The mysterious allure of spa town Harrogate

You don’t need to be one of Agatha Christie’s famous detectives to uncover the charms of this famous spa town, says John Chambers.

The mysterious allure of spa town Harrogate

There is an episode of the hit Channel 4 comedy series The Windsors in which some of the ‘Royal’ family, after a series of PR gaffes, are sent to visit the North of England.

Cue scenes of the ‘Camilla’ character handing out chip butties to the locals while they discuss if she has a ferret down her trousers.

And that’s the problem, really. Unless you’ve actually been ‘up North’, your view of it is likely to be coloured either by myth or by cliché.

We think of Lowry’s matchstick men, or Blake’s dark satanic mills, or something from Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights.

But those images are so removed from reality that you can’t help thinking that the canny Northerners (see how difficult it is to escape those clichés?) have promoted them just to keep the area’s many charms to themselves.

Happily, they’ve never been entirely successful. Harrogate, for instance, has been attracting the rich and the famous for more than a century.

The Russian Tsarina Alexandra visited, Lillie Langtry performed in the town, as did our own Oscar Wilde. Dickens visited and declared “Harrogate is the queerest place with the strangest people in it, leading the oddest lives of dancing, newspaper reading and dining”.

The visitor who attracted the most headlines, however, was probably Agatha Christie, whose 11-day disappearance in 1926 prompted headlines and a national search using, for the first time ever, an aeroplane.

She was spotted by a musician working at the Swan Hydro, now the Old Swan Hotel.

She had checked in using the name of her husband’s mistress.

Exactly what had brought about the mysterious episode was never made clear - some put it down to stress, others suspected it was a publicity stunt - but the events are marked by a small plaque and newspaper front page from the time in the lobby of the hotel, where people still gather for newspaper reading and dining.

In fact, the town is full of dining options, including Betty’s tearooms (www.bettys.co.uk), a Yorkshire institution famous for its afternoon teas.

Open from breakfast time, it is at its busiest between 11am and 3pm, often with queues. Afternoon teas should be booked but if you just want tea (or coffee or hot chocolate) and a bun then you’ll have to queue or go outside peak times.

The trip will be worth it though - my tea and Fat Rascal (a type of scone) were delicious.

While Betty’s was a delicious pit stop, it didn’t provide the dining highlight - that came at Norse (www.norserestaurant.co.uk), where Yorkshire produce is given the Scandi treatment.

Our four-course meal included Brill, Miso and Cauliflower. There’s a combination deal where you visit the Champagne Bar next door for a trio of aperitifs.

With more champagne with the meal the total cost came to just over £100 for what my wife called “some of the most exciting food” she’d ever tasted.

To work off the calories, the town offers a variety of walks. The Stray is a 200-acre expanse of green, protected by Act of Parliament, in the town centre, and there are also the beautiful Valley Gardens, full of flowers, dogs and happy children.

The uphill walk through the Gardens leads on to the Pinewoods, which offer fantastic views over the countryside. And at the top, there are the Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens at Harlow Carr, about 60 acres of green-fingered delight (admission £11-£12.10).

To expand your waistline further, there is another Betty’s here, with beautiful views out over the trees.

Or maybe you’d rather just walk round the shops - there are myriad boutiques and high-end fashion stores (The White Company, L K Bennett and Brora, among others).

And if dancing is your thing (whatever Dickens might have thought of it) there are two nightclubs.

But if it’s culture and history you’re after, then there are a couple of theatres, two cinemas (one a beautiful art deco building) a small art gallery and the Pump Room Museum, which details the town’s history as a fashionable spa resort.

You can still sample a bit of that spa society by booking into the town’s Turkish baths.

Entry costs depend on day and time, and range from £15.50 to £29.50. Sessions are either mixed or ladies only, so check either online or by phone.

Treatments such as massage or facials can also be booked but are very popular, so reserve your session well in advance.

If all that walking, relaxing and dining hasn’t exhausted you completely then the tiny city of Ripon is half an hour away by Number 36 bus (£7.20 return, £5.50 each if you travel as a couple).

Entry to the cathedral is free and there’s a Saxon crypt dating back to the 600s where you can attend to matters spiritual.

Forty minutes or so in the other direction on the same bus is Leeds, with its plethora of shopping opportunities, and for footie fans of a certain vintage, the lure of Elland Road, where John Giles used to light up so many Saturday afternoons.

After three days any preconceptions we might have had about it being grim Oop North were shattered, with not a ferret in sight. Until, one morning, we looked out the bay window of our beautiful apartment set on a tree-lined road and saw two ferrets, on leads, being walked by an elegantly dressed woman.

Still, it was nice to see at least one cliché in action.

Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly from Dublin to Leeds-Bradford airport. www.aerlingus.com www.ryanair.com

The 747 Flying Tiger bus connects the airport to Harrogate. Journey time is about 30 minutes, £5 single, £8 return

The 36 bus operates between Leeds and Ripon, via Harrogate. It also serves Harewood for Harewood House (long walk up the drive) and Ripley (for Ripley Castle) www.the36.co.uk

Staying there

Our two-bed-roomed apartment (€636 for four nights) was central, nicely decorated, well-equipped, and everything worked. www.harrogateservicedapartments.co.uk

www.visitharrogate.co.uk

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