I go out for a walk in town. I descend the first floor steps, out into the courtyard and under the archway which supports the working clock tower complete with signature weathervane. Apparently it was built by a man named Samson Fox – an ancestor, it turns out, of James and Edward Fox, for those of you who only believe in the value of something if it has a celebrity connection – as a stable block for Grove House with the intention of not only lodging the future King Edward VII’s horses on his visits to Yorkshire, but also to provide them with that modern essential, the equine Turkish bath.
As I step out onto the street pavement I instinctively look over to my left towards the house which a few months ago was the focus of intense concentration by the police. They were there for a good three days, a car parked adjacent to the house with two police officers standing behind it staring intently towards the house. The rest of the street was cordoned off and the residents were told ‘not to go out’. It transpired that a man inside the house was armed and refusing to come out. The residents became prisoners in their own homes for those two days or so. Today everything seems to be back to normal, apart from a mixed group of teenagers perched on the bench drinking what looks suspiciously like lager. Over the years they went from pesky children shouting abuse at passers-by to much more threatening near-adults.
In town I visit the only two bookshops, if you count WHSmith. They seem of late to have been invaded by books with emotive covers featuring angelic looking children and bearing titles which are variations on “Please Daddy No”. In the pedestrianised Cambridge Street, Rudy, the local ‘character’, walks around shouting into a karaoke machine what sounds like a rock version of Bright Eyes, stopping occasionally to chat to teenagers. On my walk, he is the only person to look me directly in the eyes and say hello. He calls me ‘brother’, which I haven’t been able to ascertain whether it is because of the connection between our skin tones or whether this is how he addresses everyone. On sunny days, he tends to sit in the middle of the walkway cross-legged and staring into the sun.
Harrogate seems to possess that dangerous combination of sheltered provinciality and a past associated with nobility and royalty. Indeed, one often has the impression that everything in Harrogate has a royal connection: streets, pubs, hotels, squares. Perhaps for this reason, it has always struck me as a town with ideas above its station; something acquired, no doubt, through hundreds of years of royal schmoozing. In the days when its foul-tasting sulphur and iron rich water was seen as a blanket cure for any illness beyond the grasp of medicine’s rather petite hands, it became a haven for medical lost causes, not least the members of whichever royal household happened to be reigning at the time. They still come now, though no longer to drink the water. Prince Charles visits every year, apparently, on Valentine’s Day. I’ve seen him in one such occasion, coming out of Betty’s tearooms to plant a tree in the Cenotaph square under the adoring gaze of a crowd of royal groupies frantically waving their miniature Union Jacks.
Nowadays Harrogate has little more to boast about than the International Conference Centre and the Great Yorkshire Show, which plays havoc with the already heavy traffic system. But its previous history has left its citizens with a disproportional level of hubris and quaint old-fashioned values. In the cafes, demure old ladies daintily eat their sponge cakes and sip their tea, while no doubt discussing the latest royal visit and speculating on the next one. For me, Harrogate’s a rather neat metaphor for life: you shuffle between banks and shops, ignoring the significance of the war memorial, until eventually, overcome with tiredness, you end up down in the Valley Gardens for a long rest.
When I return home, I notice the teenagers have dispersed. As I reach the archway entrance, I see a girl crouched down, her back against the wall. She looks like she is in trouble and I prepare to ask if she needs help. But as I approach, I notice a stream filling in the gaps between the smooth cobbles, the source of which appears to be somewhere under her skirt. Steam rises from it like fog hovering over a river. She looks up and sees me, and although she reacts in a suitably sheepish manner, manages simply to say: