Harrogate’s Award-Winning Park

Detailed History of Valley Gardens
(Extracted from “Valley Gardens Conservation and Management Plan” by Landscape Design Associates, report to Harrogate Borough Council, 2003, with additions by Friends of Valley Gardens, 2010)


There is considerable archival information and a good photographic record of the development of Harrogate as a spa town. Council minute books and historic Ordnance Survey plans were studied at the North Yorkshire Record Office and local studies library where photographs and guidebooks are also held. The Mercer Art Gallery made prints and photographs available and technical services provided copies of drawings of park buildings. Other sources include the published and unpublished work of Malcolm Neesam, local historian, the Frith Collection and correspondence, photographs and records held by the Leisure and Amenity Services Department.

Valley Gardens was developed as an attractive walk for visitors to the Spa town, part of their health regime between taking the waters, and as a means of access to the mineral springs of Bogs Field. The waterside walk with flowers and trees became a place for promenading, socialising and taking exercise. Photographs of the gardens in the early 20th century testify to their enormous popularity with crowds around the tea room, boating lake and bandstand. The Sun Pavilion and Colonnades were built as an added attraction and facility for the spa, intended as the first phase of a covered way linking the Pump Room and Royal Bath Hospital. Visitors to the mineral springs declined but the horticultural reputation of the Gardens grew with the staging of the Northern Horticultural Society’s Spring Flower Show in the Gardens and the addition of special garden areas.

The discovery of mineral springs in Harrogate and development of the spa:
The town originated as two small villages, High and Low Harrogate in the Forest of Knaresborough. In 1571 Mr William Slingsby discovered a mineral spring with medicinal properties in High Harrogate. It was called the Tewit Well after the tewits or pewits that gathered to feed on the mineral deposits. The presence of the chalybeate (iron) spring was publicised in the late 16th century and with the discovery of a further spring named the John Well or “sweet spaw” half a mile from Tewit Well in 1631 public interest increased. By 1700 visitors seeking a cure from the waters had established Harrogate as a spa. Some residential properties in High Harrogate were converted to accommodate visitors and twenty bottling houses were established.
The sulphur well in Low Harrogate and a bog 240 yards from the well are mentioned by Dr French in “The Yorkshire Spaw”, 1652. The presence of springs in the area had been known for some time as evidenced by the name of Sour Acre given to affected land in the early 15th century. A combination of natural drainage from Harlow Hill and mineral springs emanating from the earth made the ground sour and created the bog that gave rise to the name Bog’s Field. The mineral springs of Low Harrogate were well used in the 18th century. Celia Fiennes was the first of several famous visitors who wrote of their visit to Harrogate to take the waters. “I drank a quart in a morning for two days and hold them to be a good sort of Purge if you can hold your breathe so as to drink them down”.
In 1770 there was an Act of Parliament to enclose the Royal Forest of Knaresborough. Commissioners were appointed to define areas to be excluded from enclosure, set aside for the use of those visiting the mineral wells. The excluded area called the Stray was a together Low and High Harrogate and the sites of all the mineral wells. Bogs Field, isolated from the main body of common land by a field owned by the Vicar of Pannal, was linked through the designation of Cornwall Road (formerly Iron Gate Road) as part of the Stray. The Stray Award was made in 1778, safeguarding public access to the mineral springs and establishing a sound basis for development of the spa.
In the early 19th century Low Harrogate overtook High Harrogate in popularity as a place for taking the waters. The sulphur well was improved with the erection of a covered well head in 1803 and three years later the first Assembly Rooms were built to provide a promenade for visitors. People with a range of maladies sought the curative powers of the mineral springs and this led to the opening of a hospital beside Bogs Field in 1825.
The Harrogate Improvement Act in 1841 enabled the election of commissioners to govern and effect improvements in the town. The commissioners appointed Isaac Shutt to design the Royal Pump Room to replace the covered well head and provide enhanced accommodation for the rich and fashionable who came to take the cure at the old sulphur well (Photograph A1). There was an established routine for visitors. They would arrive between 7 and 9am and drink one or more glasses of water.
“The quantity drunk, at one time, should be such that during fifteen minutes walk, which is to elapse between one dose and the next, the stomach may nearly have got rid of the first before it receives the second.”
The walk or promenade gave visitors time for socialising and after breakfast the chronically sick would have bath treatments whilst others would go sightseeing, shopping and to parties.
In mid 19th century Harrogate the arrival of the railway led to a new boom in growth and confidence. The Victoria Park Company produced plans to link the villages of High and Low Harrogate with residential and retail streets and provide a new station, the new Victoria Baths were built and in 1884 Queen Victoria conveyed Borough status on the town.

