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Festive documentary Countdown to Christmas to feature Harrogate

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 November 2017

Montpellier which celebrates 25 years lit for Christmas Photo Alamy

Montpellier which celebrates 25 years lit for Christmas Photo Alamy

© MSP Travel Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Harrogate’s heading for the small screen this Christmas.

The most northerly RHS garden, Harlow Carr, hosts Glow its own winter illuminations Photo Oliver Kite The most northerly RHS garden, Harlow Carr, hosts Glow its own winter illuminations Photo Oliver Kite

The small group of volunteers who ensure Harrogate is at its twinkly best every Christmas are not generally the sort of people who hog the limelight. They have bustled about in the background for the last 10 years, like a North Yorkshire battalion of Santa’s Little Helpers, raising money (and spirits) as part of the unassuming yet highly effective Harrogate at Christmas team.

This year, however, these invaluable supporting players are stepping into the full beam of the spotlight as they – and their town – prepare for small screen stardom after bagging the lead role in Channel 5’s two-part festive documentary Countdown to Christmas.

The programmes, due to air in December, are the brainchild of Daisybeck Studios, the Leeds-based company behind the successful Yorkshire Vet series. They’ve already spent time in the town filming the volunteers’ annual festive fundraising day and, as we go to print, are preparing to capture Harrogate’s Big Switch On! and the Christmas shop window competition.

But before we shine a light on this year’s festive adventure, let’s look back a few years to when things were a lot less twinkly.

The Royal Hall, Harrogate last Christmas Photo Alamy The Royal Hall, Harrogate last Christmas Photo Alamy

In 2002, The Sun christened Harrogate ‘Scrooge town’ for its paucity of Christmas lights – not a title it particularly wanted on its CV as it tried to attract festive visitors away from big-hitters like Leeds (the retail capital of Yorkshire) and York (the self-proclaimed ‘Christmas City’).

It wasn’t until 2008, however, that things began to change dramatically for the better. John Fox, the mayor at the time, was 
surprised to learn just how little was in the 
pot to fund Harrogate at Christmas so, 
after switching on the usual lacklustre lights, he called a meeting and, by February, had gathered more than 30 people who he 
charged with raising money to bump up the bulb tally.

‘Stray FM do a Children in Need day every year, so we decided to echo that with our own fundraising day,’ said John, now an independent councillor for the Granby ward. ‘My wife came up with the idea of “How Big Is Your Bauble?” as a fun theme for the day, and the name has stuck ever since.’

Can we just say at this point that Mrs Fox (aka Maggie) deserves a standing ovation for that title before moving swiftly on.

‘The first year, we did it in July,’ John continued. ‘You can probably imagine how pleased people were to see us, rattling our Christmas tins in the middle of summer. So, now we do it on the first Friday in September. And, just to make sure everyone knows who we are, we turn up in Christmas sweaters.’

The fundraising group, which quickly established itself under the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin name of Harrogate at Christmas, raised a rather splendid £30,000 this year, helped by a useful match-funding agreement struck with the borough council for up to £10,000.

They were followed on their Christmas sweater-wearing antics this time around by a film crew from Daisybeck, who will also turn their cameras on the town’s traditional Christmas Market, which attracts a staggering 60,000 people over its four-day run with its 200-or-so stalls and £1-a-go funfair rides, the lights switch-on, the annual sculpture competition run in conjunction with Harrogate College, Harrogate Theatre’s panto (a wholly local affair without so much of a sniff of a Hollyoaks ‘star’) and the hard-fought Christmas shop window competition.

‘We’ve had to move a couple of things about so they can film them in time for Christmas, but it’s not been too disruptive,’ said John. ‘And it’ll be well worth it in the end. A couple of million people will see what Harrogate has to offer – it’ll really put us on the festive map.’

While raising money in his festive jumper, he’s also working on a more substantial funding proposal as part of Harrogate BID (Business Improvement District), with the active backing of Primark and Marks & Spencer. When the ballot is decided in June 2018, he hopes Harrogate at Christmas will be an additional £30,000 better off.

‘We do pretty well with what we’ve got, but with another £30,000, it’ll be like Blackpool Illuminations,’ said John. ‘We’ll be able to put on a truly magical show.’

But that’s next year, and this year’s festivities have barely begun. Dare we ask: when December 25th finally rolls round, does John have any Christmas spirit left, bearing in mind that the first meeting he chaired was in January?

‘You’d think I’d be fed up of Christmas by the time it arrives, but I actually really enjoy it,’ he said. ‘The lights, the market, the panto and the general atmosphere around town – that’s what it’s all about really, isn’t it?

‘Harrogate is special all year round, but at Christmas, well, you just can’t beat it.’

Harrogate highlights

It’s not just the town centre that’s chock-a-block with Christmassy gems this year, there’s plenty to do in the wider district too.

:: Harrogate will be revealed in all its glittery glory on November 16th, when The Big Switch On! takes place between 4-6pm at The Piazza by Victoria Shopping Centre.

:: Harrogate Christmas Market, held on The Stray at the lower end of the Montpellier Quarter, will offer four days of retail therapy from November 16th-19th, with everything from Yorkshire cheese and chutney to handmade gifts, decorations and, of course Santa and his (real!) reindeer.

:: The most northerly RHS garden, Harlow Carr, is hosting its own winter illuminations, Glow, from November 23rd to December 30th, featuring special lighting effects to create a truly magical winter wonderland.

:: The Christmas Adventure at Stockeld Park has become something of a must-visit for families over the festive period. Running from November 1st to January 8th, this year’s adventure zone includes a real ice rink, a Nordic ski trial and an illuminated enchanted forest.

:: For many, Handel’s Messiah signals the start of Christmas. Book your ticket to hear it in the ‘glittering palace of gold’ that is the magnificent Royal Hall in Harrogate on December 9th.

:: It’s a tale as old as time apparently; a traditional girl meets beast love story. Packed with favourite panto characters and more jokes, songs, magic and sparkle than you can squeeze into a pair of dame’s bloomers, Harrogate Theatre is staging Beauty & The Beast from December 6th to January 21st.

:: If you’re not completely Christmas’d out, Harrogate Christmas & Gift Show is taking over eight halls at Harrogate Convention Centre from January 14th-17th 2018. The trade show is now the place for garden centres, department stores, tourist attractions, heritage centres and independent retailers to stock up on festive goodies just 11 short months of the big day.

The Montpellier Quarter celebrates

This year the Montpellier Quarter, which includes establishments such as Betty’s, The Drum & Monkey, Timberlakes, Hoxton North, The Slug & Lettuce, Morgan Clare and Richard Grafton Interiors celebrates 25 years.

‘Two and a half decades ago this area was quite different to how it is today,’ says Helen Sutcliffe of local family business Sutcliffe Galleries. ‘Originally it was partly residential and also home to around 11 antique shops. Twenty five years ago, somebody had the bright idea of changing the name from Low Harrogate to The Montpellier Quarter, which sounds lots more glamorous.

‘Since then there has been a great shift in the area with more contemporary shops and younger businesses. It has been completely transformed and it’s now quite vibrant with buzzing cafes, restaurants and shops.’ In celebration of 25 years, local businesses are holding a special Thursday evening Christmas shopping event called ‘People Meet The People’ organised by Antonia Sutcliffe of Sutcliffe Galleries and will take place on December 14th from 5pm to 8pm. With discounts, a Slingsby Gin tasting event by Spirit of Harrogate, an appearance from York’s iconic street performance artist Purple Man, raffles, canapés and prizes, the event will also be a fundraiser for B-eat, the national eating disorder charity.

For more information about The Montpellier Quarter visit montpellierharrogate.com

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