I am sure that many History Girls have acted, in one way or another, as historical guide for a location, an event, or on a specific study trip. Sharing your enthusiasm with others can be a real pleasure. However, it can also be interesting to be part of an audience being guided around too. All that role demands is your attention, an amount of physical strength and speed of foot, and perhaps a pen and a neat and handy note book.
Last Sunday, spurred on by idle curiosity, I took a guided tour around my own home, the spa town of Harrogate. I had often seen small groups gathered by the War Memorial, directly opposite the famous Betty’s Tearooms, macs and bags marking them out as visitors. I had also seen, close by, on a tasteful notice-board, details of Harry’s Free Walking Tour.
Who was Harry, I wondered and what did he have to say about the place?
I joined the queue. Exactly on time, a cheerful man strode across the Parliament Street crossing, wearing a neat blue waistcoat, smart shorts and good walking boots and wielding a tall wooden pole, topped by an unmistakeably easy-to-spot blue and yellow disc, He rested his staff against the flower beds, stretched out his hand in greeting and introduced himself, asked for people’s names in return. His enthusiasm indicated we were in for a good time.
Once, twenty years ago, when we first moved to the town, there were venerable people who were the Harrogate Town Guides. They were, I believe, knowledgeable and independent-minded individuals who were probably under the auspices of the excellent Chief Librarian, who was a local historian. They gave their time up on a voluntary basis and were, as far as I know, part of the life of the town. However, somebody official – a councillor or tourism expert or someone, inspired by the new mood of accountability - decided that the Guides should be brought into some kind of formal group. Maybe they were offered helpful training? Given a set script? Handed forms and rotas to fill in and suchlike? Whatever happened, the result was simple. The Guides stepped away from the new requirements and never returned. Gone. Is that not an excellently tempting scenario, whether true or not?
Anyway, the space they left was there for Harry to fill, freelance and under his own rules, all these years later.
Last Sunday, most of his ‘guests’, as Harry called us, were weekenders from around the North of England. Often his guests are from other countries: one woman there was a Canadian, visiting partly because her RAF parents met in Harrogate during WWII. I liked the way Harry had of making everyone feel welcomed and involved and when I awkwardly admitted being local, he simply beamed and asked what I liked best about the town. Clearly, Harry’s Walk was going to be a briskly positive experience for everyone.
While we stood on a patch of damp grass, Harry quickly described the wider geographical context: what lay to the north, south, east or west of the town. After crossing the road, we paused again. This time he ran us through the area’s early history. We heard of Romans in York; Vikings sweeping down from Lindisfarne, the rule of the Anglo-Saxons, the arrival of William of Normandy’s knights and the building of nearby Knaresborough’s historic Castle, now a picturesque ruin overlooking the gorge of the River Nidd. Harrogate, meanwhile, was little more than a hamlet in a marshy area within the Forest of Knaresborough.
Then, in 1596, William Slingsby, a local gentleman who had visited
other spas, discovered a local spring that had similar health giving
properties. Over the period a variety of springs or wells were
discovered, some sweet and some ‘stinking’ water and Harrogate started to grow. Even so, a large area of common grassland known as The Stray was retained and restricted, and still sweeps distinctively through the middle of our town.
Harry, and his amiability, had certainly kept the interest of the crowd. He led us down Montpelier Hill, indicated Slingsby’s Gin Shop, pointed out the now-empty newspaper office where ghost signs still promised a weekly List of Visitors to the town. We passed the famous Harrogate Toffee shop, skirted the Crown Hotel and turned down a cobbled street an iconic Harrogate setting that often appears in tv dramas about Yorkshire, especially any where there is a posh narrative thread.
Meanwhile, we arrived outside the pretty Pump Room, now a museum. On one wall was a push-button spout and stone basin: this was the old sulphur-water well. Despite the smell, the water was – and sometimes still is - considered an effective digestive treatment, yet nobody reached forward to take a sip from the small glass Harry offered.
