Synonymous with spa tourism, Harrogate has two orchestras, a Victorian opera house and one too many quaint tea rooms. What it didn’t have, until 2 August 2020, was a team in the Football League.
A century after their ground at Wetherby Road opened, long-term residents Harrogate Town made history by beating the world’s oldest professional club, Notts County, at a play-off decider for league status. For the Sulphurites, an earlier decision to turn professional had been critical. The man who made it, Town chairman Irving Weaver, is a key figure in this success story, along with his son Simon, the manager. A journeyman centre-half for 14 clubs, the last one Harrogate Town, Simon Weaver was joined in 2011 by his father, whose business acumen had made him rich running the family’s building firm established by his grandfather in 1919.
With the Weavers in charge on and off the pitch, Town escaped the shackles of the sixth-tier National League North to rise all the way to Wembley. A wobble on the way, in 2017, convinced the father-and-son team that full-time was the only way to go. Three years later, League Two beckoned.
Wetherby Road, meanwhile, required natural turf for Football League games to be played there. After a few weeks of finding their feet in Doncaster, Town returned home to the renamed EnviroVent Stadium on Wetherby Road, now stripped of its 3G surface.
There are several ways to illustrate the extent of Town’s achievement. In September 2020, they faced top-flight WBA in the League Cup, almost exactly three years after opposing Alfreton Town in the Northern Premier. Derby games are also a different category. For Town in 2019-20, the closest League Two team Bradford City were League Cup finalists in 2013. But for decades, Town’s local rivals were Harrogate Railway Athletic FC.
‘The Rail’ play at Station View – not by the main terminal just east of the city centre but by Starbeck station further east. Wetherby Road leads south-east, 1.5km from town. The clubs’ paths crossed many times in the Yorkshire Leagues and Northern Counties East Leagues, though The Rail broke new ground in the FA Cup a decade before Town. Two runs to the Second Round in 2002 and 2007 ended in heroic defeats to Football League teams in classic cup style, the first in front of live Sky TV cameras. The Rail ran out to a Station View augmented by three temporary stands at a cost of £40,000 to raise capacity to 3,500 for the visit of Bristol City. There was no altering its sloping pitch, though, nor the outcome, five years later when a second-half comeback by Mansfield in thick mud reversed the score to 2-3.
Incongruously represented by a beaver and misspelled Latin motto on their club crest, Harrogate Railway have long been left behind by their local rivals, even before the Weavers boarded the Town train. To reach the home of HRAFC, either take the half-hourly rail service from Harrogate train station to Starbeck (£3, 4min journey time) or frequent bus Nos.1A-E from stands 10/11 of Harrogate bus station to Starbeck Crossing, journey time 10mins.
Leeds-Bradford Airport is 19km (12 miles) from Harrogate, connected by hourly Transdev FLYER bus No.A2, journey time 35-45mins. The £5 ticket includes travel all that day on Transdev Harrogate Bus Company services. Airport-recommended Arrow Cars quote £30 for the same journey. A train from London King’s Cross (advance singles around £30) takes 3hrs with one change at Leeds or 2hrs 45mins if direct.
Harrogate’s adjoining bus and train stations are just east of town. Wetherby Road runs further east, either a 15-20min walk or bus journey with Transdev. Local Mainline Taxis (01423 555 555) are based by the bus/train stations.
The nearest hotel to Wetherby Road, the four-star Cedar Court on Park Parade, dates back to 1671. An elegant dining room, a gym and affordable parking are its main attractions. Just the other side of the station on Ripon Road, the DoubleTree by Hilton Majestic exudes grandeur, a classic spa hotel of 1889 vintage, its health complex set in landscaped gardens. This is honeymoon material luxury.
Right in town, the landmark Crown Hotel on Crown Place belies its stately surroundings with a three-star status and one-night offers of just over £100 for two with breakfast. Just off Royal Parade, the smart White Hart Hotel is just as well known for its Fat Badger restaurant as its neat rooms and apartments. Doubles start at £49.
In keeping with Harrogate’s classy style, pubs are characterised by the likes of The Alexandra on Prospect Place, with quality kitchen in a converted 19th-century hotel, and the nearby ornate Harrogate Arms on Parliament Street. Both offer TV sports. A few doors along, party-focused Manhatta is a different kind of chic, all cocktails and bright lights. Opposite on The Ginnel, Major Tom’s Social is trying a little too hard to be funky but its plentiful craft beers, stone-baked pizzas and retro-tinged entertainment cannot be gainsaid.
On Royal Parade, The Old Bell serves cask ales in a pre-Napoleonic coaching inn – on the next street over, Crescent Road, gas-lit Hales Bar is the oldest pub in Harrogate, no idle boast. Terrestrial TVs show sport. At the train station, the only part of the original 1862 building has since been given a smart makeover to become the Harrogate Tap, where a whole world of beers and ales is poured from 12 handpulls and 15 taps.