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Terry Fletcher takes a stroll through the spa town's elegant past and finds a hidden treasure
At first or even second or third glance Harrogate appears to have little in common with Wigan. Yet, in an unlikely coincidence, this exclusive former spa town and the land-locked Lancashire mill town made famous by author George Orwell, can both claim to have piers. Wigans serves a canal but so far not even the most dire predictions of global warming have suggested the tide will shortly be lapping against Harrogates Pierhead, the somewhat incongruous name for the few square yards of pavement and garden between its soaring war memorial and Montpellier Gardens, sixty-odd miles from the sea.
Overlooking the memorial is Bettys tea rooms, a Harrogate institution easily recognised by its black and gold canopy and almost permanent queue. In the summer this is one of the hotspots of the towns caf culture with tables spilling out onto the pavement.
Start here, turning downhill along Montpellier Parade, which overlooks the final gasp of The Stray, 200 acres of open grassland which almost encircles the town centre.
The roundabout at the bottom of the hill is overlooked by the wide frontage of The Crown, one of several grand hotels built to accommodate the well-heeled Victorian and Edwardian hypochondriacs who flocked to take the waters.
Pass to the left of the Crown and almost immediately you come to the Royal Pump Room Museum. Built in 1842 on the site of Europes strongest sulphur well, it tells the story of the spa, notable visitors and the treatments they endured. By law, the waters from the spring must be available to the public, so behind the museum is a pump which has delighted generations of small boys with its pungent stench of bad eggs.
Across the road is the entrance to Valley Gardens, the towns major park. During the heyday of the spa there were 36 different mineral springs in the area and a Magnesia Well Pump Room was built to serve visitors.
Today its a caf, sitting by a streamside path christened the Elgar Walk to commemorate the composers visits to the town and the first provincial performance of his second symphony which took place here in 1911.
From the caf, cross a circular area with a fountain featuring two small boys and head half-right to take a path which strikes gently uphill. Turn right by a Dales Way panel where it meets a cross path by the tennis courts.
On the right of the path are two small stone pavilions marking old mineral wells. Continue up the lane beside the former Royal Bath Hospital, now private houses, to emerge on to Cornwall Road. Cross this and turn left, then take the first right into Hereford Road and at the end turn right into Rutland Road.
This is the Duchy estate, built at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and still one of Harrogates most prestigious addresses, although many of the detached villas, spread along broad tree-lined avenues, have been split into flats or converted into nursing homes.
Turn left into Brunswick Drive and then at the end turn right into Duchy Road. Follow this until you come to the magnificent St Wilfrids Church, which is almost a mini-cathedral yet is seldom seen by visitors and little known even to many residents. Perhaps surprisingly for such an elegant and attractive town, this is Harrogates only grade one listed building. Its open during the day and is well-worth visiting. The rear of the church is, if anything, even more imposing than the front.
Leave the church and continue along Duchy Road before turning right down Clarence Drive and then left into York Road, eventually passing the Old Swan Hotel. This figured in a real-life mystery featuring the writer Agatha Christie, who was discovered there after she disappeared in 1926.
At the Old Swan turn right into Swan Road and almost immediately left into Crescent Gardens. This leads to a set of traffic lights overlooked by the recently-renovated Royal Hall. This was formerly the Kursaal but anti-German feeling during the First World War led to a name change, although the old title remains set in stone on the front gable. Opposite is the Royal Baths, now a Chinese restaurant.
In a distant echo of its spa past, the building is also home to a sumptuous Turkish Baths, reached by a side entrance on the steep hill of Parliament Street. The old Winter Gardens, part of the same building and worth visiting to appreciate the lavish decoration, are now a pub where drinkers take something rather stronger than the traditional waters.
Back on Parliament Street continue uphill past a strong contender for the towns ugliest building, a parade of concrete-fronted shops topped with a stumpy tower block, to the towns war memorial.