What a palaver there was in December 1926 when Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime, went missing from her home in Berkshire. It could have been a mystery from one of her books: The Case of the Missing Author! The world held its breath for 11 days as people hunted high and low for the celebrated spinner of tales. When, to the barely muffled sounds of huzzahs, she showed her face it was at the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, the spa town in the West Riding of Yorkshire; the sort of respectable place where murder mysteries unravel to the clacking of knitting needles, scoffing of scones and flower duties at the parish church.
Harrogate, home of Betty’s, the famous tea room once hymned by Alan Bennett in a BBC documentary, is better-known to the world beyond the Broad Acres as the town where Agatha Christie did a bunk, and what a boon that has proved. Living proof, one might say, of the time-honoured adage that, where murder is concerned, nothing is so shocking as a single body in the living-room of a vicarage.
Of all the events that make up the season of ‘international festivals’ in Harrogate the festival of crime writing is the most apposite. It is staged in the Old Swan Hotel, too, which adds a coat of authenticity. In July they all gathered there, thousands of eager readers from all over the globe, to buy books and listen to some of the best-known crime novelists. Last year more than 15,000 attended the festival. Little wonder that Lee Child, the king of current best-sellers, has dubbed it ‘the best in the world’.
It’s a stellar line-up. Val McDermid was there, along with Nicci French, John Grisham and Don Winslow. Child, who has programmed the festival, interviewed Grisham in the Royal Hall on 20th July.
The Old Swan basks in its notoriety. Besides hosting the crime writers, who must feel like masters of all they survey, for four days at least, the hotel also arranges ‘murder mystery events’ throughout the year. One that takes the eye is on 9th August – ‘Carry On Murdering’.
Lucky actors who inhabit the parts of Kenneth Williams, Barbara Windsor and Charles Hawtrey... Luckier still the chap who summons the ghost of Kenneth Connor, and gets to say: ‘Damned filth!’
The international festivals, founded in 1966, when England’s footballers were running around Wembley with the World Cup, has been attracting visitors to Harrogate in ever greater numbers. More than 90,000 attended events in the town last year. There were 300 to choose from, so Harrogate is doing its bit for the cultural life of that part of Yorkshire, which is full of well- educated, well-heeled folk. ‘Outreach’ features prominently, as it does everywhere, even if nobody, other than box-tickers, knows what it means.
Few people reached out to audiences more successfully than those Victorian knights, William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. The creators of the Savoy operas conquered the English- speaking world when Harrogate was establishing its reputation as a spa. Now it stages the annual International G & S festival (7th–18th August), while Buxton, another spa town, hosts the National G & S Opera Company (24th–29th July).
In August, once the crime writers have taken their daggers home, the Savoyards arrive by boat and plane ‘to dance a cachucha’ and everything else that gondoliers get up to when they imagine nobody is looking. There will be 40 shows this August as Harrogate, a staid and sensible place for 11 months, goes topsy-turvy for three giddy weeks. Oh, she’s gone and married Yum Yum...
There are many cherries to pick. July brings musicians of repute to the Royal Hall, which begs the overwhelming question: why does Yorkshire not boast a professional symphony orchestra when Manchester has three? The day will come, one hopes, when some brave soul grasps that nettle. Cultural provision is at least as important as, say, the Tour de Yorkshire, which is not to decry the Tour’s success.
In October there is a literary festival. Well, you feel such fools if you’re a spa town and you don’t have a literary festival when the leaves are turning, don’t you? Cheltenham may wear the crown when it comes to books in autumn, and that’s not going to change. But Harrogate is making its own contribution to the world of letters, rounding off another year of delight, outreach and education.
Sensible folk will, of course, take advantage of the fact that a Yorkshire brewery, Timothy Taylor of Keighley, supplies the greatest ale in the world. There’s no excuse for not supping a pint or two of Landlord bitter, or Boltmaker, should you prefer. In this respect, as in others, Yorkshire is the land of plenty.