Sometimes, as he talked, Harry unrolled a long strip of cloth that was wound around his pole, revealing copies of old printed images from Harrogate’s history: a swift and useful way of sharing information with his small group of listeners. Harry had found most of the pictures while studying in the local history section of the town library in preparation for his walks.
Harry then escorted us around the grassy space known as the Crescent Gardens, pointing out the Royal Baths, once a renowned hydrotherapy centre but now a Chinese restaurant, and told us about the Turkish Baths, the only remaining part of the Royal Baths complex in operation. Although the entrance was tucked away from where we stood, he unrolled a picture of the lavish tiled interior, suggesting it as a place worth visiting, although maybe not for this Sunday afternoon’s visitors as booking and swimwear are essential.
Across the road was the Royal Hall, a grand concert and reception hall. Back in 1903, it was ‘The Kursall’ or ‘Cure Hall’, with entertainment seen as a cure for low spirits. The name was changed before the First World War.
Harry then described about something that I would have been delighted to witness: there are, though I had never noticed them, two tall green goblet-like structures high above the entrance to the Royal Hall. Once, he explained, great jets of orange flame burst upwards from these goblets to show visitors that the next entertainment was about to begin. How stunning a sight that must have been! The hall was renowned for its early use of gas lighting, thanks to an incredible local entrepreneur, Mr. Samson Fox, mentioned in one of my past History Girls posts.
Harry pointed out the Majestic Hotel behind, higher up the hill, often seen in the background to a popular Harrogate travel poster and then we walked steadily on, past the now-empty Town Council Offices, built in 1930, towards The Old Swan, that most historic of Harrogate’s hotels, and renowned as the location of ‘missing’ crime writer Agatha Christie’s rediscovery.
I admired the ease and professionalism with which Harry handled the group, sending one person ahead to wait, marking a specific point, while he brought the general crowd and any stragglers firmly and merrily along, chatting and answering questions all the while.
Harry had been a butler and was always involved in hospitality: from childhood within his parents pubs through to a career that included looking after prestigious guests at The Ritz in London and, more recently, as a manager at a Betty’s Tearoom in Yorkshire. Each of these posts demanded more and more hours indoors. Now Harry was doing what he liked best: enjoying life out in the fresh air and sharing his love of his adopted town of Harrogate with visitors.
Harry looped us back, past the Mercer Art Gallery with free entry to all its exhibitions, and in to the Valley Gardens. We strolled through a beautiful, well-kept and old-fashioned grounds with its formal flower beds, a covered Promenade, a winding stream, boating pond, a small elegant cafe, and more, still overlooked by the ornate towers of what was once the Royal Baths Hospital. As we walked, he explained that Harrogate was home to several governmental organisations during World War II, especially the RAF.
Winston Churchill was a frequent visitor to Harrogate too. I once heard tales of Winston running races in his bath chair down the steep curve of Cornwall Road, but was that true? Would the library know? Back we turned, back in the direction of the War Memorial, glancing across at the back of the old Winter Gardens. This buildin, now the grandest pub interior in the Wetherspoon’s chain, is well worth a quick glance inside if you can add a moment's imagination.
One has to grab the good moments and still-existing sights in this tourist town now. Sadly, many of the town’s public buildings have been sold, or are up for sale or for redevelopment. What the town will look like in the future, I did not know and I did not want that grim thought to be part of the day’s experience. Onward.
The last stretch wound through the charming shopping area known as the Montpelier Quarter, then up the hill again. The walk had lasted about an hour and twenty minutes, moving at a happy pace, and had included more information than included here. It was also free, although donations were accepted.
Harry ended his Walk with the heart-rending story about the solitary young Swiss immigrant who, in 1907, came to Yorkshire, eventually founding Betty’s famous Cafe. It was a most suitable ending and maybe if you are ever in town, you can join Harry’s Walking Tour, and hear the tale from Harry himself?
Additionally, what made the guided walk valuable to me, though I knew much of the history, was the space and time it gave to reflect on Harrogate, and to appreciate its odd but interesting past.
Even if it was told by a History Boy.