I could tell you that I wanted to visit Harrogate because it’s an 18th Century historic market town. I could pretend that the majestic Fountains Abbey was at the top of my ‘to do’ list. Or I could say that it was the Turkish baths and beautiful gardens and that drew me there. But I’d be lying.
It was all about the cake.
I can often be found munching my way through cucumber finger sandwiches and strawberry tarts on the London afternoon tea scene, but had never before made it to the ultimate Northern purveyor of this delectable English tradition. Betty’s Tea Rooms in Harrogate.
Betty’s Afternoon Tea in Harrogate
Betty’s Tea Room has been serving afternoon tea to peckish ladies (and gentlemen) since 1919, when Harrogate was a highly fashionable spa town. Nearly 100 years later Betty’s is still going strong, and if you’re a lady who lunches, a visit here should definitely be on your cake radar.
For the quintessential Betty’s afternoon tea experience, I decided it would be a girls only weekend away. Strictly no boys allowed. Hubbie didn’t make too much of a fuss, no doubt relishing a few days of peace and quiet (although he did enjoy his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory afternoon tea at One Aldwych last year).
My friend and I had sensibly made an advance reservation at Betty’s Tea Rooms. We smugly sauntered past all the hopefuls waiting patiently in the long queue snaking down the street, and were immediately shown up to the tea room. After taking our jackets to the cloakroom (oh so posh!) the waitress took us to what had to be the best seats in the house. Clearly they knew we were coming. It felt so very English to be sitting looking out of the window over the gardens, whilst listening to soft strains of Beethoven interchanged with the Beatles from the pianist in the corner of the room. I wondered if he did requests. In a previous life I wanted to be a cruise ship pianist until I realised most people preferred rock and roll to Rachmaninoff. My piano teacher would come out in a cold sweat if I dared to suggest playing anything other than Mozart.
We spent the next hour or so happily scoffing all the usual suspects (some with an unusually subtle Yorkshire twist) and daintily sipping on our Jasmine Blossom Tea. They have over 50 different teas and coffees to try at Betty’s Tearooms, if cake isn’t incentive enough. Betty’s afternoon tea didn’t have the razzmatazz of many of those I’ve experienced in London. Yet whilst the clientele were just as likely to be sporting blue rinses and stockings as they were high heels and lippy, the experience was quite the epitome of this quirky English tradition.
It didn’t need bells and whistles to make it special.
In case you haven’t had quite enough cake for one day, don’t forget to pop into the shop on your way out to salivate over the 300 different varieties of breads, buns and chocolates on offer. I hoped the bumblebee shaped chocolate would get me back in Hubbie’s good books after I’d left him at home without so much as a Victoria sponge for company.
After we’d eaten our fill it was time to explore Harrogate and the surrounding area. We felt we ought to at least earn our cake.
Things to do in Harrogate
In it’s 18th Century heyday, the spa town of Harrogate was quite the place to be seen. It was frequented by the affluent who flocked here to enjoy the extravagant hotels, manicured parks and of course to take the waters. Today, Harrogate is still a fashionable place with designer shops, gourmet restaurants and a thriving arts scene.
The Royal Pump Room
You shouldn’t miss the Royal Pump Room Museum in the centre of Harrogate. Here you can see the strongest sulphur wells in Europe and find out just why 15,000 people used to come and take the famous waters each summer. It was so popular that in 1911 the Tsarina Alexandra of Russia visited! The Royal Pump Room was built in 1842 to provide shelter for wealthy spa visitors. After the advent of the National Health Service after World War II the waters became less fashionable and eventually the Pump Room closed. It is now a museum showing the rather intriguing (and sometimes rather painful looking) history of the spa.
For the ultimate traditional spa experience, book yourself into Harrogate’s Turkish Baths and Health Spa in the town centre, just a couple of minutes walk from Betty’s Tea Rooms. That’s if you haven’t been thoroughly freaked out by all the spa contraptions you’ve seen in the museum!
