway mark of the bustling A1 London – Edinburgh trunk road but, rather than merely being a staging post it is very much a destination in its own right. Once we got our bearings it really did feel as if we were at the centre of the known universe rather than out on some sleepy provincial limb.

Harrogate is stylish and highly fashionable and geared to the good life, having recently been voted ‘Britain’s Happiest Place To Live’ for the third year in a row.

Downtown there’s the hustle and bustle of a true metropolis while a sense of comfortable, well-ordered prosperity pervades the leafy suburbs, where conservative comes in both big ‘C’ and little ‘c’ formats.

Yet, for all its fast-tempo modernity, Harrogate is bathed in history too, with a rich heritage of stunning Georgian, Regency and Victorian architecture reflecting earlier peaks in the popularity of taking its waters.

Right at the heart of things is the lively Montpelier District, with its renowned arcaded antique shops; guided tours of the Pump Room Museum, richly endowed Mercer Art Gallery and the spectacular Grade II listed Valley Gardens.

Thanks to the high numbers of leisure visitors and the popularity with the business community of its international conference centre, Harrogate has an impressive bed stock, from simple B&B establishments and familiar chains, like Marriott, Hotel Vin & Bistro, Best Western, Holiday Inn, Travelodge and Premier Inn up to the imposing Majestic, at the core of the town, with its crowning copula and 12-acres of lovingly sculpted gardens.

The Old Swan Hotel was the secretive hideaway of crime novelist Agatha Christie when she disappeared for 11 days in 1926, while renowned guests at the Crown Hotel have included the Beatles and Sir Edward Elgar.

Our choice of somewhere to stay was Rudding Park, voted ‘Best Hotel Outside of London’ by Trip Advisor followers and the subject of a £6-million spa expansion, featuring a new pool and 16 new treatment rooms, which is set for completion by May next year. Currently, upgrades are available for a spa guest room that includes a private steam room, a sauna or a spa bath.

Though the main house was built back in 1805, in a verdant country parkland location five miles out of town, Rudding Park is today a thoroughly modern full-amenity luxury hotel with beautiful contemporary interior décor, fabrics and furnishings.

Some 200 full-time staff members service the 90 individually styled bedrooms and 16 conference rooms – including one guest room that was fitted with a bombproof bathroom when President Clinton came to stay. Other high profile guests have included Mr Gorbachev and several British prime ministers. It was not all work and no play for them however as the venue has its own 18-hole Championship golf course and a wide range of other leisure facilities beside the spa.

Rudding hosts around 1,500 functions a year, including some 150 weddings. Special events include a Monday evening cinema night for a maximum of 14 guests for £35 a head, including a two-course meal.

Peter Banks is one of those astute general managers who realise that little things mean an awful lot when it comes to the five-star experience. An example of this philosophy is the provision of what he calls the ‘Rudding Park Pillow Menu’ which enables the guest to choose from four different types of pillow to ensure a good night’s rest.

Newly available from Visit Harrogate is the first ‘Harrogate District Garden Guide’, showcasing a wealth of different garden styles in the district – from the grandiose to intimate private venues like York House at Dacres Banks – that welcome pre-arranged visits, along with a calendar of garden-related events and a useful fold-out map. This publication launched officially at the four-day Harrogate Spring Flower Show a spectacular gathering attracting around 60,000 visitors to the Great Yorkshire Showground.

On the road to Ripon, garden lovers will revel in the mystical delights of Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal Water Garden. It’s origins dating back to 1132, Fountains is the UK’s largest and arguably most spectacular monastic ruin and most complete Cistercian abbey. Its mediaeval deer park is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site.

Standing on what was once part of an ancient royal hunting ground, the 58-acre RHS Garden Harlow Carr was established in 1950 as a test bed for determining the suitability of plants for growing in northern climates. It has matured into one of the North Country’s finest gardens. Like Fountains Abbey it boasts well-tended pathways that provide full access to wheelchair users while mobility scooters are available on-site as indeed they are back in town via a council-maintained hire depot on the fourth floor of the Victoria multi-storey car park.

Before leaving the gardens, we took one of the fabled afternoon teas and tried one of the near legendary Fat Rascal delicacies at the on-site Bettys Café & Tearoom, sister establishment to the eponymous world-renowned century-old traditional tearoom back in town where queues often spill out into the street while the sounds of tinkling tea cups and happy chatter fill the air.

There’s a wide choice of eating-places across town, whether you just want a snack or are seeking a romantic table for two. Jamie Oliver owns a rustic Italian trattoria type outlet here and all manner of ethnic cuisines are available while there’s a truly unique gastro experience on offer at the Yorkshire Meatball Company, a cosy little eaterie where owner Gareth Atkinson offers all manner of variations on a meatball theme – with fish and veggie ball options too.

With magnificent York, the historic market towns of Ripon, Skipton, Richmond and Knaresborough all just a short drive away and big city Leeds also on hand, Harrogate makes a perfect centre for exploring North Yorkshire, a place of vivid contrasts.

Yes, there are the stark, wind-blown heights of the North Yorks Moors and the Pennines while the fabled ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ of the industrial past still dot the county’s broad acres but those of these icons that have not fallen into terminal decay have now been converted into leisure centres, shopping stores, offices, hotels or trendy apartments and, along with tourism, artisan cottage industries have been taking up the slack created by failing heavy industry.

Across Yorkshire’s gently rolling farmlands into the lush lower reaches of the Dales there’s a softer, more laid-back ambience, with some excellent museums, country houses and gardens to discover – all of it within easy reach of Harrogate, a town with a proud past, a busy today and a promising future.

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