The Development of Valley Gardens

Early developments and the opening of the Valley Pleasure Grounds, 1858 - 1901
A tract of privately owned land separated the mineral springs of Bogs Field from the main focus of fashionable visitor activity around the Royal Pump Room in Low Harrogate. Bogs Field contained 36 different mineral springs and was reached via Cornwall Road from the Royal Pump Room. (See 1854 Ordnance Survey, Plan 2.)
“Upon a high ground, a short distance from Low Harrogate, in a westerly direction, is a piece of moss or bog earth.....The whole surface there, to a considerable extent, presents an extraordinary phenomenon in the physical history of the place. Deep sulphur wells, two or three pools of water impregnated with tannin and more than one saline chalybeate.....which altogether has the appearance of a great chemical laboratory of nature.”
In 1858 the first major improvement to Bogs Field was made with the construction of the gothic style Magnesia Well Pump Room in Bogs Field close to the access from Cornwall Road. Early photographs show the building standing in open ground crossed by worn paths with the Bath Hospital in the background. (Photographs A2 and A3) In 1869 Richard Ellis put forward a scheme to build a covered promenade between the Royal Pump Room and Bogs Field, providing a place of exercise and a link between the mineral wells and the hospital, a route that would provide shelter from inclement weather. The scheme was well received but did not proceed because of planned developments for the nearby Spa Rooms Company site, where a glazed promenade with many similarities to Richard Ellis’s scheme was opened in 1871.
Notwithstanding the rise in population, increased numbers of visitors and other developments leading to incorporation of the town as a Borough, nothing had been done to improve access between the mineral springs of Bogs Field and the Royal Pump Room. A local man, David Simpson, suggested that land could be bought and landscaped with ornamental planting and the council took up the idea, announcing a competition with a winning prize of £15. Although a winner was announced the Council decided not to adopt any of the schemes but instructed the Borough Engineer to draw up proposals incorporating the best elements of all the designs. A tract of land along the valley and extending up to Cornwall Road was purchased, landscaping commenced and Mr Chipchase was appointed as the first Park Superintendent in 1887. The opening of the “Valley Pleasure Grounds” was soon followed by the rebuilding of the Royal Bath Hospital, and the construction of the Magnesia Well new pump room to succeed the gothic Magnesia Well, which had become too small to cater for the number of fashionable visitors.
Original plans of the pleasure grounds seem not to have survived but late 19th century photographs and the Ordnance Survey of 1889 record the layout and detail. (See Plan 3.) From the main entrance, which faced the Royal Pump Room on Promenade Square, a path proceeded up the valley to Bogs Field alongside the stream ornamented with pools, islands, spray fountains and cascades, rustic bridges and planting. (Photographs A4 and A5). To the rear of private properties facing Promenade Square was a glasshouse, lawns, tree and shrub planting with a network of paths allowing perambulation along and across the slopes. Near the entrance to Bogs Field was a large bedding display. Existing trees appear to have been incorporated in the scheme and the layout provided both direct and alternative routes to the springs with numerous benches to pause and rest. The Valley Pleasure Grounds, called the Bogs Valley Gardens on the 1889 Ordnance Survey, occupied a modest area. Bogs Field remained unimproved, separated by a footpath between Irongate Bridge Road and Cold Bath Road from rising ground to the south west. A broad path from Bogs Field led to allotments on the hillside and continued up onto Harlow Moor.

