Harrogate and West Park Hotel
In its heyday, Harrogate was a bustling, genteel spa town; an almost compulsory item on the “must visit” agenda of the well-heeled late Georgian and Victorian, whereat they undertook a daily routine of social and medical visits: long walks and baths and treatments, luncheons, teas and leisurely letter-writing and paper-reading sessions that sound rather attractive to those trapped in today’s frenetic lifestyle.
Much of Harrogate’s extensive spa heritage can still be seen and visited, including various of the old Victorian spa buildings. The Pump Room now houses a museum, dedicated to telling the story of Harrogate, and with a number of artefacts on display – including a rather sinister-looking Bath Chair (and one can peer down at the lid of one of the original wells). Rather bizarrely, however, the most extensive and interesting displays were of Roman pots and Egyptology – including a complete and beautifully painted sarcophagus! I would recommend any visitor to take the Heritage Spa trail: a walk around the town taking one past all the spa buildings – too many of which, alas, are now Weatherspoons pubs and Chinese restaurants. In the Valley Gardens, one finds peace and beauty, and an abundance of old well heads and springs and spa-related items; as well as impressive flower displays. I would also strongly recommend visiting the Visit Harrogate website when planning a visit, which offers a wealth of information on what to do and where to eat and stay in the area.
The town is full of tempting-looking places to eat: little brassieres and intriguing ancient pubs and hotels are to be found in the narrow streets around the Pump Room, whilst larger chains can be found around the station area. We ate at Carluccio’s one cold and drizzly evening (despite it being August!), where we found reasonably priced food, a swift turn-around, and a decent bottle of house red, although the food erred on the side of blandness, my husband’s pollo Milanese and my cold bocconcini wrapped in Parma ham especially. The trio of tasting plates was more successful, with flavoursome arancini and bruschettine. Most of all, we enjoyed being in the warm, gazing out at the statue of Queen Victoria in the growing gloom outside.
A more impressive meal can be found at West Park Hotel, which is situated on one of the main roads into Harrogate, just a very short walk from the centre and which faces out over the large verdant green. Newly re-opened and very modern, trendy and colourful, it was perhaps more suited to hip youngsters than to young traditionalists such as ourselves – and we found the constant popular music playing in the restaurant area / bar intrusive and distressing, yet we were nevertheless appreciated the fine quality of the fare on offer.
The restaurant opens on to West Park itself – the hotel is behind and above, with a very modest reception – just a single desk by the lift, making it feel very much a “city” hotel. The predominant colours in the restaurant are a vivid dark turquoise, in which banquettes, chairs, walls and separating screens are painted; silver – of the broken circle patterns emblazoned on the walls and the marked, very industrial ceiling; and the dark wood of the floor and bare tables. The menu is good – smallish, but with a range of tempting dishes of a variety of meats and fish, as well as a special type of grill for further piscatorian and carnivoran dishes. An amuse bouche of tomato and basil soup was brought shortly after we had taken ours seats. My husband enjoyed this, although it was slightly too tart for my palate. I started with the goats cheese and beetroot salad – the goats cheese was mild and springy, with a slightly mousse-like texture, and the beetroot was presented in various ways – both golden and traditional purple version of the vegetable were delicately and well-cooked, so as to be tender and melting, whilst the purple variety was also finely sliced and presented very crispy, thus providing different textures. Mr Marshall-Luck opted for the Yorkshire black pudding salad with bacon and quails eggs and pronounced this an extremely good and interesting blend of textures and flavours; the soft springiness of the black pudding contrasting admirably with the crunchiness of the bacon. The quails eggs were cooked perfectly: soft-boiled and delicately flavoured. My rump of Dales lamb was also excellent – succulent and tasty, with its baby vegetable accompaniments working well, and the white bean and smoked garlic puree utterly delicious (more of this, please!). The Gressingham Duck with wild mushrooms and carrots was also given top marks – the duck itself was really rather splendid – very flavoursome, with the natural taste of the duck being brought out by judicious salting; and it was nicely cooked, as well – just very slightly pink, so that it was all rather tender. Young master Tristan went for the child’s fish and chips and managed admirably, so we presume that this was also good (it was certainly a decent portion); and the goats cheese that I finished with, and my husband’s sticky toffee pudding were also of the finest quality.
I was also impressed by the wine list, which offers an excellent range of wines from a large variety of countries. We went for a Pintoage from the Rhebokskloof vineyards in South Africa: a combination of mourvedre, Grenache and shiraz. The first taste of this was slightly thin and sour but as it breathed, it swiftly developed into a complex and truly fascinating wine. Deep purple in colour with a full and intense nose of ash, spice and dark forest fruits, the taste offers an immediate spicy bite of blackcurrants overlaid with plenty of pepper and some chilli, followed by more mellow flavours of ash. A remarkably intense wine and one of the spiciest I’ve ever tasted.
We were staying at the hotel as well, and so after dinner retired to our “Wharfe Suite” – more of a large bedroom than a suite. The bathroom is quite spacious, with a very deep, albeit deceptively short bath and a rainfall shower which again looked impressive but wasn’t as large as it appeared. The room features a very comfortable large and high bed and a sitting / dining area beyond the bed, with a circular dining table and sofa. French windows open out on to the balcony, although one is prevented from walking out thereon by a large Perspex sheet. The view gives out over the large, leafy green, which is pleasant, although the proximity of the main road made us fear for a noisy night with traffic going past – and this did mean that we had to have the windows closed all night. As it so happened, any traffic noise audible through the windows was drowned out by the air conditioning. The colours of the room were again modern and generally neutral, although a burst of blue on the large wavy bed-head lent a splash of vibrancy.
At breakfast, the menu offered the full range of cooked breakfasts and egg varieties, as well as there being a buffet of breads and pastries, cereals and juices. Over the few days of our stay we tried smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, eggs Benedict and poached egg with smoked salmon. All of these were fine and of good quality, if not the exceptional standard of cuisine that we found at dinner.
West Park Hotel certainly made for a very good base for us, being located close enough to the centre of town to allow easy access, whilst also facilitating a pleasing short leg-stretching walk in. The food was undoubtedly very good, and we found the room comfortable, clean and relaxing – the only downside were the noise every time we walked through the restaurant and bar areas to the front, and the lack of dedicated parking!
With thanks to Visit Harrogate for organising this press trip.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s food and wine critic