There are lots of treatments on offer, including several alternative therapies as well as the popular Turkish spa body ritual.
Mercer Art Gallery
The Mercer Art Gallery has changing exhibitions of photography, art, and crafts, and is home to a fine art collection with over 2000 19th and 20th Century pieces, including works by Atkinson Grimshaw and William Powell Frith.
As well as being known for it’s spa heritage, Harrogate also boasts some impressive parks, perfect for a post Betty’s afternoon tea stroll. In summer the floral displays are stunning, and the whole town is awash in a carpet of colour.
Further afield are the formal gardens of traditional British stately homes. One of the most popular is the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Harlow Carr, just outside Harrogate.
Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Gardens
If there’s one place you shouldn’t miss in the Harrogate area, it’s Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Gardens. Tucked away in the beautiful Skell Valley, this Georgian pleasure park and abbey ruin are one of the most well known UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Britain.
It’s easy to see why.
Fountains Abbey was founded in 1132 by a handful of monks who had come to start a simple life. It survived until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539, and today belongs to the National Trust.
Studley Royal Water Gardens were designed in the early 18th Century by estate owner John Aislabie. He wanted to impress his visitors with the ‘ultimate vista’ and created an imaginative green space that has changed little over the years. It’s a lovely circular walk along the riverbank to the far end of the estate and back to the Abbey.
At the far end of the gardens is the famous ‘Surprise View’ which looks back across the park towards the Abbey. The idea was that guests would have a sharp intake of breath as they realised they could see Fountains Abbey from here.
There are several quirky little follies and temples dotted around the gardens, and even an Elizabethan hall and old mill, once used by the monks as their granary.
Pop inside, you never know quite what you’ll find…
You can also walk through the Medieval deer park, a great place for a picnic and exploring the little church perched up on the hill. If you’re lucky you’ll see fallow, red and sika deer.
It’s worth stopping at St Mary’s church, a Victorian Gothic church that was commissioned in 1870 by the Marquess of Ripon as a memorial to his brother-in-law who had been murdered in Greece. See if you can spot the parrots carved into the wood inside the church!
Where to stay in Harrogate
There are several excellent accommodation options in Harrogate. Since we were having a girls weekend and we opted for The Bijou, a chic little boutique guest house a few minutes walk from the town centre. There was free parking too, always a bonus!
The Victorian villa is colourful and stylish, with a bold contemporary theme and quirky ornamentation giving a nod to travel and antiques. It’s the sort of thing I’d do to our living room at home if Hubbie would let me! I loved the personal touch at The Bijou. It felt like a modern family home whilst at the same time allowing guests to retain their privacy and independence.
Not an easy balance, but here they had it just right!
The en-suite bedrooms were colourful and comfy, and I loved that instead of the usual boring packets of biscuits, there was a little bowl full of toffees and jelly tots!
My room was in the coach house annex. What it lacked in wi-fi (this only extends to rooms in the main house) it made up for in peace and quiet, which is unusual in a town centre.
Breakfast was decent with a good continental spread as well as cooked options, and I loved that there was a little honesty bar in the main house for those late night tipples after an evening out.
You don’t really need an excuse to go and have afternoon tea at Betty’s, but if you can make a weekend of it, you won’t be disappointed. Harrogate felt like the sort of place you feel at home in, rather than simply being a visitor, possibly because it isn’t overrun with tourists, even in the summer. Whilst there isn’t a whole lot to do in the town itself after you’ve been for your Betty’s afternoon tea, if you have a car to explore the surrounding area you could be kept busy for days. Fountains Abbey was nothing short of stunning, and I’d even make a special day trip there if I had to, it was that good!
- Book a table in advance for Betty’s afternoon tea. It’s really popular!
- It’s best to travel by car so you can take advantage of nearby sights like Fountains Abbey.
- Don’t leave hotel booking until the last minute. We booked a few weeks ahead and still found many of the hotels already full.
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