Expansion of the Gardens, 1901- 1918
After the opening of the new Magnesia Well pump room there were moves to expand the Gardens through the purchase of Collins Field, bounding Irongate Bridge Road between the Gardens and the hospital. The proposal provoked controversy and although the purchase was completed in 1901 and the grounds subsequently laid out, it was not until 1911 that the field was actually linked to Bogs Field through the demolition of a stone wall. The acquisition enabled the continuation of a lime walk through the middle of the site, the laying out of sinuous paths, exotic tree planting and ornamental borders with planting displays supported by a new greenhouse. (Photograph B2). A rustic thatched teahouse with veranda was erected on the slopes of the former Collins Field overlooking a bandstand sited near the new Magnesia Well pump room. (See 1909 Ordnance Survey, Plan 4.) A postcard c.1910 shows lawns below the teahouse crowded with deckchairs for visitors taking advantage of the facilities to socialise and enjoy themselves. The Grand Hotel opened on Cornwall Road overlooking the Valley Gardens, while to the south Valley Drive and Harlow Moor Drive were laid out with fashionable terraces of tall houses. In 1912 a new entrance comprising ornamental gates and railings, palisade walls and gate piers was added opposite the Pump Room. Rustic fencing beside the paths near the main entrance prevented visitors from straying from the path and protected the ornamental planting. (Photograph B3).
An additional footpath and a little planting were laid out in Bogs Field while on the hillside to the north the allotments were replaced by a parkland landscape of trees, grass and some shrub planting with an observatory and bandstand. (Photograph B1). Crowds assembling to watch the Pierrots perform at the bandstand caused annoyance to people on Harlow Moor Drive and several incidents of wilful damage to trees and shrubs and complaints about conduct in the Gardens were reported in council minutes. The Gardens were a popular attraction though Bogs Field had yet to be developed as part of the ornamental gardens.

The incorporation of Bogs Field and development of facilities 1918 - 1945
After the First World War, although there was a general decline in visitors to spas, the number of visitors to Harrogate exceeded the levels of pre-war seasons. In order to maintain the premier position of Harrogate, the council decided to invest in amenities for visitors. For the first time there were moves to include recreational facilities in the gardens with the Stray Committee looking at several sites for bowling greens and tennis courts. In 1924 new golf greens and tennis courts were opened and proposals drawn up to lay out Bogs Field in an ornamental manner and to provide a children’s pool. Bogs Field was laid out with a circular path round a concentration of springs and radial paths on established routes to Harlow Moor and to the junction of Harlow Moor Drive and Valley Drive. As part of this scheme the bandstand was moved to the north west, closer to the tea room, clearing the approach to Bogs Field from the Valley Gardens. The children’s pool, roughly oval in shape, was set in the valley above the new Magnesia Well Pump Room. (Photograph C2). The tennis courts must have been a success in their first season for in the following year plans and estimates were received for two additional courts and a pavilion. In this same period toilets were added to the garden adjacent to the path from Cornwall Road and lighting was installed. The 1932 Ordnance Survey shows an aviary near the entrance from Cornwall Road, a bowling green west of the hospital, a path from Ebor Rise to Harlow Moor Drive, the planting of a pinetum and a War Memorial on the edge of the pinewoods. (See Plan 5.) It appears that the sandstone gateposts at the entrance between Valley Drive and Harlow Moor Drive came from Prospect Gardens in central Harrogate when these gardens were demolished to enable construction of a War Memorial.
The depression had an impact on Harrogate’s economy. The council decided that investment and improvement were required to maintain Harrogate’s eminence as a spa. Proposals were put forward for a shell bandstand to replace the existing late Victorian structure. Plans were drawn up to redevelop the Pump Room at the entrance to Valley Gardens, create a covered colonnade following the north boundary beside Cornwall Road to a Sun Pavilion and develop a further link to the Royal Bath Hospital. The proposals involved the acquisition of the remaining privately owned properties at the entrance to the gardens and the replacement of the teahouse with the Sun Pavilion. The work was to be carried out in three phases, the first phase being the construction of the Sun Pavilion, colonnades and two sun parlours. Despite considerable opposition, notably by Duchy residents, the first phase was opened in June 1933. (Photographs C1 and C4). For a variety of reasons including disagreements over the priorities for action in the town, the remaining phases of the scheme were never implemented.
In September 1934 the first horticultural show was held in the Valley Gardens and the council received a letter from the Royal Horticultural Society congratulating them on their success. During the Second World War iron railings and lamps were removed for salvage and some of the ornamental beds were given over to vegetable production.

