My home town: Sharon Canavar on Harrogate

Sharon Canavar in the  Valley Gardens in Harrogate.
Sharon Canavar in the Valley Gardens in Harrogate.

Sharon Canavar, the CEO of Harrogate International Festivals, explains the impact Harrogate has had on her life.

I was born and brought up in central Harrogate, the eldest of four children. My dad worked – and still works – in the family funeral company, Swainsons, which goes back to the 19th century. We grew up around big black cars, and conversations about death and funerals were normal.

My grandfather had incredibly high standards in how to look after people at a difficult time and how to organise things immaculately, whether the funeral was smaller or a great big event. His way of doing things rubbed off, I think.

We didn’t have huge amounts of money, but my parents believed in the enrichment to be gained from music and books, so there was a lot of both in the house. Mum played piano and dad the cornet.

I did well at GCSEs but in the sixth form I discovered free periods and would go off to Leeds in a friend’s car. I coasted, and there was a lot of “I’m studying at Debbie’s house tonight” while enjoying the ‘10p a Pint’ night at Josephine’s nightclub.

I studied the flute and piano, which later got me into music college in Essex, and came in handy when I had a holiday job playing the organ for funerals in the chapel at Stonefall Crematorium, Harrogate.

One of my tutors was called Glyn Parfitt, and he was a proper, old-school teacher who brought everything to life but didn’t put up with nonsense.

If you performed badly he’d say “Leave the room, burn your instrument.”

I think that taught me that if you’re going to do something, do it to the best of your ability.

I studied arts business alongside music, and came back to Harrogate to do work experience helping backstage during the Harrogate Youth Music Festival, organised by travel company Kuoni.

I remember being bowled over by so many young performers coming hundreds or thousands of miles to my town for this exciting event. Out of that work experience came my first proper job – in Kuoni’s Oxford Street office – running the Harrogate Youth Music Festival from London, as well as
selling other specialist holidays in the UK.

I got to travel the globe, and wherever I went I encouraged people to come to Harrogate. I think I definitely needed to go away for a while to appreciate the many great things Harrogate has to offer.

They include a beautiful town with lots of green space surrounded by gorgeous countryside and coast not far away; great hospitality and shops; some stunning architecture; wonderful people with a great sense of pride in the town and a long-established cultural tradition.

I moved on to another travel firm, starting a new department specialising in high level tours for touring ensembles. It was about sales, marketing, finance – and diplomatic skills. I travelled extensively, often to the US, then 9/11 happened and travelling regularly became more challenging.

During this tricky time I’d got married to Tim, who was my next door neighbour in London. After a less than promising start, one day he rescued me from my broken-down car, we became friends and he asked me to finish with my boyfriend back in Yorkshire so we could start dating.

Tim was brought up in Istanbul and London, so Harrogate came as a surprise to him. We wanted a less frenzied life than we had in London, and saw Harrogate as a great place to bring up kids. We now have two children, Ben and Grace, and it’s wonderful that they can enjoy places like Brimham Rocks, which have always entranced me.

I love being near my family, and really Harrogate has so much to
offer, with so much going on within walking distance. The only thing that’s missing is a small, sticky-floored jazz club.

I believe passionately in diversity in and access to the arts, and for 10 months ran a Youth Music-funded organisation called North Yorkshire Music Action Zone, which offers
music tuition to disadvantaged children.

But, coming from a commercial background, I found the pace of decision making in local government very slow. I moved to become operations manager for Harrogate International Festivals, which at that time comprised a series of chamber concerts and a two-week music festival in the summer.

During my first summer the Theakstons Old Peculier Crimewriting Festival was launched and it took off amazingly. I used my travel contacts to get them to sell it to their clients, and two big groups came from the US on the Queen Mary. From the start we had Val McDermid on board as our programming chair and the whole thing sold.

In 2004 the festivals were in dire financial straits, but our trustees and faithful followers rallied round us – for instance, our now vice president, Lesley Garrett, performed for free at a fundraising dinner.

Six years ago I became CEO of the organisation, and it was such an honour to take on this job in my home town. We now have several festivals under the one umbrella, and the town hosts 300 different events each year between classical music, jazz, literature, crime writing, history and Salon North events – stimulating evenings where three experts talk on a common theme and the audience gets to question them.

With the music events we find that 80 per cent of the audience comes from within an hour’s drive. For the crime writing festival the opposite is true, 
and up to seven per cent come from abroad.

The festivals are worth £8.2m to Harrogate each year.

Alongside the concerts and sessions we run with famous authors, the festivals have a remit to do educational work, and my passion is spreading
the love of music and literature.
I don’t know what I’d do without them in my life – they really are transformational.

Projects we run include workshops for kids, some of them vulnerable young boys. They may become disaffected from school and books, but stories involving blood and gore usually
hook them. One of our other schemes is Musical Mums – singing sessions for mothers under 25 and their babies.

People think of Harrogate as very middle-class, but it has its pockets of deprivation. The festivals are here to embrace everyone, and music and books are for everyone.

With the 50th anniversary of Harrogate International Festivals coming up in 2016, we’re planning special events including a fire sculpture evening for 15,000 people in the Valley Gardens.

Harrogate isn’t perfect – and for one thing I’d like to see a lot more diversity among our audiences – but I think it was good to spend 12 years away because it made me realise what a gem this town is.

What’s so special about Harrogate? 
It has a vibrant underbelly – it’s 
not just about tea shops and
flowers – and people in this town really care.