21 May 2023

Harrogate is a surprising
delight in Yorkshire, even
on a rain-soaked afternoon

Betty’s is a Harrogate landmark at the corner of Parliament Street and Montpelier Parade (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I enjoyed Geography at school. It was less about topography and more like an undergraduate module in economics. Teaching methods in the 1960s were still difficult, at times, to say the least. We learned lists by rote, such as the industrial cities of Yorkshire: ‘Leeds, Braford, Halifax …’

I blame the system and the curriculum at the time for this rote learning rather than my teachers, many of whom were excellent. Thanks to them, Geography was one of my honours subjects in the Leaving Certificate in 1969, the equivalent of A Levels.

But I still remember some of those lists … ‘Leeds, Braford, Halifax …’

It took me some years to realise that Yorkshire is not all industrial smoke stacks and mills, on one hand; nor, on the other hand, is it all about sheep, Pennines and Emmerdale.

I first visited Yorkshire as late as the early 1980s, when I was at a CND conference in Leeds. But I only started to get to know Yorkshire in recent months, staying in hospital in Sheffield and receiving generous hospitality in York.

During our stay in York earlier this month, I ought not to have been surprised by the beauty of the Yorkshire Moors, the coast around Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay, and villages and towns such as Hebden Bridge, Heptonstall and Knaresborough.

The former Winter Gardens, opened in 1897 as part of the Royal Baths (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Indeed, learning the names of the industrial centres of Yorkshire by rote ill-prepared me for the surprise of visiting Harrogate, even on a rainy and cloud-covered afternoon.

Harrogate is regularly voted as ‘the happiest place to live’ in Britain. It first developed not as an industrial centre but as a spa town, thanks to the discovery of chalybeate-rich and sulphur-rich spring water in the 16th century. More mineral-rich spring were discovered in the 17th and 18th centuries, and visitors began arriving in large numbers to ‘take the waters.’

The popularity of Georgian and Regency Harrogate brought new facilities, including the Georgian Theatre (1788), Royal Bath Hospital (1826), and the Royal Pump Room (1842).

The Royal Pump Room oepned in 1842 and now houses the town museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Royal Pump Room on Crown Place, opposite the Valley Gardens park, houses the town museum but was built as a spa water pump house. It stands on the corner of Crescent Road and Royal Parade, and retains both its stone rotunda and a glazed annexe that opened in 1913.

The Royal Pump Room offered guests an all-weather facility where they could drink sulphur water pumped from a natural spring known as the Old Sulphur Well.

Hale’s Bar on Crescent Road is a reminder of Harrogate’s gas-lit past (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A local engineer Samson Fox perfected the process of creating water gas in his home in 1870, and it became the first house in Yorkshire to have gas lighting and heating. He then built a town-sized plant to supply Harrogate, and Parliament Street became the world’s first route to be lit by water-gas.

One report proclaimed: ‘Samson Fox has captured the sunlight for Harrogate.’

We had a brief encounter with Harrogate’s gas-lit past when we popped into Hale’s Bar on Crescent Road. It dates back to the coaching inns of the mid-18th century, but may have first opened in the late 17th century for visitors to the world’s strongest sulphur well.

Hale’s was a favourite with Sir John Barbirolli when he visited Harrogate each summer with the Halle Orchestra throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and it appeared in the film Chariots of Fire.

Today, the Winter Gardens is a JD Wetherspoon pub (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Winter Gardens on Parliament Street were built so visitors to the Royal Baths could relax and stroll in any weather. The Winter Gardens and the Turkish Baths were opened in 1897 as part of the Royal Baths, a project initiated by Richard Ellis, who has been described as ‘the father of Victorian Harrogate.’

The Royal Baths were opened by the Duke of Cambridge and were described as ‘the last word in Bathing Establishments’. The Winter Gardens Baths became one of the town’s most famous landmarks, and the Turkish Baths next door was part of the facilities available in the Royal Baths complex.

Amid luxurious surroundings, a variety of treatments was available, including sulphur baths, electric peat baths, and poultices of local fango or hot mud. In the 1920s, people could relax here amid potted palms, listening to music from a grand piano. In the 1930s, the Municipal Orchestra played every morning throughout the year, with free admission for the patients of the baths.

Today, the Winter Gardens is a JD Wetherspoon pub.

The Turkish Baths opened in 1897 as part of the Royal Baths (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Another landmark in the centre of the town, Betty’s, is to Harrogate what Bewley’s once was to Dublin. The family business was founded in Harrogate in 1919 by a Swiss confectioner, Fritz Bützer, who changed his name to Frederick Belmont,and opened the first Betty’s Café Tea Rooms at 9 Cambridge Crescent.

Betty’s bought CE Taylor & Co, tea and coffee merchants, in 1962 and opened Betty’s flagship branch at the corner of Parliament Street and Montpelier Parade in what was previously Taylor’s Café Imperial. The Swiss-Yorkshire heritage lives on as strongly as ever, but to this day the identity of ‘Betty’ remains a mystery.

Another mystery in Harrogate involves the disappearance of the crime novelist Agatha Christie in December 1926. Her car was found by a road near Guildford, and many thought she had been abducted or killed.

For a week, police and volunteers searched for her on the Surrey Downs. But after 11 days, she was found dancing the Charleston at the Old Swan in Swan Road after musicians in the hotel’s resident band recognised her from a missing poster. The public was told she had briefly lost her memory after a car accident, some reports suggested she had a nervous breakdown, while others believed it was all a publicity stunt. Two years later, Agatha Christie and her husband Colonel Archie Christie were divorced.

Harrogate was elegant and was fun to visit. No longer shall I list the names of Yorkshire towns by rote as though they are one industrial centre after another … ‘Leeds, Braford, Halifax …’ And, reluctantly, I may even have to change my opinion of the interiors of Wetherspoon pubs.

Samson Fox introduced gas lighting to the streets of Harrogate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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