All roads lead to ... Harrogate
The elegant spa town of Harrogate is an unbeatable base for an active short break. Gillian Thornton enjoyed a girlie weekend of chic shops, spectacular countryside and the ultimate in self-catering apartments
The decision over lunch was not so much what to do, as what we ought to do first. Having abandoned our husbands in favour of a well-deserved girlie weekend, my best friend and I were going to see how much Yorkshire we could pack into one three-night break. A first-time visit for her; a welcome return for me.
And now, here we were, faced with the first major decision. With February temperatures in unseasonal double figures, we were eager to get out and explore – but which way? Head off in any direction from Harrogate and within an hour’s drive you can be hiking the hills, browsing shops, or taking in some of Britain’s most spectacular heritage sights. And, of course, there’s Harrogate itself, the spa town where urban elegance meets local agriculture head on. The Great Yorkshire Showground is only a bus ride away from the town’s historic pump room and modern exhibition hall, the upmarket fashion stores and top quality restaurants.
Sands Farm Cottages,
Wilton, nr Pickering
Vivers Mill Cottage,
Easily accessible from all points of the compass, Harrogate nestles snugly between the two National Parks of the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors, each offering its own trademark brand of unspoilt scenery. And whilst rural tourist attractions in many areas often close down during the winter months, there are plenty of places open here to fill an out-of-season break.
If you prefer shopping to scenery, city restaurants to country pubs, or are simply unlucky enough to catch bad weather, you’ll find Leeds only 20 minutes away to the south, York a mere 20 miles to the east. But stay where we stayed and you might not want to go anywhere at all.
Luxury in Yorkshire
Rudding Gates offers all the luxury of a five-star hotel with the space and freedom of a private home, which is why, in 2007, it won the Self Catering Holiday of the Year title at the Yorkshire Tourist Board’s White Rose Awards. Just three miles outside Harrogate, in the pretty village of Follifoot, its two apartments are located either side of the former entrance to Rudding Park, now an upmarket country hotel and golf club.
The ‘wow’ factor begins the moment you drive under the mellow stone Regency arch, leave your vehicle in the private car park, and step through the front door into the spacious entrance hall. With underfloor heating throughout, flatscreen televisions in the living room and bedrooms, and every contemporary convenience, this is more than just a home from home. It’s better than home.
My own bathroom isn’t stocked with Molton Brown toiletries. The china and glassware doesn’t gleam in my family kitchen. And I certainly don’t get to sleep alone in crisp king-sized sheets. We had no intention of using the pristine oven on our break from domesticity but we instantly made use of the champagne glasses as we plotted our weekend over a celebratory drink.
With a bright winter’s afternoon ahead of us, we stretched our legs with a visit to Harlow Carr, the Royal Horticultural Society gardens on the edge of Harrogate. Every season offers new delights, and we spent a pleasant hour wandering the gravel paths, marvelling at miniature alpines in the glasshouses, and browsing the extensive shop and tea room – a branch of the legendary Bettys of Harrogate.
Tea in Harrogate
‘Head off in any direction from Harrogate and within an hour’s drive you can be hiking the hills, browsing shops, or taking in some of Britain’s most spectacular heritage sights’
Driving on into town, we crossed the wide open common called The Stray where swaths of gold and purple crocuses were coming into bloom. First stop, Bettys Café Tea Rooms at the top of Montpellier Parade, a must-visit whether you stop to eat or simply to buy delicious cakes, breads and blended teas from staff dressed in traditional black and white uniforms. Visit in the evening or on Sunday morning and there’s the added bonus of a resident pianist.
Montpellier Parade and the adjacent Montpellier Street are home to numerous galleries and antique shops. Turn into Parliament Street to visit beautiful Westminster Arcade with its original small shops, then into Cambridge Street and James Street for a wealth of high street retailers. For the ultimate end to any retail therapy day, pre-book yourself a steam session or beauty treatment at Harrogate’s Turkish Baths.
Or you could do as we did and treat yourself to dinner at The General Tarleton Inn at Ferrensby, an easy drive from Rudding Gates through Knaresborough. Another local award winner, this village brasserie last year scooped Yorkshire Pub of the Year in their White Rose Awards, as well as Best Use of Regional Produce on the Menu in the Deliciously Yorkshire Awards.
The tables are well spaced out and split into small groups by original stone walls, which makes for an intimate and relaxing meal. Service is friendly and the kitchen majors on top quality seasonal produce from local farmers. Our menu included oak roast hot smoked salmon from nearby Nidderdale; confit of Dales lamb; pork and chive sausages from Ilkley; and locally farmed venison. We still lick our lips at the thought at our dessert, a trio of seasonal rhubarb with miniature portions of brulée, crumble and compôte. Glorious.
