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Harrogate Hotel du Vin and War Memorial

Harrogate is a town in North Yorkshire, with a population of 73,576 (2011 census). Its mineral waters were discovered in the 1500s, and it grew as a spa town in the 1600s and 1700s. The town's motto is arx celebris fontibus, meaning city famous for its springs. Present-day attractions include the original Bettys tearooms, and RHS Harlow Carr gardens. It was the happiest town in the UK in 2013, and again in 2014.

Many people who live in Harrogate work in Leeds or Bradford. It is relatively prosperous, with an average household income of £41,833 in the Harrogate district, and an average house price of £265,207. (Source: 'A Profile of the Harrogate District 2011/12'. It also notes that tourism accounts for 25% of the district's economy, and that the conference centre generates £150m in Harrogate).

See this map of Harrogate town centre.

Name and history of Harrogate

Harrogate viewed from Clint   Tewit well, Harrogate

The name Harrogate comes from the Anglo-Norse Here-gatte, gatte being the way to, and Here or Herelaw the soldier's hill (now Harlow). So Harrogate could mean 'the way to the soldier's hill.' Another idea is that it means 'the way to the cairn, or heap of stones.' 

Harrogate is not mentioned in the Domesday Book, but it is likely that it existed as a name for many centuries before there was a settlement here. It was part of the Royal Forest of Knaresborough, although it was probably actually a heath, with gorse, bracken, heather, and patches of trees. The first reference to Harrogate in a document, was in 1332, on the roll of the Knaresborough Court. 

The town was created from two hamlets, High Harrogate and Low Harrogate. High Harrogate had the first important building, the chantry chapel, built in 1400, and Low Harrogate probably developed later.

It was the discovery of the first mineral spring in 1571 that was the catalyst for Harrogate's development as a spa town. The waters continued to attract visitors until the early years of the 1900s. See our section on Harrogate as a spa town.

During World War II, Harrogate's large hotels accommodated government offices evacuated from London. This helped lead to the town's function as a conference and exhibition centre in the post-war years, and up to the present day.

There was also industry in Harrogate - ICI had a plant at Hornbeam Park. Crimplene was invented there in the 1950s, and named after Crimple Beck.

Harrogate hosted the Eurovision song contest in 1982, the year the International Centre opened. It has won various floral competitions, including Britain in Bloom in 2003, and European floral competitions in 1977 and 2004. The cauldron for the London 2012 Olympics was designed and built by Thomas Heatherwick in Harrogate.

Harrogate: shopping

Harrogate town centre & war memorial   Antique shop, Montpellier quarter

Harrogate is centred on the War Memorial at Prospect Crescent. 

The main shopping area is east from there, on James St, Cambridge St, Oxford St, and Beulah St. There's a WH Smith and a TK Maxx in the Victoria Shopping Centre at the top of Cambridge St. 

Parliament St and the Montpellier Quarter have a number of interesting and expensive stores. There are quite a few independent and less expensive shops on Cheltenham Parade and the streets off it, such as the lower part of Station Parade, and Commercial Street. 

Cambridge St, Harrogate   Cheltenham Parade, Harrogate

Harrogate: Bettys

Bettys Harrogate

Also in this area, at no.1 Parliament St, is Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms. Founded in Harrogate in 1919 by Frederick Belmont, an orphan from Switzerland, Bettys quickly became very popular, and there are now six Bettys, including in York and Ilkley. As well as the tea rooms, they have a shop selling bread, cakes, biscuits, and chocolates, all made by hand in the Bettys craft bakery. Tea and coffee is by Taylors of Harrogate - bought by Bettys in the 1960s. 

There are various possible explanations for the name Bettys, but no-one knows for sure who she was. Could it be that the company's first Board Meeting was interrupted by a little girl called Betty, just as the directors were discussing what to call the business?

Harrogate: the Harrogate International Centre

Harrogate International Centre   Royal Hall, Harrogate

Harrogate Internation Centre is a convention and conference centre, which opened in 1982, and hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in that year. As well as the modern, purpose-built facilities, conferences can book the Royal Hall, a 1000-seater theatre which dates from 1903, and was part of Harrogate's spa facilities. (It was known as the Kursaal until World War I, when its named was changed for reasons of patriotism). A Holiday Inn hotel is incorporated in the complex. Harrogate International Centre is the third largest such venue in Britain.

Holiday Inn, Harrogate   Harrogate International Centre

Harrogate: the Great Yorkshire Show

The Great Yorkshire Showground is on the eastern edge of the town, and hosts the annual agricultural show, attracting 130,000 people over three days. The first show was held in York in 1838. In 2014, the dates are Tuesday 8th - Thursday 10th July 2014 (just after the Tour de France).

