England - Harrogate Revisited
Aug 14, 2004
|Once upon a time the lovely Princess Connie lived in the charming little town of Harrogate, far in the north of England. Harrogate was a famous town, known throughout the lands of Europe as a special place with magic water. People came from far and wide to take the cure with the healing powers of the many sulphur wells and spa waters found there. Big homes and majestic hotels were built to house the visitors, and grand theatres and fancy shops and restaurants sprang up to entertain them. And life was good.
One day Princess Connie kissed a frog and he turned into a handsome prince. They fell in love and were married in the lovely town of Harrogate. And life was good.
Many years passed and Princess Connie came to realize that "once a toad, always a toad" and living with a toad was not good. So she released the toad back to the pond from whence he came, and life was good again.
Wait a minute, wait a minute, that's a whole different story and we won't be going there right now ... but hey, who says your life can't be a fairytale!
Returning to Harrogate after 20 years was a bittersweet experience and a real trip down memory lane. After all, I had lived there, loved there, married there and worked there. Sure, it was only for 2 years, but back then it felt like a lifetime. Harrogate has changed a lot in 20 years, but then, haven't we all. Honestly, though, I barely recognized the place.
Harrogate had in fact been a famous spa town in Victorian times, and as a result it was somewhat of an anomoly in England ... a posh place in the midst of the industrial north. 20 years ago the Royal Baths building, where people had formerly come to "take the cure", were all but shut down, parts of the building either abandoned or converted into other usable space. In fact, one of the companies I worked for (Harrogate International Music Festival) had a small office in the former Royal Baths building.
Well, somewhere over the last 20 years the former baths regained their dignity and have been transformed back to their former glory, renamed the "Turkish Baths", and now serve up the full array of decadent spa treatments.
New things have popped up everywhere. A large convention centre and hotel complex has been built, turning Harrogate into a thriving major international conference and exhibition destination. Shopping centres have sprung up and there's now a lively mixture of cafes, bistros with chairs and tables lining the streets, and stylish restaurants serving international cuisine.
When I lived in Harrogate there wasn't a shop or restaurant that wasn't British. I mean absolutely NOTHING. Food choices were tea and scones, fish and chips, mixed grill and sausage rolls. They'd never heard of coffee, and if they had they wouldn't serve it because "we're not in America now love". Starbucks and Costa Coffee have now moved in, there are Pizza Huts and Subways, even a MacDonald's for heaven's sake!, and an endless selection of funky wine bars and nice restaurants serving international cuisine.
20 years ago, you'd buy clothes in Harrogate only if you were absolutely desperate or had a strange desire to look like Margaret Thatcher (who was in power at the time). The shopping precinct now contains large department stores, a Marks & Spencers, and a variety of trendy shops you'd find anywhere in Europe or North America.
And the changes didn't stop with food and clothing. Sports and leisure have been punched up a few notches as well. There are now a couple of golf courses and a new theatre house. There's even a large fitness centre in town - unheard of in my days. The best I could do back then was jump through various hoops to get security clearance to play racketball and squash at the nearby US Military Base!
In addition to seeing what had become to Harrogate since I left, I also enjoyed revisiting a few old familiar places ... homes where I used to live, posh neighborhoods in town, places where I used to work, that sort of thing.
It was comforting that the two buildings where I used to work are still standing. One was the Royal Baths building as I previously mentioned, although I forgot to mention (and it was a bit of a joke on me) that my former office is now a Wetherspoons, that chain restaurant that Tudor and I frequented so often in Wales!! I couldn't believe it! I also found out from a gal at the Tourist office that one of the fellas I used to work with at the Festival office is still there ... so I guess some things don't change after all.
The other company I worked for was Harrogate Borough Council, which is still housed in the same place, what used to be an old military hospital across the road from the Royal Baths building. Unfortunately it was Saturday when I arrived in Harrogate so I was unable to visit any former co-workers who might still be there.
Also familiar and a comfort was having afternoon tea at "Betty's Tea Room", a place that's been in Harrogate since forever. It's a lovely shop selling amazingly tasty chocolate and pastries, and also a tea room where people will queue for hours to get seated, as I did on Saturday afternoon for the pleasure of having Betty's famous scones (with clotted cream and strawberry jam) and COFFEE!
Finding my old house in Harrogate was easy enough and it hasn't changed a bit, although the old abandoned mill across the street is now a nice new residential area. I also took a bus out to the little village of Hampsthwaite where we lived briefly before moving into Harrogate. It's kind of a "blink and you'll miss it" sort of place. Try as I might, I just couldn't recognize my old house, but I probably saw more of Hampsthwaite in my search than when I lived there!
So, with that, my trip down memory lane was pretty much complete. Quite honestly, other than the McDonalds which I think any place can do without, I think that Harrogate's facelift is fantastic. They've done it in such a smart and fashionable way, maintaining the old buildings, history and traditions, but adding a whole new level of vibrancy, trendiness and sophistication. I really like what they've done to the place.
I liked living in Harrogate 20 years ago, but I think I'd absolutely LOVE living here now with it's new trendy feel and cosmopolitan beat. Who knows, when the urge to travel subsides, if it ever does, I just might have to consider living here again.