Harrogate Civic Society backs campaign to restore Sun Colonnade in Valley Gardens after plea by historian Malcolm Neesam

It was once one of Harrogate’s most important heritage ‘crown jewels’ but calls are growing for a key part of the Valley Gardens to be brought back to its proper glory - and the campaign has already received the backing of Harrogate Civic Society.

By Graham Chalmers
Thursday, 6th January 2022, 5:38 pm
Putting the Sun Colonnade to good use - Visitors to last month's Little Bird Artisan Market at the Valley Gardens in Harrogate. (Picture Gerard Binks)
Putting the Sun Colonnade to good use - Visitors to last month's Little Bird Artisan Market at the Valley Gardens in Harrogate. (Picture Gerard Binks)

Leading public figures are lending their voices to historian Malcolm Neesam’s pleas to restore the Sun Colonnade - including a full re-roofing.

In an open letter published in the Harrogate Advertiser, Mr Neesam argues the iconic colonnades have been an “under-valued asset” for too long.

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Not only would it protect the historic facility from any further deterioration, he adds it would enable more revenue-generating events to take part in Harrogate’s most beautiful public park.

Mr Neesam said: “I congratulate Harrogate Borough Council on the remedial work they have undertaken recently but, for too long, the Sun Colonnade has been an under-valued asset.

“It would add to the Sun Colonnade’s potential as a venue for occasional income generating activities such as displays, retailing, the arts, cultural life, and entertainment, if the transparent roof could be restored, possibly using light-weight clear plastic panels. This would protect users and visitors from bad weather, and also protect the currently exposed timber of the roof from any further decay.”

The Sun Pavilion and linked Colonnades were first opened in 1933 as part of a council effort to boost the town’s spa reputation and provide a new covered area in the Valley Gardens which had been developed as landscaped gardens in the 1860s.

After decades of successfully playing host to horticultural shows on a regular basis, the Sun Pavilion was refurbished in 1998 and opened by the Queen.

But concern has grown since then that it is the colonnades which require more attention.

Recent years have seen repair work carried out by Harrogate Borough Council but the open letter issued by Malcolm Neesam reflects a growing desire to see this precious asset for Harrogate given the priority it deserves.

Already the author and historian’s new campaign is receiving support from other notable names in the town’s public life.

Harrogate Civic Society this week supported Mr Neesam's and said it had already been working with Harrogate Borough Council on some improvements at the Colonnades.

The Harrogate Civic Society statement to the Harrogate Advertiser said:

"Harrogate Civic Society welcomes general improvements to the Sun Colonnade and was pleased to see the lighting introduced before Christmas and to see that missing glazing to the roof of the sun parlours has also been replaced.

"Discussions between Friends of Valley Gardens, the Civic Society and Graham Swift, deputy leader of Harrogate Borough Council, have focussed on the need to remove much of the overgrown ivy in order to allow better natural light and to open up the existing windows on the north west side of the Colonnade.

"We all agree that re-glazing of the roof is desirable but recognise the substantial cost involved. Maybe some areas could be glazed initially in order to provide users with sheltered areas?

"Without substantial funding, this is not a project to be achieved immediately, but hopefully, little by little, we can restore the Sun Colonnade and bring this historic part of Harrogate back to life."

Henry Pankhurst, a past chair of Harrogate Civic Society, is also backing Mr Neesam, arguing the situation needs looking at urgently.

Mr Pankhurst said: “Speaking personally, I would enthusiastically support the roofing of the Sun Colonnade,” he said. “It is very important that the roof timbers do not get to a state whereby the situation cannot be retrieved.

“Hopefully most of the structure can be saved.

“If the colonnades can be put to beneficial uses in addition to simply walking and sitting under, so much the better.

“If there is revenue to be had then it may be an encouragement for work to begin.”

The success of Little Bird Made’s festive artisan market last month has given the case by Mr Neesam and others fresh impetus.

Held for two days on December 4-5, the event was hugely popular, reviving memories of the packed crowds in the Valley Gardens when it staged spring and summer flower shows each year from 1934 to 1995.

Former Harrogate Advertiser columnist Anne Smith remembers those days well and is backing the campaign.

Having been one of the driving forces behind the formation of Friends of the Valley Gardens in 1986 when there were similar fears for the future of the Sun Colonnades, the Pannal-based author and historian says this battle is one which must be won.

“What a wonderful asset they are to the Valley Gardens but think what a wonderful asset they could be to Harrogate,” she said. “In 1986 we had to fight to stop the Sun Pavilion and Colonnades from being demolished for a car park.

“It’s high time they were re-roofed and then they could hold and attract many events for the benefit of Harrogate.

“The Christmas fairs and markets could be held there and also the long-missed Artists and Painters Exhibition.”

If anyone understands the importance of the Sun Colonnades to Harrogate’s heritage, it’s Mr Neesam.

The veteran historian has built up a high reputation over several decades with a series of deeply researched, epic books such as Harrogate Great Chronicle, 1332-1841 and Music Over the Waters: How Music at Harrogate Spa Led to the Establishment of the International Festival.

After spending so much time looking back, he now believes it’s time to look to the future.

A brief history of Harrogate's Sun Colonnade

The deepest roots of the Sun Colonnade in the Valley Gardens go back to the 19th century when Harrogate was built up as an international spa town after the discovery of mineral springs centuries earlier.

The first building in Valley Gardens was erected in 1858, when the Harrogate Improvement Commissioners built a small pump room for the popular magnesia waters.

The Sun Pavilion, whch replaced a glass fronted tea house, and the Sun Colonnade were opened in 1933 by the Rt Hon. Lord Horder of Ashford KCVO, an eminent physician whose patients included Queen Elizabeth II.

In the 1980s the Friends of Valley Gardens were formed in response to the loss of the Horticultural shows and the decline and closure of the Sun Pavilion.

Partly-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, in 1998 the Sun Pavilion was fully restored and reopened by the Queen.