Could we drink Harrogate's sulphur water again? - The latest on the Royal Pump Room Museum's major developments

A stakeholder group has been created to launch discussion and debate about the future of the Royal Pump Room Museum.
A stakeholder group has been created to launch discussion and debate about the future of the Royal Pump Room Museum.

Could we drink our town's sulphur water again? For centuries visitors flocked to Harrogate to taste the healing waters - among them the likes of Charles Dickens and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, but in 2012 EU regulations ruled them unfit for human consumption.

Now, as part of a major transformation of the Royal Pump Room, the question of whether we should be able to drink the water again is back on the agenda, and was debated at the latest museum stakeholder meeting.

The group has been launched to gather views and ideas from Harrogate residents about how changes to the museum could take shape. In May this year, Harrogate Borough Council announced an investment of £150,000 towards the refurbishment, and excitement about improving the visitor experience was already building at the well-attended meeting held in the Mercer Art Gallery.

Local historian Malcolm Neesam, said being able to drink the sulphur water is essential.

He said: "This was for centuries regarded as the life’s blood of the town, and the reason why people came here from all over the world. Put at its most basic, you can say that without the sulphur water, there would be no town of Harrogate.

"Millions of people have taken the sulphur waters, and there is not a single example of anyone being harmed by them. Modern methods of scientific analysis enable us to discover more minute traces of the waters component parts, and if some of these elements in larger quantities are regarded as dangerous, then we should avoid consuming them in massive amounts.

"What we must do is to see that the natural spa waters remain uncontaminated by human interference, and ensure that they remain biologically pure.

"Providing a museum of Harrogate without enabling people to taste the waters is in my opinion a waste of time - a fake, a sham, and an absurdity. The Sulphur Well is the whole reason, the only reason, why the building is there. Everything else in it is a later by-product.

"Our forefathers would turn in their graves if they could see that warning sign which discourages people from tasting the water.

"I would like the new main exhibition to be on the Spa, with secondary displays on the visitors - this could encompass fashion, transport, shops, entertainment and sport."

The organiser of Harrogate's Pride in Diversity festival, and group member, Leonora Wassell, whose father-in-law used to drink the water every day while he worked at the Royal Pump Room Museum, told the Advertiser that being able to offer the experience again could be an important part of bringing the town's history to life, for both locals and visitors.

Leonora said: "Certainly for people to be able to come in and experience things - to not just look at them, but experience them in an interactive way, is very important.

"If you had different bottles of water for people to try, it makes the experience that bit more engaging. Drinking the water gives a sense of what people thought at the time, about the health benefits of it, and how they were concerned about the wellbeing of people.

"This is about making the museum alive. I am passionate about history, but it should be living history."

There was also talk at the meeting about ways of bringing the historic building back to how it was originally, and how the space could also be used more as a community hub.

The curator of the Royal Pump Room Museum, May Catt, said: "We are doing some important fundraising work at the moment to really see how we can re-display the museum and perhaps bring the building back to how it was originally.

"We are asking particular questions - for example, could we drink the water again? Could we reveal more of the glass in the 1913 extension, and bring the building back to life? Could it be lit up at night, and could we have different types of activities to bring in more local audiences?

"We are really encouraging local people to give us their views about how they might imagine a new and improved museum."

Another hot topic discussed by the group was how to drive an increase in repeat local visitors to the museum, and make the most of the space to possibly introduce new features on a more regular basis.

Unveiling themed exhibitions closely tied in with national news and events was suggested by the group as a potential way of keeping the museum's appeal current

Leonora said: "It is about being relevant, and having that engagement. When you have got things happening nationwide, this would show that Harrogate is making connections, and connecting history with the present.

"You could tie in with things like LGBT history month, refugees, and equality. It would be showing residents and people visiting that the museum is current, that it is reacting to things in the news."

Another suggestion thrown around to look at making the visitor experience more immersive was the idea of being assigned an illness or a specific ailment when you walk through the door - visitors would then be that character throughout, finding out what sort of treatments they would have had.

What would you like to see at the Royal Pump Room Museum? Get in touch - email me: finola.fitzpatrick@jpress.co.uk, or call 01423 707505.