One recurrent feature of travelling is the need to stop over in a place you don’t know well, and having a bit of time to kill. You don’t want to spend any money, but you do want to give the kids some fresh air and a leg-stretch before continuing your journey.
Although Yorkshire’s Victorian spa town of Harrogate is better known as home to the RHS’s Harlow Carr Gardens with its trails, log maze, woodland dens and observation beehives, we were glad to stumble on its Valley Gardens – a unique English Heritage listed spot where a greater number of mineral springs are believed to surface than anywhere else on Earth (36, of a total of 88 in Harrogate as a whole, housed in little stone spa wells dotted around the park). Unlike the RHS, Valley Gardens’ spectacular floral displays are free, and they also come combined with an amazing new play area with all kinds of equipment you won’t find elsewhere, from a wooden aeroplane and large wooden fort to an outsize xylophone and a paddling pool in the summer months. There’s also a stream, a boating pond, sport facilities galore, and a café, plus pathways leading you into adjoining pinewoods.
We were staying in Harrogate on the way down from the north, in a serviced luxury apartment that makes perfect sense for families in need of space and self-catering facilities, The Lawrance. The boys actually used our state-of-the-art kitchen to reheat the food they’d made earlier in the day at the children’s cookery school at Swinton Park, although there’s a child-friendly Italian restaurant on the ground floor of the city-centre building that will deliver to your room too. With PS3s to hand and free Wifi, the apartments are a great place to flop in a town that doesn’t have too many family-friendly options (it’s a famous conference centre so hotels tend to be very corporate).
Harrogate, rated one of the UK’s most desirable towns in which to live, is one of those places that are great to just wander around, with little specifically for kids to do beyond take a history lesson and taste Europe's strongest sulphur wells in the Royal Pump Room. The town’s famous Turkish Baths, restored to their Victorian glory, are off limits to children, while the many swanky interiors shops won’t hold youthful attention. Betty's Café Tea Rooms, however, totally hit the spot with my sons – we were tempted to go elsewhere when we saw the notorious queues at this original branch of the famous institution, but once we were inside it was obvious why the place is so popular, and how it can get away with commanding such high prices for its delectable cakes and coffees. It also serves main meals, and younger diners get Little Rascals puzzle books to keep them amused.
Otherwise, Ripley Castle with its excellent children’s tours is also just a few minutes’ north of Harrogate, child-friendly Harewood House is just 12km away, and you might also choose to base yourself in Harrogate when discovering historic but hectic York 35km away.