As Bath is to Somerset, so Harrogate is to Yorkshire: a place whose fortunes were transformed by the power of water. For centuries, wealthy patients were drawn to the supposed medicinal properties of the waters in this spa town.
From 1571, when the first sulphurous springs were discovered here, money flooded in, something that quickly becomes apparent as you stroll through the town. Grand sandstone Regency and Victorian townhouses line the streets, and many of the shop fronts are adorned with elaborate black iron-and-glass canopies, giving an inkling of the pride of the town in its pomp.
On Friday nights, the bars and restaurants east of Parliament Street are bustling, but for a more traditional taste of Harrogate nightlife, head for the Montpellier Quarter, sniffing out the public sulphur-water fountain mounted in the wall of the Royal Pump House Museum. With Bettys Tea Rooms and the Turkish Baths, it’s one of three landmarks of Montpellier. After a spot of window-shopping, sink back into a leather booth at The Fat Badger and enjoy some hearty food and a pint of local ale.
Why not start your Saturday by paying homage to Harrogate’s watery heritage at the Turkish Baths? Take a steam, soak and shower and bask in the heat as you admire the gloriously faux-Moorish style, all frescoed Islamic arches, glazed brickwork and mosaic floors.
Afterwards, revive yourself with a Yorkshire tea and perhaps a fat rascal at Bettys Café Tea Rooms, undoubtedly the grandest belle-époque café in the north.
Suitably refreshed, follow your nose to the Royal Pump Room Museum, where you can sniff the stinky waters of the Old Sulphur Well.
For a delicious light lunch, head to Baltzersen’s, a Scandinavian-inspired café that marries local flavours.
No fewer than 85 springs bubble up in Harrogate, 35 of them surfacing in the Valley Gardens, originally known as Bogs Field – a nod to the squelch created by those mineral founts. These gardens, linked with the Stray – a 200-acre swathe of parkland to the south and west of the centre – provide a verdant cushion around the town.
Take an invigorating saunter through the gardens and traverse the Pine Woods beyond to reach RHS Garden Harlow Carr where even now, in midwinter, you’ll discover vivacious hardy plants along the Winter Walk and follow historical trends in gardens from the Regency era to today.
Dinner can be as simple as fish and chips – try Graveley’s Seafood Restaurant on Cheltenham Parade – or as swanky as fine-dining temple Van Zeller, where locally sourced ingredients are transformed into innovative cuisine.
The tide of wealth that flowed into Harrogate with the waters funded the building of the Kursaal (now the Royal Hall) as well as a theatre – catch a show at one or other before retiring. You’ll want to conserve energy for the morning…
The Yorkshire Dales National Park is just a short hop away, and it would be criminal to resist a morning stroll. Park about half an hour’s drive from Harrogate at Bolton Abbey, a hamlet on the park’s south-eastern boundary. Here, the ruins of the 12th-century Bolton Priory, not to mention the Cavendish Pavilion tearooms and the Devonshire Arms Hotel, may tempt you.
Or you could set off along the River Wharfe (watch for dippers on the rocks). A gate beside Waterfall Cottage is the starting point for a nine mile (four-hour) loop up to Barden Fell’s finest viewpoint, traversing the Valley of Desolation, which was named after the devastation wreaked by a 1836 storm. Today it’s anything but desolate – a tree-lined glen through which Posforth Gill tumbles, stained the colour of builder’s tea with runoff from the moors above.
Climb on, across heather-purpled fells, to the trig point at Simon’s Seat, from where the Dales spread before you in a breathtaking panorama. Cut downhill to join the Dales Way and return to your car for the stretch north towards Ripon, lunching en route at the Boar’s Head at Ripley. Spend your afternoon at the ruins of Fountains Abbey, a Cistercian monastery founded in 1132 but abandoned after the Dissolution four centuries later, before heading back to Harrogate for an afternoon ale (one of 15 on tap) at the Old Bell.