Is there a surprising side to Harrogate? I ask because everything it is, or has, seems to be out on display, front and centre. You don’t have to ask what kind of town it is, because the answer is there, right before your eyes. It’s neat, it’s tidy, it’s expensive, it’s lush, it’s successful. And, aesthetically speaking, it’s something of a peach.
Rock star Rufus Wainwright, who played a concert at Harrogate International Centre last year, certainly thought so. ‘I have no idea where we are,’ admitted the fabulously flamboyant musician (his tour itinerary had obviously taken its toll by then). ‘But it’s very pretty. And pretty is so important.’
The usual clichés spring to mind when you hear the word ‘Harrogate’. You think ‘pretty’, of course, just like Rufus. You think ‘spa town’. You think ‘Agatha Christie’s lost fortnight’. You think ‘RHS Harlow Carr’, ‘Royal Baths’, ‘Fat Rascals’ in the sofamous- it-makes-your-teeth-hurt Bettys, and ‘good schools’ and ‘stable house prices’ (largely because Phil Spencer from Location, Location, Location told you so) But are we missing something?
Victoria Tomlinson, who runs PR company Northern Lights, has lived in Harrogate for 18 years. Before she came here, she was ‘very much an appalling southerner who’d been north only twice before’. Now, she’s completely settled and extremely active in the community. She isn’t going anywhere.
‘It’s a very professional place,’ says Victoria. ‘And I mean that literally: there are a lot of professional people living and working here. The business scene is quite surprising. There are a lot of IT firms in town and many small-but-busy companies.’ Victoria could trot out all the usual Harrogate venues and haunts. But if we were after something a little off-the-beatentrack… where else does she suggest we go?
‘Well,’ says Victoria. ‘The Montpellier Quarter is a little gem: lots of lovely cafes and shops – real jewels.’ (She’s right, too: the borough council calls it ‘Harrogate’s best kept secret’.) ‘I think retail is a very good reason to come to Harrogate because we have loads of good shops which aren’t household names. The Clothes Room is lovely and quite “designery”, plus there’s Lynx and Morgan Clare.’ McNally, on Cheltenham Crescent, is also well thought of, and was also voted as one of the UK’s top 50 boutiques by The Sunday Telegraph.
‘As for restaurants,’ continues Victoria, ‘Sasso, the Italian, is wonderful and so is The Oxford Street Brasserie – a former Yorkshire Life Food and Wine Award winner. And Quantro is a fave. But, quite honestly, the great thing about this town is that there’s so much choice and you can eat out somewhere different every week.’ Which is exactly what Victoria and her husband do.
At Christmas, says Victoria, the panto is lots of fun and hugely popular (it’s Cinderella this year, by the way). And the Royal Hall, refurbished and opened last January in ceremony attended by Prince Charles, is beautiful with a capital B. ‘My daughters used to do a ballet show there every year,’ she says. ‘I mean, how lucky is that? What a fantastic stage for the little ones to dance on. I think Harrogate offers a lot of people some great opportunities.’
Talking of which, and staying with the performing arts theme, Harrogate Theatre is heavily involved in youth theatre, and holds acting classes for children with dedicated professionals from across the district. It also offers a limited number of week-long work experience placements to students in years 10 and 11.
Harrogate is famous for its Stray, 200 acres of open common which, along with the town’s Victorian architecture, gives the place its village feel. But the green space you really must see if you’re in town, says Victoria, is Valley Gardens. ‘The flowers there are gorgeous,’ she says. ‘I just love it.’
She’s not alone. Alan Titchmarsh loves it too and named it his favourite public garden in the UK. Laid out in 1880-1900, Valley Gardens covers 17 acres (along with Pinewoods woodland) and features mineral springs, Sun Pavilion and Colonnades, floral displays, shrub and tree collections and a series of band concerts every Sunday throughout the summer.
‘I can’t rate Harrogate alongside anywhere else I’ve lived,’ says Victoria. ‘Simply because nowhere else compares to it. Phil Spencer said that it’s his favourite place to be, and I think a lot of Harrogate residents would endorse that. I like it because it’s a walking town. I have teenage daughters and they walk in to the centre all the time. It’s very safe – and very friendly.’