I got off the train at Knaresborough and immediately felt a pang of regret. It was nothing to do with the station, which was utterly charming. The Victorian buildings had been preserved and maintained, the ironwork was freshly painted and clean. Reproduction posters lined one of the walls.
The regret was mainly based on the fact that I wouldn't be able to spend very long here. My Excel spreadsheet with all the times and travel methods - always a valuable and entertaining part of the trip planning - gave me an hour to get from here to the next station, Starbeck. Which was a shame, because Knaresborough looked like a gem.
The only thing I'd known about the town before arrival was its involvement in the English Civil War, when the Roundheads captured it after the Battle of Marston Moor. Beyond that - nothing. Now I could see pretty stone buildings, Georgian town houses, a peek of river down old worn steps. I took the sign picture while gnashing my teeth.
There was an underpass beneath the tracks, stained with rust from the ironwork, and I came out on the other side in the delightfully named Water Bag Bank. Our forefathers may have been many things but they weren't necessarily poets. Still, they knew how to build a pretty house.
I walked past the parish church then turned to head downhill, past a couple of pubs. I paused on the bridge over the river Nidd and once again cursed my foolish planning. I'll have to come back.
Over the other side was a true curiosity: Mother Shipton's Cave. Known as England's "first tourist attraction", it's the home of the "Petrifying Well" - a waterfall whose high mineral content means that it can turn items "to stone". There's an awful lot of inverted commas in that last sentence, which just about sums it up. It's based on a load of superstition - Mother Shipton herself was a "prophetess" - though the science behind the petrification is perfectly valid: it's just stalactites and stalagmites, only quicker. It sounded amusing, but I was surprised to see that there was a gate barring entry, and even if you wanted to go in you had to pay.
Instead I pushed on, up and over the hill, towards Harrogate. Two disgustingly healthy women jogged past me, one of them wearing a vest with MARATHON 2015 written on it. That's just showing off. Woop-de-do, you can run 26 miles without dying. I could do that if I wanted - I just choose not to.
I passed the Harrogate Golf Course ("Unlimited Golf for £88 a month") and descended into Starbeck, It's a small suburb on the edge of Harrogate, and was currently under siege from a chain of parked cars. There's a level crossing right through the centre of the main street, and it was letting a York train through. The road is far too busy for this sort of interruption, but there's no way to get round it other than an expensive bridge, so you're left with a traffic jam every half an hour.
Starbeck just underlined my regrets about having to leave Knaresborough so quickly. It wasn't that it was bad, it was just ordinary. There were shops and pubs and bus stops like anywhere else in Britain. It didn't have that special glow like Knaresborough had. There was a KFC, for goodness' sake.
Some of the shops were quirkier than normal, I'll give you that. Harrogate Angling Supplies advertised that it supplied "pet food, air guns (18+ only)" and a pint of maggots for £1.40. Everything you could ever wish for. I tried not to think about the maggots being stored right next door to Elite Butchers. Actually I tried not to think about Elite Butchers at all, because of their crimes against the English language. A sandwich board outside promoted their "Chicken Gordon Bleu", which I thought might be a gag until I spotted a sign in the window informing me that their "potato's" are sold in oven proof trays. One spelling mistake, I can forgive; two is abominable.
More interesting was the factory for Farrah's of Harrogate, makers of toffee for over a hundred years. You might not recognise the name, but you'll recognise the blue and white tins the toffee comes in - they're a standard product in artsy craftsy gift shops across the nation. Doctor Who even used one of the tins to store some crystals in Planet of Evil. I actually bought the BF some Farrah's toffee a couple of years ago for his birthday; he is a big toffee fan. He had one or two and then the tin sat under the coffee table for six months before being thrown away. Farrah's Harrogate Toffee is odd. It was originally invented as something to take the taste away from drinking the town's mineral waters, but frankly, I'd prefer the sulphurous aftertaste.
Starbeck station is blessed with the weeniest station sign I have ever seen. It's about a foot square.
The station itself is nothing special. Just a couple of platforms and waiting shelters. While I was there, two workmen arrived and began inspecting the Harrington Hump. I'm not sure what they were looking at, but they fenced off one particular section and spent at least two minutes staring at it.
The train arrived, fortunately not squishing the squirrel who'd leapt onto the tracks a few seconds before (he nimbly leapt up onto the platform with only moments to spare; he was clearly the Bruce Willis of the squirrel world), and carried us off to Harrogate.
I was ready for Harrogate. Knaresborough's charm had been a surprise to me, but I'd heard about Harrogate. Its reputation preceded it. I stepped off the train and all but shouted, "Come on Harrogate! Charm the fuck out of me!"
