The North of England. A barren wasteland of industrial carnage, cloth caps and whippet breeders? Not so. Such long-held stereotypes of the northern parts are as untrue today as they always have been. One only has to look towards the spa town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire as proof that the North can ooze class, style and sophistication.
Set amid a circle of lush greenery, known as the Stray, this historic spa town is now a busy conference centre and weekend resort, as it always has been. Designer boutiques, a plethora of hostelries, delightful gardens, opulent Victorian Turkish Baths and grand hotels make it the ideal destination for those seeking a bit of R&R. Perhaps that’s the reason why the Americans have a base close by? Certainly, there is no shortage of foreign accents as you wander the hilly streets. Atop one of these, Montpellier Hill, stands the famous Bettys Café Tea Rooms.
Bettys is a Northern institution. Nay! A British institution. Having said that, it is a British institution that arrived in Britain by way of Switzerland. Indeed, perhaps it’s an example of a true European union?
Nowadays, it’s common knowledge that the UK’s European neighbours, in the main, knock the spots off the British when it comes to the mastery of foreign languages, however, this is not and has not always been the case. Indeed, if it wasn’t for linguistic incompetence, Bettys may never have opened in the North of England at all. Frederick Belmont, a confectioner by trade, decided, like many who have gone before and come since, that the grass was greener on the other side. In this case, the other side being the other side of the English Channel. Belmont felt that his dreams of opening a business were more likely to come to fruition in England than in Switzerland so off he set. All was well until he arrived in London and instead of boarding a train to the South Coast, as intended, his inability to communicate in the native tongue and the hurly-burly of a London train station, meant he boarded a train bound for the North.
Belmont eventually pitched up in Yorkshire and, also like many who have gone before and come since, decided that it wasn’t such a bad place after all. The green landscape perhaps reminded him of home? In 1919, Belmont opened his first tea rooms in Harrogate. The blend of Yorkshire hospitality with Swiss culinary precision was a hit and royal patronage soon followed. The tea rooms remain a hit today yet have retained the elegance and style of the past. You can still view the Art Nouveau marquetry designs of Yorkshire scenes on the walls in the basement, known as the Spindler Gallery. These were commissioned by Belmont in the 1930s from Charles Spindler’s studio in Alsace.
Bettys Café Tea Rooms in Harrogate is one of six Bettys cafes within the region. York, Northallerton, Ilkley and The Royal Horticultural Society’s Harlow Carr gardens also in Harrogate play host to the others. The larger of the York branches is also worth a visit. The interior design was apparently inspired by the Queen Mary cruise liner and still features a mirror on which Canadian and US ‘Bomber Boys’ scrawled their names as a lasting reminder of their time in residence at ‘Bettys' Bar’ in the basement.
As at many of the other locations, a testament to Bettys popularity in Harrogate is that on most days a queue extends at least to the doorway of the shop that precedes the café itself. On busy days this can even wind its way out of the door and down the hill past the Montpellier gardens. However, when you finally enter the shop it’s worth the wait as the sight of over 300 different edible fancies and the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee hit you. The coffee on sale is provided by another ‘northern institution’. Taylor’s, the Yorkshire tea and coffee merchants, who became Bettys' sister company in the 1960s, offer over 50 different varieties to tickle your taste-buds and complement the tasty morsels on offer.
Frederick Belmont believed that ‘if we want things just right then we have to do them ourselves’ and the company still adheres to this philosophy. All the culinary treats, such as Swiss Rősti and Yorkshire Curd Tart are made either in the kitchen or at the local Bettys Craft Bakery, next door to which is now located Bettys Cookery School, where the skills of baking and making chocolates are passed on to those of us less familiar with how to make things ‘fresh and dainty’ as Belmont prescribed – but not for free it must be said!
Whether you go for brunch, lunch, afternoon tea or dinner (or all of the above), once you are eventually seated you’ll find the service is a delicious blend of silver service mixed with motherly care and attention. The waiters are suited and the waitresses wear traditional black and white ‘waitress outfits’ so rarely seen these days. No-one fusses over you but neither are they surly. The staff are happy to offer menu advice and don’t rush you out of the door even though they can see the ever-increasing queue trailing past the window. You get the feeling they really do care. On my last visit, they even inspected the density of the coffee and insisted a new pot be brought as the coffee had not been brewed for long enough. It seems strange in the UK to come across waiters and waitresses who consider their job to be a profession rather than a stop-gap on the way to the next job. But then perhaps Betty’s has been placed in the top 50 UK employers by The Times (2005) newspaper for a reason? Could it be this trickle-down effect of the company ethos, combining hospitable service with the delicious delicacies served, is why when you mention the fact you’re going to Bettys in a room of Yorkshire folk you are guaranteed to hear a cry of ‘Oooooh, I love Bettys!’?.
So, who was Betty? Was she Belmont’s wife? Was she his sister? Well, mystery surrounds who this famous lady actually was. It could be Queen Elizabeth, the current queen’s late mother. It could be Betty Lupton, the ‘Queen of Harrogate Wells’, a former manageress of the Harrogate spa. It could even be a little girl who is thought to have inadvertently walked in on the Board’s first meeting in which the Tea Rooms were being discussed. Whoever she is, there can be no doubt, that these days there’s a jolly good cuppa and cake to be ‘ad round at our Bettys'!
1 Parliament Street
HG1 2QU, UK
Telephone: +44 (01423) 877300
Opening times: 9am – 9pm everyday
Credit cards? Yes
Reservations possible? No
Tips: A pianist plays from 6pm every evening
Two course meal for with tea/coffee = £40
Children catered for