Next day began in Knaresborough with a stroll through the ruined castle on the hilltop high above the River Nidd, before taking the half hour drive to the bustling market town of Thirsk. The main attraction here is 23 Kirkgate, former home and veterinary surgery of Alf White – internationally loved as author James Herriot.
Tour the living room, surgery and kitchen, restored as it would have looked when the White family lived here, and learn about veterinary practice past and present with a range of interactive exhibits and artefacts. But be warned, some of the tools aren’t for those of squeamish disposition. Fans of the TV series can relive their favourite moments in a mock TV studio and watch a film about the real Alf White narrated by actor Christopher Timothy.
Alf always maintained that the best view in England was from the top of nearby Sutton Bank, a steep escarpment on the edge of the Hambleton Hills that acts as gateway to the North York Moors National Park. Pick up a book of circular walks from any local tourist office.
Follow the bottom of the escarpment to the pretty village of Kilburn, tucked beneath the hillside of White Horse Bank. The chalk horse was cut out of the turf in 1857 and forms the backdrop to the Mouseman Visitor Centre where craftsman Robert Thompson established his furniture workshops in the early 20th century; his trademark, a small mouse carved on every individual piece.
This area is dotted with picturesque stone villages. Coxwold with its broad main street; Byland with its ruined abbey, now in the hands of English Heritage; and Ampleforth, home to the famous boys’ boarding school.
Perennially popular with visitors ancient and modern is Helmsley, a delightful small town with a huge market square on the main road between Thirsk and Scarborough. You could happily spend an hour or two browsing the craft shops and market stalls or relaxing in one of its many teashops, but don’t miss the sweeping views from the atmospheric ruins of the 12th century castle nor the monastic splendour of Rievaulx Abbey – both maintained by English Heritage.
Tucked away in the valley of the river Rye, Rievaulx was the first Cistercian Abbey in the north of England and must have been an arresting sight with its white-washed walls standing out against the wooded hillside. Today the tint has long since gone but the grey stone is no less spectacular as you wander the roofless nave and contemplate the men who found peace and prayer in this glorious location.
Surrendered to Henry VIII in 1538 during the dissolution of the monasteries, Rievaulx Abbey was rendered unusable so the monks weren’t tempted to return, but today these romantic ruins are as powerful as ever. For a bird’s-eye view, stroll the grassy expanse of Rievaulx Terraces above – National Trust, Easter to October only.
Yorkshire is dotted with ruined abbeys, all spectacular in their own way, but few as internationally famous as Fountains Abbey near Ripon, another easy drive from our base at Rudding Gates. The largest monastic ruin in Britain, the 12th century Cistercian abbey has UNESCO World Heritage Site status and is one of the National Trust’s most visited properties, along with the adjacent Georgian water gardens of Studley Royal.
But there’s still room for all among the vast complex of majestic stonework, breathtaking from any angle and in all weathers, but especially in clear winter sunshine behind a carpet of early snowdrops. Don’t miss the only surviving 12th century Cistercian corn mill or the wonderful animated video The Silent Years about the trials and tribulations of a novice monk who just can’t get things right. Hilarious and instructive in equal measure.
Fountains Abbey lies on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales and we had time to include a scenic circuit through Pateley Bridge and up Nidderdale where early lambs bleated from gentle hillsides bisected by drystone walls. How Stean Gorge is fun for families who can explore the narrow waterway in complete safety, whilst bird watchers will enjoy the walks and viewpoints around Gouthwaite Reservoir.
Stopping off at Masham to visit the workshops of Uredale Glass and browse yet another market, we headed for Ripon to visit a church with a roof for a change. Ripon Cathedral has many claims to fame including an impressive collection of 16th century silverware and the Ripon Jewel, a Saxon roundel thought to have decorated a seventh century Gospel book.
But for me, it was the White Rabbit that clinched it. The father of children’s author Lewis Carroll was a Canon here and young Lewis drew much of his inspiration from the carved beasts on the choir stall seats. Look out for the griffon chasing a rabbit on the end seat and the other small rabbit diving down a hole. Magical stuff.
Heading home through the enchanting village of Ripley, sadly we had no time to visit the castle and deer park, though we did manage to stock up on old-fashioned sweets and a fashionable deli supper at the quaint Ripley Store. Then it was back to Rudding Gates for a last night in our home-that-is-better-than-home to talk girl-talk and decide what to do on our next visit. Perfect end or what?
Where we stayed
Want to know more?
Eating out: The General Tarleton Inn, Ferrensby, tel 01423 340284.