Harrogate: Harrogate theatre

Harrogate theatre   Harrogate theatre, formerly the Grand Opera

Harrogate theatre was designed by Frank Tugwell (who also designed the Savoy theatre in London), and opened in January 1900. Famous actors who have performed in Harrogate include Charlie Chaplin, Arnold Ridley, John Noakes, and Ben Kingsley. One of the highlights of the year is the comedy festival in October.

Harrogate: museums and Turkish Baths

Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate   Royal Pump Room, Harrogate

The Mercer Art Gallery is on Swan Road, close to the tourist information and Royal Pump Room. The collection includes Atkinson Grimshaw and Sir Edward Burne-Jones, but is not on permanent display. There are many temporary exhibitions.

The Royal Pump Room museum takes visitors through the town's past as a spa resort. To experience this spa history more actively, take a trip to The Turkish Baths and Health Spa. It is in the restored C19th premises on Parliament Street. After time in the steam room, you can take an invigorating dip into the plunge pool. They also do massages, facials, and a range of spa treatments.

Harrogate: parks and gardens

Harrogate parks and gardens: the Stray

Harrogate Stray

Harrogate Stray came into being in the 1700s. In the 1760s, there was widespread enclosure of Crown lands, for financial returns to the Crown, and to allow private development. Harrogate's wells and springs were on land that was part of the Royal Forest of Knaresborough, and the town depended on public access to them. It would have been very damaging for the land to be divided up and sold off. 

The people of Harrogate made representations to Parliament, and commissioners were appointed to survey the area. They designated 200 acres of land covering the springs, which would:

'...for ever hereafter remain open and unenclosed, and all persons whomsoever shall and may have free access at all times to the said springs, and be at liberty to use and drink the Waters there arising, and take the benefit thereof, and shall and may have use, and enjoy full and free ingress and regress in, upon, and over the said two hundred acres of land...'

The right to the common land was contained in the commissioners' award of 1778. Use of the Stray is now governed by the Stray Act 1985 and bye-laws under it. It's a great place for football, picnics, kite-flying, and walking. It gives Harrogate a special character. 

Harrogate parks and gardens: the Valley Gardens

Valley Gardens, Harrogate   Flowers in the Valley Gardens, Harrogate

The Valley Gardens is an area of lawns and flower beds, which begins at the Royal Pump Room, and extends uphill, south west from there, bounded by Valley Drive and Cornwall Road. At the top of the gardens, there are tennis courts, pitch and putt, crazy golf, a skate park, paddling pool, and a children's playground.

Harrogate parks and gardens: RHS Harlow Carr

Between the Valley Gardens and Harlow Carr are the Pinewoods, with some lovely paths running through them. Harlow Carr is a delightful garden, which includes water features and woods. It was founded by the Northern Horticultural Society in 1950.

There's an entrance fee of £8.50 for adults, but it's free for RHS members. Bettys have a branch here, for tea, coffee, cakes, and other refreshments.

Right by the gardens, the Harrogate Arms stands on the site of a sulpur well, which had a bath house from 1840.

Harrogate: hotels

Crown Hotel Harrogate   George Hotel, Harrogate

Harrogate has a number of good hotels, some of them dating from Harrogate's heyday as a spa. 

Hotels in Low Harrogate include The Old Swan, the Crown, and the White Hart (which also houses the popular Fat Badger pub). The Holiday Inn is right next to Harrogate International Centre.

On West Park (right where the Tour de France finishes in July 2014) are the Hotel du Vin and the Yorkshire Hotel. On the south eastern edge of Harrogate is Rudding Park, a luxury venue, which was voted best hotel in the UK in the 2013 Trip Advisor Traveller's Choice awards.

Harrogate: sports clubs

Harrogate has two football clubs, Harrogate Town and Harrogate Railway. There's a rugby union team, Harrogate RUFC. For cycling clubs, see our Harrogate Cycling page.

Harrogate: the history of Harrogate as a spa town

Royal Baths, Harrogate   Royal Pump Room, Harrogate

'The queerest place, with the strangest people in it, leading the oddest lives of dancing, newspaper reading, and tables d' hôte.' That was how Charles Dickens described Harrogate when he visited in 1858.

It is perhaps easy to see why he viewed the town as peculiar. Dancing and newspaper reading were part of the ritual, but it was the sulphur water that drew a wealthy clientele to Harrogate. Despite its offensive smell, visitors would drink four or five glasses every day. 

Harrogate's fortunes had long depended on its naturally occurring mineral waters. It was in 1571 that the first spring was discovered in High Harrogate by William Slingsby. Riding through the Forest of Knaresborough, his horse stumbled by a pool, and he stopped to refresh himself with a drink. The taste reminded him of the mineral waters he had taken at Spa in Belgium. 

