Few towns wear their Christmas ornaments with the charm and panache of Harrogate. Perhaps it’s the mass of wonderful gritstone buildings and all the Victorian shop windows that seem from a bygone age. My end point will be the Coach & Horses on West Park – which has changed its name to the Sleigh & Reindeers for the festive season.
I start at the railway station and head north, passing one of the country’s great cafes, Bettys. Peering inside I can see a dazzle of polished woodwork and brass, plus platoons of prim staff dressed as if to serve Charles Dickens with cakes that carry names like ginger tart and fat rascal. It always pains me to pass such treats, but it’s too early in the walk to stop.
Heading down the hill, I reach the reason for all this 19th-century grandeur: the spa pump room. It’s now a fascinating museum, but around the back is a brass tap where you can get a taste of why the town became famous: the stinking sulphur waters, seen by every Victorian medical man as a sovereign remedy for almost everything, except gullibility. A sign warns you not to try the water, but I do. It’s horrible.
Follow your nose through the imposing gates into Valley Gardens and walk upstream past some fine beds of Gunnera manicata, “giant rhubarb”, covered up in winter to protect the rhizomes as it’s a Brazilian native species. Every now and again there’s the whiff of sulphur rising from the beck, adding a wildly volcanic edge to the manicured surroundings. There are plenty of other botanical prize specimens in here: look out for the dawn redwood, the Wollemi pine and a black mulberry. Some trees date back to the opening of the park in 1887, Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. The park also contains many of Harrogate’s 35 springs and wells, each with a distinctive concoction of dissolved chemicals, and in their heyday, a coterie of supporting quacks.
In 1571, William Slingsby started things rolling, identifying a curative water as similar to one he had sampled on his European grand tour. By the 1840s the town had become a thriving resort for the rich, famous and afflicted, all convinced that rigorous programmes of enforced spa water and rest were the answer to their woes. The Royal Pump Room Museum’s original exhibits give the flavour: “The walk home can be advantageous if it can be accomplished without undue fatigue.” Those yesteryear physicians would have a fit of the vapours if they saw today’s joggers and power walkers overexerting themselves along the paths where once the crown princes and princesses of Europe managed an occasional listless amble.
I stride uphill into the Pinewoods, a 31-hectare (76-acre) plantation where all the small birds suddenly fall silent and a sparrowhawk zips over my head. A mile later, I reach Harlow Carr, one of five Royal Horticultural Society show gardens. Plant enthusiasts are likely to want to detour through the gardens, which are themselves built on sulphur springs.
If you do arrive here after dark in December, there is an annual winter “Glow” illuminations festival; otherwise there are some lovely walks around the kitchen, Alpine and winter gardens. The cafe – hooray! – is a branch of Bettys and makes the perfect lunch stop, although it can get busy and queues can form. There’s a shop if you need a takeaway for the afternoon ahead.
Back under way, take the public footpath northwards down towards Oak Beck. There’s an opportunity to extend the day considerably by taking the Harrogate Link path on a four-mile diversion up to John of Gaunt’s castle at Beaver Dyke reservoir (the link connects ultimately with the Dales Way at Ilkley). With short winter days, however, it’s best to turn east and follow the ridge of Birk Crag. Then, after crossing the road, take the narrow ginnel (we’re in Yorkshire remember) down between large detached houses to the river. Turn right and follow the river through some lovely woods of beech and oak, with the town golf course on the left.
This particular path is part of the Harrogate Ringway, and you could head down to the gorge of the River Nidd then continue for about five miles to Tadcaster (from where you can catch the train backto Harrogate). Otherwise, head up the slope to re-emerge at Valley Gardens.
The finest finish to any walk now awaits. Visitors of yesteryear would no doubt head for the Royal Baths, where they might have indulged in a “Scotch douche” or “ozone therapy”, but since the baths are now a Chinese restaurant, all that remains of that era is the Turkish baths. Opened in 1897, this fabulously ornate Victorian rendition of an Ottoman hammam comes with steam room, cold plunge pool and various relaxing areas at different temperatures. If you can time it right, this is an advantageous end to what is not an unduly fatiguing walk.
Google map of the route
Start Harrogate railway station
Finish Coach & Horses pub AKA Sleigh & Reindeers
Distance 5.25 miles
Time 2.5 hours
Total ascent 207 metres
GPX map of route at OS Maps
With its brass fittings and wood panelling, the Coach & Horses is a quintessential Harrogate pub, oozing solidity and tradition. Collections of antique horse bits attest to a former coaching inn role – it appeared in the first guide to the town in 1840 – and there are views across the Stray (the 80 hectare area of parkland on the southern edge of the town).
The Christmas name change should come as no surprise: the pub has been both the Cavendish & Horses (for the 2014 Tour de France, which started in Yorkshire) and Sunshine Desserts (for the passing of regular David Nobbs, writer of 1970s sitcom Reginald Perrin).
You could just go for a pint, but the food is the big attraction here. Much of the fruit and veg comes from the Mount St John estate on the North York Moors. Other ingredients also have a northern accent: fish from Hartlepool, pheasant from Duncombe Park, and turkeys from the Yorkshire Wolds. Chefs Graeme Cuthell and Paweł Chekala put it all together with great aplomb.
Beers are local too: Black Sheep from Masham and Copper Dragon from Skipton when I visited, but these cask ales are rotated fortnightly.
Where to stay
Next door – and under the same ownership – is the smart and effortlessly efficient West Park hotel. Rooms ooze quality: top-notch beds, linen and underfloor bathroom heating. Breakfast is served in the hotel’s fine restaurant overlooking the Stray.
Doubles from £76 room-only, thewestparkhotel.com