Harrogate was transformed from a couple of hamlets into an elegant town because of its mineral waters. Its motto spells that out: arx celebris fontibus, 'a town famous for its springs'. There are many of them, high in varied combinations of sulphur, iron and salt.
Following their discovery in 1571, the town became a spa destination. It continued developing thereafter; the Royal Bath Hospital and Royal Pump Room built in the early nineteenth century were among the features which attracted notable visitors. Only in the twentieth century did the number of people taking the waters decline.
It seemed wrong, then to visit the town without trying the waters, still available at the Royal Pump Room which is now a charming museum. (There is also a tap from another spring, provided for the poor, on the wall outside.) After all, the many visitors of the nineteenth century would drink three or four glasses a day for their health so it must be good, surely?
The first clue that this might not have been the wisest decision was the information that the water has the highest sulphur content of any European well. The second was the big bowl of Farrah's toffees (another local speciality) right alongside. Then there was the tiny amount poured out. However, common sense rarely gets in the way of a historical experience, so I took the glass...
... and smelled the water. Well, the sulphur was certainly apparent! However, I've drunk a glass of Bath's spa water and survived, so surely I could manage a sip of this. It probably tastes better than it smells, right?
Very wrong, actually: it was truly disgusting. Imagine rotten egg mayonnaise, salted. Only less pleasant. Even the toffee didn't altogether take the taste away; my mouth twitched every time I thought about it for hours afterwards! It even managed to repeat on me, not something one expects from a swallow of water. Suddenly, its medicinal properties made perfect sense: if the alternative was ingesting this several times a morning, I'd claim to be cured of whatever ailed me.
At least nobody expects you to drink from the petrifying well in nearby Knaresborough. However, it is pretty gruesome in its own way: since anything exposed to its waters will be coated in stone within a few months, there are strings of objects hung there to undergo petrification. Most are teddy bears; in various stages of stoniness, they do look somewhat macabre.
Luckily, I was soon reconciled to the local waters by a morning in the beautiful Turkish baths. The original Victorian building has been beautifully restored, providing elegant surroundings for a relaxing morning. The cafe does serve Harrogate water, but this time it's the local mineral water: an altogether more appetising drink!