Harrogate - a new lease of life in North Yorkshire

PUBLISHED: 19:03 23 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013

The war memorial in the centre of town

The war memorial in the centre of town

Where can you go to escape modern-day gloom and doom? Chris Titley visits Harrogate, a spa town with a smile on its face PHOTOGRAPHS BY LEO ROSSER

Does anywhere embody the spirit of optimism better than Harrogate in early springtime?

The honeyed walls of Georgian crescents in the soft sunshine, manicured flowerbeds in the centre and budding trees on the Stray; visitors arriving from across the country for culture, commerce and conferences, they all combine to lift the hardest heart. Even the domed solidity of the Pump Room is an uplifting symbol of Harrogate's enduring Yorkshire character. And the heaviest April shower is not enough to wipe away the untroubled cheer of those stony figures who peer out from the top of the Victorian Shopping Centre.

Harrogate is a good place to be even in the wake of news bulletins filled by grim-faced correspondents wielding miserable statistics. By and large, Harrogate's shopping centre is as elegant and defiantly upmarket as ever. And by all accounts it has every right to retain a quiet confidence. Harrogate is 'holding its own in terms of property which is suffering so much elsewhere,' says Robert Whiteley, president of the Harrogate Chamber of Trade & Commerce.

'We have not lost any of our members through the recession. In fact, our membership over the last two months has grown more quickly than usual. That might be an indication that people are looking for a cost-effective way of networking.'

Harrogate's shopping centre is relatively strong. 'We get the impression that empty shops are being filled again. There still seems to be a demand both for commercial and retail property.' The conference trade is doing well, adds Robert, who also runs the Yorkshire Event Centre, and there are hopes that the exchange rate will encourage more people to take short breaks in places like Harrogate instead of jetting off to Europe.

There are signs that people still want to set up shop in Harrogate. Fishing and shooting chain The Orvis Company Inc is due to move from Parliament Street to much larger premises at West Park. Michael Harvey, director of Carver Commercial Charter Surveyors, oversaw that deal. His business covers much of the north of England and he believes Harrogate is faring much better than most. 'It's doing as well as anywhere and better than some because of its specialties, like the established jewellery and antique corner and the thriving conference trade,' he said.

'There's still a very strong interest in Harrogate right across the commercial sector.'

That will give confidence to top young chef Tom Van Zeller, who has opened his own restaurant in the Montpellier Quarter in spite of the gloomy economic outlook. Backed by former employer and restaurateur David Moore, one of the inspectors in Raymond Blanc's BBC show The Restaurant, Tom brings skills learned at Bettys, Hotel du Vin, and restaurants in London, Sydney and New York to the eponymous Van Zeller restaurant.

He may soon face celebrity competition: if the rumours are true Jamie Oliver has an eye on Harrogate for the next branch of his small chain of Italian restaurants. And why not? Harrogate is growing. Under the council's core strategy, adopted in February this year, 3,000 new homes will be built in the town by 2021, some on Greenfield sites - a measure likely to be as controversial as allowing cycling on the Stray. The strategy also envisages more shops, an increase in international conference trade, and expansions for the thriving food business.

We should remember too that Harrogate has something of a tradition of forging a new and prosperous future from hard times. After the First World War, its spa facilities brought thousands of new visitors to the town. But that boom didn't last long. The Great Depression which began in 1929 saw the income of the baths plummet and the Pump Room make a loss. The retail sector could still draw some prestigious customers in the Thirties - Queen Mary, while staying at Harewood House, would browse the antique shops. 'When something took her fancy, the Queen did not always insist on paying for it,' writes Bill Mitchell in Harrogate Past. 'The owner was unlikely to press his claim.'

But tourism slumped and town leaders had to take action. 'The provision of entertainment was an obvious candidate for the economy axe, particularly as the Royal Hall and Spa Rooms account had been heavily in the red before the depression,' records A History Of Harrogate And Knaresborough. 'The municipal orchestra was disbanded after the 1930 season, and the expenditure on other forms of music was curtailed.'

Harrogate recovered from its troubled spa waters after the Second World War, establishing itself as an international destination with conference and exhibition tourism now bringing in 160 million a year.

For more information about Harrogate see www.enjoyharrogate.com

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