Harrogate’s jolly genes: what makes the happiest town in England so smiley?

For the third year in a row, Harrogate was voted England’s happiest town in 2015. Meera Dattani finds out what about this North Yorkshire town makes it such a smiley stronghold.

“You have to go to Bettys,” everyone says. “And you have to go to the Turkish Baths.”

Champagne bubbles, three tiers of sandwiches, scones and cakes, pianist tinkling away, and views of picturesque Harrogate… Betty’s Tea Room does deserve its reputation. You might want to raise a glass to the Duchess of Bedford too, who allegedly invented afternoon tea after finding the gap between lunch and dinner too long, the poor thing.

Harrogate, in North Yorkshire, found fame as a spa town and people flocked to ‘take the waters’ after William Slingsby discovered the first natural spring back in 1571.

But tea rooms and Turkish Baths aside, what is its X factor? Victoria Turner who runs The Harrogate Girl blog says, “It’s like living in a bubble of happiness.

“I’ve often thought about that ‘something’, but it’s not just one thing that makes Harrogate so special.”

As a first-timer, what stands out is that independent businesses thrive here. Take the town’s cafés and bars.

There’s Bean & Bud, Harrogate’s first speciality coffee shop in 2010 on Commercial Street, (a magnet for independent shops) and new arrivals such as espresso bar LMDC on John Street, Slingsby’s Harrogate owned by an ex-social worker, and North Bar, part of a north England chain of cycle-friendly bars.

When a lot of creative people do interesting things, you feel it.

North Bar opened its Harrogate branch in February 2016 and serves craft beers and Prosecco on tap in the evenings. This dual identity is also something of a trend. Café/bar Hoxton North, vision of a London couple who moved to Harrogate, hosts evening films and talks in their ‘Hoxton North Presents’ programme, while Slingsby’s is experimenting with comedy and art events in its upstairs space.

“When a lot of creative people do interesting things, you feel it,” says one local. At the Spirit of Harrogate in the Montpellier Quarter, their artisan Slingsby gin is proving a hit.

“Our rhubarb gin was a Christmas bestseller,” says mixologist Alex Hanson. The retail store is open for tastings, but call ahead to see the gin exhibition upstairs.

For excellent cocktails, head next door to the Blues Bar’s new gin room or the recently renovated West Park Hotel. At this boutique property – converted from a Victorian coach house – it’s locals as well as guests who head to the buzzy bar, especially at weekends, while reservations are required for the highly-rated restaurant which uses fresh Yorkshire ingredients in its dishes.

The queerest place with the strangest people in it leading the oddest lives – Charles Dickens

There’s an offbeat independent restaurant scene too. At the innovative Yorkshire Meatball Company the speciality is hand-rolled, gluten-free meat, fish and veggie ‘fake’ balls – and even the desserts come sphere-shaped – while Major Tom’s Social, above Space’s vintage and retro fashion and homeware emporium, offers craft beers and sourdough pizzas among vintage pinball machines and retro board games.

Locals love Baltzersens’ Scandinavian-inspired menu by day; at night, it operates as Norse, serving Scandinavian-Yorkshire fusion such as poached Skrei cod with smoked whey-baked parsnip.

Filmore & Union also moves effortlessly from homemade granola and gluten-free cakes to a dinner menu of pistachio-crusted halibut and squash and wild risotto. Upstairs, they’re experimenting with events such as Moroccan evenings and tapas nights.

Innovation and tradition sit side-by-side

Tim Thomson who runs boutique serviced apartments Phoenix Rooms next door says, “Harrogate has a village feel, city style and open countryside. It’s quaint, cosmopolitan and everything in between.”

Innovation and tradition sit comfortably side-by-side. The Royal Pump Rooms Museum charts Harrogate’s life as a spa town; you can smell the eggy water at the entrance desk. Regulations forbid tastings, but an outside tap still works, so many have a quick taste and ignore the warning signs.

There’s also plenty of green space. The open grassland of The Stray covers 200 acres and is the site of the Tewit Well where William Slingsby discovered the first spring. Around March, around seven million crocuses come into bloom and locals walk, picnic and fly kites here.

Valley Gardens’s café and Art Deco pavilion are another plus and a 45-minute walk through the Pinewoods woodlands leads to the impressive gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Harlow Carr.

Harrogate is perfectly positioned for an escape to the country

Harrogate is perfectly positioned for the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Under an hour away in the Upper Nidderdale valley is How Stean Gorge, a limestone ravine where Stan and Ann Beer run an activity centre offering gorge scrambling, caving and abseiling. They also operate one of the UK’s few Via Ferrata high-wire courses.

Harrogate locals get their thrills high up, gorge rushing below, clipping a carabiner to a cable, and wondering how they’ll stretch across the rock face to the next footrest.

“I work in Leeds but live in Harrogate,” another local says. “I love it. Great indie bars, Yorkshire Dales on your doorstep.”

There’s certainly something in the water, and it’s not just the sulphur. There’s even local love for a bus route; several people mention the number 36, between Leeds and Ripon, via Harrogate, as their favourite for its free wifi and USB hubs. Now that’s contentment.

Explore more of England with the Rough Guide to England. Learn more about Harrogate at visitharrogate.co.uk. Virgin Trains East Coast run direct trains from London King’s Cross to Harrogate. Compare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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