Post war horticultural shows and gardens, 1945 - 1980
After the war a number of measures were undertaken to improve and embellish the Gardens. Two of the tennis courts nearest the springs were converted to a putting green. Various overgrown shrubs were removed including shrubs beside the path to Harlow Moor and other trees were removed to allow the development of choice species. A Reginald Farrer garden was proposed and two rock gardens constructed for the spring flower show were retained. Proposals to develop an aquarium were rejected on the grounds of cost.
In the late forties and in 1950 a number of rare trees were planted and other plants donated to the rock gardens set a precedent for gifts to the Gardens and the establishment of plant collections. (Photograph C3). The most notable of these was a consignment of New Zealand plants given by the City of Wellington in 1953. After this the council decided to develop an area of the Valley Gardens to be known as the New Zealand Garden, located in the sheltered area formerly occupied by the aviary. The link with New Zealand was strengthened with a further exchange of plants the following year, another consignment of plants being shipped by the Dominion Monarch and a collection of old fashioned English roses being despatched in return. Seeds were exchanged and the garden developed to hold 30 genera and 60 different species.
Cracks in the children’s paddling pool identified in 1949 meant that it was impossible to keep the pool filled but it was not until 1957 that the Borough Engineer submitted plans for its renewal. The proposals included refinement of the shape to a clear oval, removal of the bridge at the north end and reinforced concrete construction. There was pressure to provide children’s play facilities in association with the pool and in 1959 estimates were received for coloured flags for a playground. In 1965 three of the greens of the miniature golf course were relocated to allow for the development of a new children’s play area with a pool and the play facility was installed in the late sixties, allowing the former paddling pool to become a model boating lake.
Harrogate began to participate in Britain in Bloom in 1963 and the horticultural shows staged in the Gardens went from strength to strength. The setting up time for the shows and reinstatement afterwards meant that the shows were having an increasing impact on regular use of the Gardens. In addition the demands for larger marquees were leading to modifications of the permanent plantings to accommodate the show. In the 1980’s a new Yorkshire Show Ground was established on the outskirts of Harrogate and it was decided that the horticultural shows, which had outgrown the Gardens, should be moved to the show ground site.
In the 1970’s vandals smashed the well heads in Bogs Field and it was decided to cap and bury the wells.

Recent history, 1980 –2002
In the 1980’s the Friends of Valley Gardens were formed in response to change in the Gardens arising from the loss of the Horticultural shows and the decline and closure of the Sun Pavilion. In 1985 council officers prepared a future options report on the Sun Pavilion and colonnades that led to the phased repair, restoration and reopening of the Sun pavilion in 1998 with financial assistance from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
During the late 1990’s temporary sculptures were placed at the main entrance to Valley Gardens and there were reductions in the extent of the dahlia border and areas of bedding display. In 1999 Harrogate Civic Society put forward a proposal to recreate two well heads in the Gardens and these were erected to the west of the gothic Magnesia Well Pump Room.
1 Celia Fiennes, The Journeys of Celia Fiennes, the Cresset Press 1949, p80
2 A B Granville, Spas of England, 1841, reprinted Adams and Dart 1971, p52
3 A B Granville, Spas of England, 1841, reprinted Adams and Dart 1971, p79

The Cherub Fountain
In 1972 a leading Harrogate Councillor was visiting the Chelsea Flower show, where he saw a sculpture created by a young Australian called John Robinson, the Councillor took it upon himself to order the piece, which was presented to the then Director of Parks, Mr Alan Ravenscroft, on the 23 May 1972, where it was installed upon a circular stone surround in the centre of the Valley Gardens.
Pasted Graphic

