Going Solo on a Yorkshire Walk from Harrogate
Mark Bibby Jackson goes on an escorted Yorkshire walk organised by Solos Holidays, visiting Ripon Cathedral, Fountains Abbey and Brimham Rocks.
There is no more appropriate setting for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival than The Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate. For, it was to here that Agatha Christie disappeared in 1926, as depicted in the film Agatha starring Vanessa Redgrave – my all-time favourite actor – and Dustin Hoffman.
The Affair at The Swan Hydro
The world’s most famous crime writer slipped off from her Surrey home on 3 December. Shortly afterwards her car was found hanging precariously over a cliff, as if choreographed for one of her novels. After a ten-day nationwide search, using airplanes for the first time, Christie was recognised by banjo player Bob Tappin at the Swan Hydro – as The Old Swan Hotel was then called – in Harrogate.
Quite why Christie disappeared – accident, argument or flight of fancy – we will never know, but two years later she became divorced from her husband, who married Theresa Neele. Christie herself remarried in 1930.
So, considering my slight obsession with all things Christie, I was delighted to discover that The Swan Hotel was to be my base for a two-day escorted Yorkshire walk.
Walking in Yorkshire from Ripon Cathedral to Fountains Abbey
An advantage of staying in Harrogate – apart from the pleasant aspect of the town – is that within minutes you are in verdant countryside.
I take my customary position at the back of the bus – some habits are hard to kick – which allows me to enjoy the landscape familiar from my days as a student at nearby York.
For some reason, during my three years of studying Romantic poets and pubs, I failed to visit the nearby city of Ripon and its outstanding cathedral, perhaps it was an excess of the latter. It is here that our first Yorkshire walk commences.
The original Ripon Cathedral was built in 657, but the current one only dates back to 1180, making it older than York Minster – bragging rights in these parts. It is also smaller than its illustrious neighbour, and free to enter.
Inside there are a series of impressive statues that I am informed are supposed to relate to the history of the cathedral, although I detected both James I and Henry II in their ranks. It is a lovely, light and relaxing space.
Leaving Ripon Cathedral, we follow the Ripon Canal until it becomes the Skell river along the Sanctuary Way.
Our target is Studley Royal Deer Park which leads to Fountains Abbey. In 1986, the area was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Our guide Linda is at pains to point out that the accreditation was due to the way the medieval abbey ruins were incorporated into the 18th century Studley Royal Water Garden, not due to the undeniable beauty of the abbey itself.
To access the gardens, we cross seven bridges before entering the grounds of the Cistercian abbey. Founded in 1132, it became one of the wealthiest monasteries in the country due to the wool trade until its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1539. Linda speculates that many of the walls and buildings we pass on our walk could have been formed from stones that had been part of the abbey.
Fountains Abbey is now managed by National Trust, in whose cafeteria we have a pleasant lunch. After this, Linda takes us on a tour of the abbey ruins before visiting the Georgian water garden and then retracing our steps back to the mini-bus.
After dinner at the Old Swan Hotel, we venture into Harrogate to listen to some lively music at the Blues Bar, which was having a jam.
Yorkshire Walk to Brimham Rocks
Jam of another kind was on offer at the excellent breakfast at the Old Swan Hotel the following morning. One of my tests of a breakfast is how well they poach their eggs. Another is whether kippers are on the menu. On both counts The Old Swan Hotel scored top marks.
Thus fortified, I set off on our second Yorkshire walk. This time we explore the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB), which borders onto the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
The culmination of our walk through beautiful countryside is reaching the amazing Brimham Rocks, which like Fountains Abbey, is managed by the National Trust. Apparently, the rocks were created 100 million years before the first dinosaurs walked the Earth. Numerous rocks are spread over a five-acre site set in beautiful countryside close to Pateley Bridge, where we had lunch. It really is a very impressive sight with a slight overworld quality.
Harrogate Spa Town
Upon returning to our hotel, I have just enough time to explore Harrogate before dinner and a quiz arranged by our excellent tour leader Scott. Although a veritable spring chicken compared to Brimham Rocks and even Fountains Abbey, the town has a long history of its own.
Following the discovery of the Tewit Well by William Slingsby in 1571, Harrogate developed as a spa town, particularly during the Georgian and Victorian eras when people would travel to ‘The Belgravia of the North’ to try its healing waters.
One of the remaining buildings from that period is the Pump Room, which was built in 1842. In addition to a small museum, the Pump Room has a tap outside it where you can smell – and taste should you dare – the highly sulphuric waters.
The Promenade Rooms, built in 1805 have now been turned into The Mercer Art Gallery. Here people used to go for a stroll after taking the waters much like at the Trinkhalle in Baden-Baden I visited earlier in the year. Continuing the Germanic spa theme, a Kursaal was opened in 1903, but it was renamed The Royal Hall when the First World War broke out. Sarah Bernhardt and Edward Elgar performed here. The building was restored in 2008.
Although The Royal Baths closed in 1969, The Turkish Baths are still open. However, perhaps the most famous building in Harrogate is a tearoom – Betty’s – which was opened by a Swiss émigré, who was a chocolatier, in 1919, although quite who Betty was is open to dispute, according to Linda.
The following morning, I return home slightly disappointed to discover that unlike Agatha Christie, nobody has missed me. Now, where is that banjo player when you need one.
Walking in Yorkshire Photo Gallery
Solos Holidays: Yorkshire Walking Breaks
The three-night Yorkshire Walking Trip costs from £725 pp (no single supplement) and includes a single room with private facilities, half board, welcome drink and information meeting, half a bottle of wine with evening meals, two full day guided walks, and accompanying Solos Tour Leader. 2024 dates yet to be published. However, Solos has plenty of other upcoming walking weekends across the UK from £375 pp (no single supplement). These include: The Somerset Coast, Northumberland and Hadrians Wall. Stemming from the 80s, Solos offers group travel for free-spirited individuals in 45 countries. It is about the friendships you spark on your trips, because Solos believes that travel is best shared.
All photos by Mark Bibby Jackson.