Charlotte Eggleston-Johnstone is a freelance travel editor and writer whose work for The Telegraph took her to London for many years. Now based back in her home town of Harrogate, we asked her how the city had changed and what she’d recommend to anyone planning a visit.
I left Harrogate in 2009 vowing never to return, and packed my uni bags for somewhere much grittier: London. My mother was adamant I’d be back ─ not because she wanted me close, or anything, but because she knew how special this town would feel once I was away from it all. Having spent many a holiday here as a young girl, she’d experienced the pull herself.
I lasted 13 years. After meeting my husband in Harrogate the summer after I’d moved away (typical), we went through the motions of a lengthy long-distance relationship while I took on a permanent desk job at Telegraph Travel. In 2022 I decided to up sticks and embrace suburban family life.
What drew me back? I see a lot of the world as a travel writer, penning articles about fort hotels in India, remote retreats in Iceland and honeymoon hideaways in Indonesia ─ but nothing quite compares to watching the seasons sweep across every cranny of the Dales. I’ve dabbled in writing about Yorkshire but with so much to explore in Harrogate and the wider historical county I couldn’t wait to get out there properly with my notebook.
Returning permanently was a bizarre experience. It was wonderful to be home again ─ and so near family and old friends ─ though things had definitely changed. The nightlife, café culture, events scene, home-grown brands and sports profile had all evolved (and continue to do so) but the biggest difference was the high street.
The effects of online shopping, the pandemic and the cost of living crisis systematically took their toll on the big brands and high-end boutiques of town, particularly those aimed at younger people. Empty shop windows continue to pop up like whac-a-mole without much warning. But with change comes opportunity, and an influx of independent cafés, bars and restaurants have moved in. The eating and drinking scene is currently booming, lifting the status of pockets like Cold Bath Road, King’s Road and Westmoreland.
“You can spend a day on Cold Bath Road alone,” local resident Helen Pepper tells me. “Little cafés pop up, and bistros. Then the mums come over for lunch, it really makes these areas into their own little destinations.” Emma Ashurst, owner of the Dogs Bakery and Café in Westmoreland, echoes this. “I opened in this area because it’s such a dog-friendly place and many pet owners love walking their dogs up to the Stray for its lovely green space,” she says. “It feels like a little community, and the people are so super friendly.”
This treat-laden caff, along with Bettys (of course), Hoxton North for artisanal coffee, Caffe Massarella for excellent cannoli and Tilly Peppers for its wonderful family-friendly vibe are where I regularly get my Elevenses. For a place that has always been stacked with identikit chain restaurants ─ mainly because of the conference centre ─ this uprising is a very welcome side effect indeed.
That’s not to say that you can’t find amazing, unique restaurants in Harrogate. I highly recommend the William & Victoria and The Tannin Level for hearty British cooking, the Drum & Monkey for elevated seafood dishes, Sasso for smart Italian cuisine and the Thai Orchid for pan-Asian plates ─ but these have all been around for a good while.
Home to a number of big breweries and small micro-breweries, Harrogate has also become widely known for its craft beer credentials. With this, a wave of independent bars have opened, kicked off in a mainstream way with the openings of The Harrogate Tap in 2013 and North Bar and the Little Ale House in 2016, all well worth a visit for a brewski.
Capturing this hoppy zeitgeist is Husk, which started life as a bottle shop on King’s Road and is now a fully fledged bar with live music and quiz nights. They work with other well-treasured independent outlets including Thug Sandwich, Pizza Social and Baltserzens to bring bites to drinkers’ tables.
“The indy wave has exploded over the last 10 years,” one of the owners, Joe Duckworth, tells me. “At Husk we feel there’s a new generation coming through ─ less guarded and more open to collaborate… It feels like craft beer has come home to the UK over the last decade and places like Harrogate have woken up and embraced it”.
Pubs and bars
With some open as late (or early) as 3am, bars have overtaken clubs, and last December (2022) we lost Viper Rooms, the last one in Harrogate. Before I left, nightlife was booming; our 18-year-old selves would start at Wetherspoon in the historic and beautiful Royal Baths (still here), before moving across the courtyard to Revolution and then over to Moko Lounge before 11pm to avoid the entry fee.
John’s Street was the place to be in warm weather as crowds from Pitcher & Piano and Banyan’s would gather on the cobbles in what felt like a huge al fresco house party ─ and if you felt like a few potent cocktails, it was Lemon Drops and Flaming Lamborghinis in Monteys, arguably the coolest rock bar in the north. Happily, these establishments are still there ─ good news for the hen, stag and golfing parties that still frequent the town at weekends.
It’s not just the nightlife that draws crowds. Affluent empty nesters and coach parties looking for a cultural British weekend away head here for the galleries, goldleaf-festooned Royal Hall (which finally reopened in 2008), Turkish Baths, excellent walking and big-time events. For the first time since the pandemic, hotel occupancy figures have mostly exceeded 2019, according to Destination Harrogate. Though there’s a little way to go to reach the luxury heights of other towns and cities, a lot of investment has trickled into the once-fusty hotel offering here and a cluster of boutique guesthouses have popped up. Country house hotels on the peripherals of the town have upped the luxe with fancy spas and Michelin-starred restaurants.
“Harrogate is one of those towns that brilliantly balances a rich history and heritage with offering modern facilities via luxury hotels and some fantastic restaurant and bar offerings,” local hotelier Simon Cotton affirms to me. Over the last decade Mr Cotton has innovated the offering at White Hart Hotel and The Yorkshire hotel with the opening of the award-winning Fat Badger in the former, and the Pickled Sprout bar and restaurant in the latter.
The spa town has also been home to some huge international events like the Tour de France in 2014 (the finish line of the first stage was here), and the UCI Road World Cycling Championships in 2019. When visiting, it’s worth tying in dates with one of the home-grown events like the renowned Crime Writing Festival which has just celebrated its 20th anniversary, the Carnival, or the Harrogate Literature Festival (2012) for a great experience.
“The festival landscape has changed dramatically since 2009,” says Sharon Canavar, chief executive of Harrogate International Festivals. Like me, Ms Canavar grew up in the town with the exception of a few years away for uni and London. “Of course the pandemic hit cultural events hard and we are only just getting back up to speed ─ but there are exciting times ahead for the Festivals and the town,” she adds.The cycling events have left a particular legacy, not only in the sculptures dotted around but with many accessible cycling routes from the doorstep. One of these is the Harrogate-Ripley Nidderdale Greenway (also popular with wheelchair users, horse riders and walkers), a large chunk of which opened in 2014 and has been highly successful. Plans to extend this all the way to Pateley Bridge are in the pipeline, which will create an amazing walk/cycle across the countryside.
There really is something for everyone here. To get to grips with the town I highly recommend a free walking tour by local chap Harry. He’ll take you through the history, past main attractions like the Pump Museums and Valley Gardens, with lots of humorous anecdotes along the way. I joined him a few weeks ago and was surprised about how much I learned. You can come to Harrogate several times, or even grew up here, and always learn something new when you visit.
You can easily reach Harrogate from the A1 in 20 minutes, but it’s possible to travel car-free. Since 2011, direct trains from London have been serving Harrogate, with several regular LNER services running daily. This has been a game-changer for both tourists and locals. You can also reach cities like York and Leeds directly, with further connections to Britain’s main cities. Harrogate bus station is well connected, too. You can reach Leeds-Bradford airport seven days a week with the Flyer bus, as well as market towns like Wetherby, Knaresborough, Pateley Bridge, Skipton, and the city of Ripon. Until December 31 2024 most of these routes will only charge £2 for a single.