Then I looked up.
I didn't expect that. I thought Harrogate was going to be a sort of Northern Bath, but here was a big slab of Brutalism staring down at me. It was compounded by the footbridge that had been installed over the tracks from a nearby shopping centre to the car park. The doubling up made it look clumsy and inelegant.
I'd assumed that Harrogate would have a fine old Victorian station, but that was demolished in the Sixties after Beeching cut three of the four railway services that passed through the town. It was replaced by a solid grey box which Northern had done its best to make look festive, but was a real disappointment.
It was stark and unfriendly, and three sets of doors made it cold. A draught whipped through and caused the waiting passengers to huddle in their coats.
The normal place to go on arriving in Harrogate would be its scenic spa facilities. The waters in the town were famous in the 17th century, and the wealthy people visiting in search of rejuvenation made the residents very rich very quickly. I wasn't really interested in that - I wanted A Little Peace.
The Harrogate International Centre was the venue for the 1982 Eurovision Song Contest, and as a fan of the pan-continental kitsch fest, I had to go and see it. Royaume Uni won the right to host the contest after Bucks Fizz's skirt ripping triumph in Dublin the year before and for some reason, Harrogate was chosen as the host city. This is in the days when Eurovision was a relatively modest affair you could tuck away in a conference centre in a small Yorkshire town. Last year, the Danes converted an entire abandoned shipyard into "Eurovision Island", so things have grown slightly.
Some kind soul (/madman) has put the entire 1982 Eurovision on YouTube, and bless him for it. I watched it before I headed to the town and if you've got a couple of hours to spare, I'd highly recommend you watch it too. It's delightfully ramshackle and naff, a real throwback to when Eurovision was kind of awful and therefore, kind of wonderful. Nowadays the show is slick and professional, and the really dreadful songs get weeded out in the Semi-Finals where most of the continent will miss it. I think I preferred the Bad Old Days.
If you haven't got time to watch the whole thing, do watch the start where the BBC pretty much admit that Harrogate is a bizarre choice to host it and say "Where is Harrogate?" in a dozen languages. You can see the Harrogate International Centre in all its glory, filled with dinner jacketed dignitaries instead of the 8000 gays who attend the show these days.
In case you were wondering, no, we didn't win that year. Our entry was Bardo, a perky twosome who pranced their way around the stage singing "One Step Further". They were doing it in real life, you know.
The orchestra was, naturally, under the direction of Ronnie Hazlehurst. Anyway, we came seventh, behind this weirdo from Israel (who came 2nd!):
but thankfully ahead of the Austrian entry, which is so bad it makes me want to clap and run round the room giggling:
I miss the postcards between songs.
In the meantime, Finland managed to get nil points with this rancid turd from hell:
They reckoned they were taking the mickey, but they were from Finland, so who could tell? (Sorry: Eurovision always turns me into a mini-Farage),
Anyway, come the end, host Jan Leeming (wearing a sparkly headband, because EIGHTIES) announced that the winner was Nicole from (West) Germany. It was the first time Germany had ever won the contest (and they've only won it once more since, with Lena's superb Satellite in 2010). Ein Bißchen Frieden was a heartfelt plea for tolerance and peace; like a lot of German songs it sounds great in its native tongue and hopelessly trite in English.
I scoured the convention centre for a plaque commemorating this significant event in European culture. Harrogate seemed to stick a plaque on everything else in town; why not this? I couldn't find anything though, not a bronze square, not a blue circle, not a single statue of Nicole having a quick strum. It was terribly disappointing. Also disappointing were the more modern extensions to the HIC - dull glass boxes that couldn't compare with the swirly glory of that main rotunda building.
I wandered off, singing "Ein Bißchen Frieden" to myself as I went. I always thought I was a Eurovision nut, but then I met some other fans at a North West meet up and realised that I really wasn't in the same league. I buy the competition CD every year, and I can just about list the winners, if you give me a while; I've never even watched Melodifestivalen. I'm certainly not in the same league as Jamie, who makes videos about the contest on his Sight & Song vlog. I bow down to his superior knowledge.
Behind the HIC the town reverted to type. There were fine homes and mansion blocks. Harrogate is regularly voted one of the best places to live in Britain and I could certainly see why. The sunlight sparkled off clean tree-lined streets and between attractive rooftops. On a hill, the Majestic Hotel surveyed its people, imperious and proud, and definitely ignoring the Premier Inn that had been built at its feet.
The town was starting to work its magic. I headed back into the centre, keen to see more.