1332 Earliest records of Harrogate as a farming hamlet in the Forest of Knaresbrough
1571 William Slingsby discovers a mineral spring in High Harrogate, Tewit Well, the first medicinal spring in England to have the name spa attached to it.
1693 20 bottling houses are established.
1697-8 Celia Fiennes visits Harrogate and writes of the various mineral springs in her diary.
1770 Act of Parliament passed to enclose the Royal Forest of Knaresborough.
1778 The Stray Award is made whereby George III gives the Stray, local quarries and mineral wells to the town. Two hundred acres, including Bog’s Field as part of the Stray, are to remain open with free public access.
1788 Harrogate’s first custom-built theatre opens between the library and Granby Hall.
1803 A covered well head in Low Harrogate overtakes wells in High Harrogate in popularity.
1806 The building of the first Assembly Rooms, a promenade room for visitors resorting to the Spa.
1825 A hospital is opened on the site of the Royal Baths.
1835 Larger Assembly Rooms are opened on the corner of Ripon Road and King’s Road. Joseph Thackeray attempts to divert waters from the Old Sulphur well into the back of his Crown Hotel.
1841 Harrogate Improvement Act. A footpath is laid out in Bogs Field. 1842 The Royal Pump Room, an octagonal building designed by Harrogate born Isaac Thomas Shutt, opens to house drinkers at the Old Sulphur Well.
1848 The arrival of the railway, connecting Harrogate with York and the Midland Railway, with a station in Brunswick Street in the Stray opposite the Prince of Wales Mansions.
1849 Arrival of the Leeds Railway with a terminus at Starbeck.
1858 The gothic style Magnesia Well building is constructed in Bogs Field.
1860 Establishment of the Victoria Park Company who planned to link the villages of High and Low Harrogate with residential and retail streets and provide a new station.
1862 Opening of the new station.
1869 Richard Ellis supports a scheme for the improvement of Bogs Field, a scheme that included the creation of a sheltered promenade.
1870 The foundations of the new Victoria Baths are laid in Crescent Gardens.
1884 Harrogate is incorporated as a Borough with Queen Victoria granting the Borough Charter to the Mayor and Aldermen.
1886 A design competition is held for laying out a ‘Public Pleasure Grounds’ along the footpath from the Royal Pump Room to Bogs Field. The population of Harrogate doubled in the last 15 years of the 19th century.
1887 Mr Chipchase is appointed first Parks Superintendent.
1889 The opening of the Royal Bath Hospital.
1895 Magnesium Well new pump room [now the Magnesia Well Café]. 1896 Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee is celebrated with the opening of the Royal Baths.
1890 Remainder of footpaths asphalted.
1899 Opening of the Opera House.
1900 Hotel Majestic opens.
1901 Purchase of Collins Field for an addition to Valley Gardens.
1903 The Grand opens overlooking the Valley Gardens.
1911 Collins Field is linked to Bogs Field by demolition of a stone wall.
1912 New main entrance gates, walls and railings.
1924 Proposals to lay out Bogs Field in an ornamental manner and provide a children’s pool. New tennis courts and golf greens opened.
1925 Plan and estimate for 2 additional tennis courts and pavilion south of path by Bogs Field.
1926 Lighting of Valley Gardens.
1932 Proposals for a replacement bandstand to a shell design.
1933 The Sun Pavilion and Colonnades are opened.
1934 First Horticultural Show is held in Valley Gardens.
1939 The dahlia border is used for growing of vegetables.
1948 Reginald Farrer garden proposed. Overgrown shrubs bordering footpath between Valley Gardens and Harlow Moor removed.
1949 Two rock gardens are built for the Spring Flower Show [now sited west of the Sun Pavilion as the scree garden]. List of rare trees planted in gardens in last 2 seasons includes Indian horse Chestnut, Ghost tree, Chinese Flowering Ash and Kentucky Coffee tree.
1950 Collection and gift of rare plants for the limestone rock gardens. John Curry started gardening and planted the Davidia near the Magnesia Well building.
1953 A gift of New Zealand plants is received.
1954 New Zealand garden formally opened. Proposal to establish area where Commonwealth would be represented by collections of native flora. 1955 Gift of hardy ferns offered.
1956 Parks Superintendent to submit scheme for tree maintenance and replacement throughout town with a view to maintaining existing character.
1957 Borough Engineer submitted a plan for renewing and extending children’s paddling pool.
1958 The first Exhibition Halls are opened as the first stage in the development of exhibition and conference facilities.
1959 Town Clerk requested provision of play facility near paddling pool and site adjacent to Valley Drive entrance approved.
1962 February gales - 20 roots too heavy to remove.
1963 Parks Superintendent to co-ordinate Britain in Bloom entries, gift of 6 walnut trees donated by Mr Charles Walker to perpetuate memory of family as cabinet makers and establishment of the first Harrogate International Festival.
1966 Playground and pool construction deferred due to economic constraints.
1970 Miniature golf course created.
1971 Management consultants report on future development of Harrogate as a conference and exhibition centre makes 3 recommendations: construct a big conference centre, construct additional hotel accommodation and provide better entertainment for visitors.
1973 Well heads smashed and sealed off.
1977 Horticultural Trades Association Dahlia Trials.
1980’s Friends of the Valley Gardens formed.
1981 Conference Centre opens, succeeding the exhibition halls on the site of the Rose Gardens.
1985 Harrogate Stray Act.
1986 Harrogate Bogs Field Act.
1994 The Royal Bath Hospital is vacated and the site redeveloped with apartments.
1998 Sun Pavilion refurbishment, partly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, completed and opened by the Queen.
1999 The opening of Harrogate Hydro.
2002 Establishment of the Pinewoods Conservation Group.
2010 Establishment of Friends of Valley Gardens
2011 Opening of the restored New Zealand Memorial Garden.
2015 Opening of the restored Old Magnesia Well Pump Room and adjacent Peat Garden. Facility to be used as an Information and Education Centre.
2017 Commencement of the restoration of the Japanese Garden