High culture in Harrogate International Festival

The halls are alive with the sound of music, readings, singing, fun and laughter. Jo Haywood finds something for everyone in Harrogate PHOTOGRAPHS BY MIKE KIPLING

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders are popping in this month. The Sugababes will be sashaying into town too, closely followed by an entertaining Marti Pellow. Even Humphrey Lyttelton will be stopping by with his clueless Radio 4 friends.

The North Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate, ever popular with tourists and shoppers, has become a bit of a star magnet in recent years with the emergence of top flight music and literary festivals, and the ascendance of the International Centre as a key concert venue. Once famous for its tea shops, flower shows, Turkish baths, fashion stores and associations with the great crime novelist Agatha Christie, who disappeared there for a few days in the 1930s, it is now becoming something of a cultural hub.

Central to its success is Harrogate International Festival, which was launched in 1966 and has grown into one of the region's leading arts organisations, working year round to bring the finest in performing arts, literature and community participation to the county. Music of all kinds, from classical to contemporary urban sounds, has remained at the heart of its spring series of chamber music recitals and month-long summer festival for the past four decades.

In recent years, the town has welcomed famous names like B B King, Van Morrison, Amy Winehouse, Dionne Warwick, Youssou N'Dour, the Afro Cuban All Stars and Wynton Marsalis.

And, just last year, almost 100,000 people attended the festival, generating more than �4 million for Harrogate's hotels, restaurants, conference centre and other local venues and businesses. Since 2003, Harrogate's cultural calendar has been augmented by the huge success of the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, the Green Space Festival of outdoor street arts and the North Yorkshire Youth Music Action Zone. The Old Peculier festival has fast become Europe's leading crime writing event, attracting a dazzling array of international best-selling authors in conversation, publishing seminars and panel sessions.

Among the literary stars last year were American best-seller Harlan Coben, British favourite Frederick Forsyth and queen of the modern thriller Val McDermid. The Green Space Festival, launched in 2006, has already proved a success, bagging the titles of 'best environment and culture project' and 'most outstanding market town project' at the Yorkshire & Humber Market Town Awards. And the Youth Music Action Zone scheme, established in 2005, has encouraged more than 2,000 young people to take part in more than 100 workshops across 329 primary school and 47 secondary schools throughout North Yorkshire.

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It's fair to say then that Harrogate has come a long way since its beginnings as an unassuming northern spa town. Its first well was discovered in 1571 by William Slingsby, who christened the town 'the English spa'. Harrogate's development has been inextricably linked to its wells ever since. During the 1920s, Harrogate Spa was the UK's largest exporter of mineral water, but by the end of the 1970s the water industry had all but dried up. The tide turned again, however, in May 2002 when the first bottles came off the line of a new �3 million bottling plant at Harlow Hill, where a new well had been sunk 150ft below ground.

Harrogate Spa water is known for being low in sodium, having a well-balanced mineral content and slightly sweet flavour. And it is has proved incredibly popular. In less than two years, it entered the top 20 best-selling water brands and is now available in all the major supermarkets as well as on planes, trains and in restaurants across the country. And people don't just drink Harrogate's famous water - they sit in it. Heck, some of them even do a few short laps in it.

The town's Turkish baths remain very popular with their relaxing steam room, therapeutic hot room chambers (going from the warm Tepidarium to the hot Calidarium and on to the roasting Laconium) and the bracing plunge pool. Also on Harrogate's must-see list are the Mercer Art Gallery, which houses 2,000 19th and 20th century pieces including works by William Powell Frith, Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Alan Davie; the Royal Pump Room Museum, home to the strongest sulphur wells in Europe (the flavour is truly unforgettable); and the flourishing Valley Gardens - Alan Titchmarsh's favourite public gardens - which cover 17 acres of grade II listed open space with tennis courts, crazy golf, a boating pool, paddling pool and an Art Deco sun pavilion.

And we haven't even had time to mention Harrogate Theatre, the newly re-opened Royal Hall, Bettys Tea Rooms, RHS Harlow Carr... maybe you should cancel that weekend in Harrogate and book a fortnight instead.

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