By Graham Chalmers
A quick glance at the sometimes chequered history of planning in Harrogate over the past 50 years shows it’s littered with glorious visions of the future which never came to pass.
From the would-be Royal Baths development of the 1960s, which would have seen a huge concrete hive of interlocked buildings at the bottom of Parliament Street, to proposals for a lofty bypass on stilts through the middle of Harrogate’s traffic system in the 1970s, it seems the more ambitious the project, the less likely it is to be realised.
But exciting new plans developed by the Royal Hall Restoration Trust to recapture the tree-lined elegance of the Edwardian era at Britain’s only surviving ‘Kursaal’ are hoping to buck that trend.
If turned into reality, the multi-million pound project would see the biggest transformation of Frank Matcham’s magnificent building and the area round it since this famous venue was first opened in 1903.
The aim is not only to improve catering facilities at the Royal Hall as part of Phase II of a restoration project originally launched in 2000 but to use it as a catalyst for reinvigorating Low Harrogate giving a financial boost to the town’s crucial conference trade.
The Royal Hall Restoration Trust’s chairman Russell Davidson believes the plans, which were developed with the help of two internationally-renowned architects based in London, are not only stunning in design terms but commercially viable through a mix of private and public funding.
Russell Davidson said: “Although the core part of the Royal Hall’s restoration is complete, the building still lack the facilities and the complete public role it would have had in Edwardian times.”
The trust’s proposals are currently in the hands of its patron, Prince Charles, who reopened the Royal Hall in 2008 after Phase I was completed under the leadership of the late Lilian Mina.
As developed in conjunction with Julia Barfield MBE, who designed London’s Millennium Wheel and the elevated walkway at Kew Gardens, and Peter Owens, who designed much of the exterior landscaping and hard space at London’s Olympic Park, the main proposals are:
A multi-purpose, upmarket restaurant at the rear exterior of the Royal Hall in the same ilk as the ones in London at the Wallace Art Collection and the Royal Opera House’s Floral Hall. It could be utilsied for weddings as well as a variety of public events and the conference trade.
A partial recreation of the original garden setting between the Royal Hall and Harrogate International Centre including a memoral garden to ‘The Harrogate Pals’ and artists and poets who fell in the First World War.
Better access for transport to the Royal Hall and HIC exhibition halls and the reinstatement of the Royal Hall’s original historic railings outside.
The redevelopment of the Crescent Gardens area with a new spa water feature and the potential to enable the popular annual Christmas Market to relocate there from West Park.
The Royal Hall Restoration Trust sees funding for the development coming from a mix of public and private funding, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, an appeal by the Trust with possible support from Princes Charles plus substantial commercial backing.
Cost-wise, the estimate for the construction of the proposed Winter Garden-style restaurant is put at approximately £2 million which the Trust says could be sourced from a loan on its future commercial revenue.
To a significant degree, the future of one of Harrogate’s most cherised buildings hinges not just on the cost but on the attitude of Harrogate Borough Council and, specifically, which way opinion swings on the future of the council’s existing offices at Crescent Gardens.
So what is Harrogate Borough Council’s opinion on it all?
The council’s leader Coun Richard Cooper has this to say.
“The Royal Hall Restoration Trust has put forward some interesting ideas about how we develop the area around the Royal Hall and Crescent Gardens.
“I appreciate their ambition to do more to highlight the setting of the Royal Hall and to create a more open feel to the area between the building and the Valley Gardens.
“These ideas show imagination and flair and I am certain will spark a useful public debate.
“In my view, we should view proposals for that part of town as part of a suite of proposals coming forward for the rest of Harrogate centre.
“I look forward to seeing a single vision for the whole of the town centre on which the public can have their say.”
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