Realising that his discovery could be important, he had the spring walled and paved. It became known as 'the Tewit Well', on account of the lapwings (which the locals called 'tewits') which fed on the mineral deposits around it.

Tewit well, Harrogate   Tewit well, Harrogate

This was the first of many mineral springs to be discovered in High Harrogate (the next being the Sweet Spa), and soon visitors flooded in to drink the waters. The inns and lodging houses where they stayed had wooden tubs in which guests could bathe in heated spring water. The first public bathing house was built around 1663, next to the Sweet Spa, under the instruction of Dr George Neale, later author of a book about Harrogate's spa waters (Spadacrene Eboracensis).

As well as taking the cure, they would spend time playing cards, racing (there was a racecourse on the Stray), watching sports, and hunting. In the evenings, they would dine and dance at the tables d' hôte, inns, and hotels. Harrogate became a fixture on the social calendar, a place where many a young lady met her future husband.

The wells in High Harrogate were 'chalybeate', or iron, springs, but Low Harrogate had its own spring, known as the Old Sulphur Well. The water smelt of hard boiled eggs, but stronger and more salty, and it has always had its detractors. In the early nineteenth century, it was described as 'the most foetid and foul-smelling water...a nauseous puddle.'

In Tobias Smollett's novel 'Humphry Clinker', he wrote this of the sulphur well: 'As for the water, which is said to have effected so many surprising cures, I have drank it once, and the first draft has cured me of all desire to repeat the medecine...The only effects it produced were sickness, griping and insurmountable disgust. I can hardly mention it without puking...'

Nevertheless, its medicinal properties meant that Low Harrogate became the focus of development of the spa in the early 1800s. A public assembly room was built by subscription in 1804 (now the Mercer Art Gallery); a Roman-style temple was erected over the Old Sulphur Well in 1808, for shelter from the weather; rival local entrepreneurs built the Victoria and Montpellier Baths, and, in the style of a Greek temple, the Cheltenham Spa Rooms, for concerts and balls. The new facilites made Harrogate a formidable competitor to the continental spas.

The town's prosperity was founded entirely on the waters, and when they were threatened in December 1835, the citizens were alarmed. Joseph Thackwray, the proprietor of the Crown Hotel, made an attempt to divert the waters of the Old Sulphur Well onto his own land.

The other hoteliers, led by Jonathan Shutt of the Swan Inn, tried to persuade Thackwray to stop, and when he refused, they decided to prosecute him. He was tried in York, and acquitted on a technicality, but the court ordered him to stop digging. The incident led to the appointment of the Improvement Commissioners to look after the interests of the town.

The first act of the Improvement Commissioners was to build the Royal Pump Room, an otagonal structure to house the Old Sulphur Well. An entrance fee for visitors helped to pay for it, but the outside tap preserved a free supply for the town's poorer residents. This free outside tap remains to this day, and is protected by Act of Parliament. (The Stray Act 1985 provides - section 11 (1) (c) - 'The Council shall maintain and protect...the supply of water without charge from the public drinking fountain situate outside the Royal Pump Room.'

Royal Pump Room from Valley Garden   Outside tap at Royal Pump Room, Harrogate

In Dickens' time, visitors took two glasses of sulphur water from the Pump Room before breakfast, with a further dose before lunch. They would pass the rest of the morning reading the newspaper or letter-writing, strolling in Crescent Gardens, or shopping in Harrogate's boutiques.

Afternoon activities included cycling, golfing, or driving out to local attractions such as Fountains Abbey or Knaresborough. In the evenings, the fashionable guests dressed up and attended the theatre, concerts, or a ball. 

Invalids would take their treatment in one of the public bathing houses; and from 1897, the Royal Baths provided a truly splendid setting for a wide range of hydrotherapy treatments. None was more bizarre than the baths where arthritic patients were immersed in gallons of steam-heated peat!

Harrogate could justifiably claim to be one of Europe's great spas, and it attracted celebrities from all over the world. Famous poets who visited Harrogate's spa include Lord Byron in 1806 and Wordsworth in 1827; in the 1911 season, royalty from Russia, Prussia, Portugal, and Greece visited; and 1926 saw Agatha Christie resurface at the Swan Hotel after her mystery disappearance had sparked a major police and media search.

After World War II, Harrogate declined as a spa town, instead developing conference facilities. Of the hydrotherapy treatments at the Royal Baths, only the Turkish Baths remain.

For the distinctive taste of Harrogate's past, however, visitors can still sample the waters of the Old Sulphur Well at the Royal Pump Room museum.