By Richard Liddle
If you ever tell someone you’re from Harrogate, the immediate response is almost always along the lines of “oh, so you’re posh then.” Even Google backs up the assumption – if you search for Harrogate, the first suggestion for related searches is “Is Harrogate posh?”
As much as it’s a stereotype, it is a fairly well-deserved one, stemming from the town’s history as a spa resort for the rich and powerful during the 19th and 20th centuries; visitors coming to “take the waters” – believing the town’s mineral waters to have restorative powers – included such prominent figures as Charles Dickens and Tsarina Alexandria, the wife of Tsar Nicholas II. Until recently you could still taste the sulphur water of the Royal Pump Rooms yourself from the public tap outside – although in 2012 the EU passed legislation ruling it unfit for human consumption. (Any Harrogate resident who has tasted the infamous “eggy water” can tell you that this is unsurprising.)
Right next to the Pump Rooms is another reminder of Harrogate’s past – the Valley Gardens, a park built both for accessing further mineral springs and to provide an area for visitors to exercise and socialise. While the mineral springs no longer draw visitors, the Gardens remain just as popular as ever, with vibrant flower displays all year round.
Another reason that Harrogate is seen as posh is its most famous business – Betty’s and Taylors, the producers of Yorkshire Tea. Because of Betty’s, Harrogate is almost synonymous with afternoon tea, and there are often huge queues waiting outside Betty’s waiting for a taste of traditional luxury.
While the town’s attraction as a spa resort has dwindled, Harrogate still prospers from drawing in visitors from the world over. When government offices were evacuated to the town during the First and Second World Wars, Harrogate began to show its potential as a venue for major conferences and events. The most famous of these is the annual Great Yorkshire Show, the largest agricultural show in England, which has been held in Harrogate since 1951.
Harrogate has also stepped into the international spotlight on a number of occasions; for example, the whole of Europe descended on the town in 1982 when it hosted Eurovision. More recently, the town has become a renowned venue for cycling events thanks to being ideally placed on the doorstep to the Yorkshire Dales. Harrogate’s love affair with cycling began with its hosting of the Tour de France’s Grand Départ in 2014, followed by the Tour de Yorkshire in 2017 and last year’s UCI World Road Cycling Championships. It’s probably best not to mention that last one to Harrogate residents though; the damage that event caused to the Stray – the huge public park next to the town centre – is an ongoing scandal.
While much of this backs up Harrogate’s reputation as one of the poshest parts of Yorkshire, the town’s apparently inherent swankiness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It must be doing something right – a Rightmove survey saw Harrogate voted the happiest place to live in the UK last year, and it also won the title three years running from 2013-2015. It even beat the likes of Paris and Vienna in a survey of the most romantic destinations in the world, coming in third place.
So all told, Harrogate probably deserves its posh reputation. But while it can be tempting for Harrogate’s residents to argue that no, they’re not that posh, they don’t live in the actual posh bit… deep down, we all know that the poshness is what gives Harrogate its unique character and makes it so special.