Talk of the Town – Harrogate Free Walking Tour

On a sunny Sunday morning in Harrogate, I meet Harry – a smiley young chap, carrying a large sign promoting his Free Walking Tour. Only in its seventh week, his enterprise already feels like one of the Spa town’s ‘must do’ activities, for tourists and locals alike.

I expect a ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ Yorkshireman, but along with Tessa, Di and Gwen, (three sisters from Surrey, on a weekend break) this morning’s first customers, I’m greeted by a soft, west- country accent, as Harry explains he’s only been in the town for a year.  “I’m actually from Devon originally, but have moved to Harrogate with my partner and thought it would be good to develop a tour”. He goes on to explain that while spending time in Oxford and Bath, he first became aware of walking tours. “Harrogate is very similar to Bath, with its architecture and history – so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s going well!”

I chat with my new friends from Surrey, as Harry welcomes a growing group, fresh from their hotel breakfasts. The tour kicks-off with 16 of us – and other than me, only Gillian from West Tanfield (who is with visiting friends) is ‘local’.  Our guide begins by explaining there is no charge for his tour – and he is not a ‘Blue Badge’ guide. “I’ve carried out all of my own research and apologise in advance if anything I tell you turns out not to be entirely accurate”. His self-depreciating style has instantly won the group over. With just the right amount of historical fact, interspersed with easy humour, we rewind 4000 years and hear about the very early days for Harrogate. Harry produces a replica Roman coin from his pocket, while recounting the arrival of Rome on our shores in 54AD. “We didn’t think they’d dare to venture to this part of the world, until the remains of a Roman villa was discovered just up the road in North Stainley.”

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I encounter my first ‘unknown unknown’ as we halt outside ‘Slingsby Gin’ on Montpellier Parade. “This business takes its name from William Slingsby, who first discovered the well that led to Harrogate becoming a famous health resort”. Harry goes on to explain that it wasn’t gin that emanated from the now-famous Tewitt Well.

Further into the Montpellier Quarter and we learn that Farrah’s toffee is a favourite of the Queen. By now we’re all captivated, as we follow Harry – shouldering his sign atop an old staff, which puts me in mind of a Moses-type character, leading us – his faithful tribe (not out of Egypt, but to the Pump Room, where ‘The Stinking Spaw’ guarantees entertaining reactions as the sulphurous water splashes onto the footpath).

As we walk, I chat with Stephanie and David Eynon from Melbourne, Australia, who tell me they’re mid-way through a 5-week UK holiday. “We’re going to Keswick next, then Edinburgh – but we’d heard a lot about Harrogate, so really wanted to come”. Another amazing fact from Harry: “Harrogate sits on top of an inactive volcano”. How didn’t I know that? He explains the reason behind the topography of Ripon Road and Parliament Street. It makes perfect sense – once you’re told.

The history of the Royal Hall is similarly fascinating. Originally named ‘The Kursaal’ (a nod to European Spa resorts), in 1918 the Harrogate Corporation deemed the name too Germanic and opted for change. Harry tells us there is more gold-leaf in the Royal Hall, than there is in the ballroom at Buckingham Palace. We glance at each other, impressed. Our guide’s fact recall and delivery is first-class. As anyone who’s a veteran of guided events will confirm, it’s no mean-feat to keep a group engaged and interested. Harry’s natural manner and obvious enthusiasm helps him achieve this with apparent ease.

Our next stop is the Old Swan Hotel – at last – I think I know what’s coming. None-the-less, the collective intake of breath, when Harry tells the story of Agatha Christie’s mysterious 1926 ‘holiday’ in Harrogate is impressive! “Senior Air Force personnel were based at the Old Swan during the war and the Luftwaffe sent a lone bomber to deal with them, but the crew targeted the Majestic Hotel in error”. Once more Harry introduces me to something I should know about but don’t. My Agatha Christie knowledge now feels inadequate.

At the Mercer Art Gallery, Harry takes a moment to credit the people in the town who’ve assisted him with his research. Staff at the Gallery, the Library and the Tourist Information Centre have contributed to material for his tour. We all agree that if it’s possible, we like him even more now. I’m beginning to look at Harrogate through the eyes of a tourist – and I have to say – it’s impressive. Can there be anything else in this medium-sized northern town, that would make a visitor think about moving here? We’re welcomed into Valley Gardens by a beaming Harry, who seems to be almost proud that he hasn’t needed to call on this Grade II listed garden, until now.

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We’re transported back to the 19th century, as we walk through the beautiful 17 acres of lawns, exotic plants and stream. Originally known as Bogs field, the gardens are the site of many of Harrogate’s wells – and health-conscious Victorians would take walks in the garden as part of their health regime while visiting the town. “Princess Alexandra, the Russian Tsarina loved visiting Harrogate – and promenading in Valley Gardens was one of her favourite pastimes”. Harry casually mentions, before adding “Obviously before the sad events of 1918”.

Leaving the gardens, we pass the ‘Toll House’, which I have always wondered about. “This is where visitors would pay for hydrotherapy treatments” I’m told. Now the building stands sentinel overlooking the Crown roundabout, but it was once the gateway to the Royal Baths and Winter Gardens. Harry now explains that JD Wetherspoon allow and encourage his groups to walk through their ‘Winter Gardens’ property, so – In single file – we weave through the hen-party groups and the weekend-awayers, who are enjoying their leisurely Sunday breakfasts in this magnificent building. Eighty-two years ago, the Jarrow marchers, en-route to Westminster, enjoyed a rousing public reception in this same building. Like me, I’m sure they were overawed by what they saw. If ever you find yourself waiting on Parliament Street for the traffic lights to change and you glimpse Wetherspoons on your left – park your car and pop in. You will be amazed.

As our eye-opening walk comes to its end, we pass Bettys with it’s polished glass and delicious cakes. Devotees are already queuing outside, as it promises to be another very busy Sunday for this venerable institution. We perch on a wall at the Cenotaph and Harry explains that Yorkshire’s greatest Betty would in fact have been in Bournemouth, had founder Frederick Belmont boarded the correct train when he arrived on the south coast from Switzerland in 1907. Like us, it seems Harry is captivated by the Bettys story and his knowledge on the subject is clear. “I’ve read a lot of Belmont’s diaries – and his letters to his sister back in Switzerland. They’re very moving”.

It’s unanimous that our group has been enthralled by what we’ve seen and learned in the preceding hour and-a-half – and Harry is genuinely happy that we have enjoyed ourselves. Asking if he can close, by quoting directly from one of Fred Belmont’s diaries, Harry touches perfectly on the mood with his recitation:

“I shall remark on what I think are the best things in life: Enough money to be independent. The glow you get from giving something is far more than the glow you get from receiving something – except for a thick ear. Sleep – I really think it should be higher on the list. Landing at any sea port after a rough journey. And the best way to end your life, is to be taken by surprise surrounded by what one loves best”.

And with that, adopted Yorkshireman Harry Satloka modestly concludes what has been the most enjoyable 90 minutes you could spend in Harrogate.

Harry’s walking tours leave from Parliament Street, on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be contacted at: @TourHarrogate (Facebook).

Colin Petch

Dalesman Magazine – October 2018

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