If anything or anywhere in Harrogate was a safe bet never to change, the Stray would have seemed that thing. But, perhaps, no longer.
Occupying a central part of town and seen by many as a key reason for Harrogate’s unique character, its origins can be traced to the mists of the town’s early spa heritage. Now Harrogate Borough Council is proposing to relax the rules over its use.
With the official public consultation beginning on this controversial issue the Harrogate Advertiser is launching its own Great Stray Debate.
1 What is The Stray and where is it?
The Stray is 200 acres (80 hectares) of gloriously open, very green grassland.
It’s sheer size and central position at the heart of Harrogate can be judged by the fact parts of it touch on every main route into town - Leeds Road, Wetherby Road, Knaresborough Road and the beginning of Parliament Street.
It also meets three vital roundabouts - the Empresss, the Prince of Wales and the Crown.
Its floral charm doesn’t come easily.
The Stray has had six to seven milliom crocus planted in the grass over the years.
2 Who owns The Stray?
Originally land belonging to The Crown as part of the Duchy of Lancaster in the days when Harrogate was a small village, it came into being as common land on August 19, 1778 under the Enclosures Act of 1770.
As the town grew rapidly in the 19th century into a sophisticated town, the recently-created town council eventually took control of the Stray in 1893 thanks to a cash payment of £11,780 and an Act of Parliament.
Harrogate Borough Council is responsible by law for its mangement to this day.
3 What would you have expected to see on The Stray in its early DAYS?
Mainly sheep, cattle and other livestock.
The Enclosures Act allowed a total of 26 owners to run 50 cattlegates to control use of the Stray.
At that time, the devisees of Sir Thomas Ingilby, Baronet, held 12 of them.
Not that the system stopped rogue animals or unauthorised livestock owners straying onto the Stray.
Once the town council took control, the early period of council control in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw livestock on the Stray mostly make way for the land to become a place of entertainment for residents and visitors.
There were concerts, Punch and Judy, Pierrot shows and horse racing.
The Stray even became an airfield for a time in 1914 and hosted the Great Yorkshire Show in 1929.
4 What is The Stray used for today?
On an average weekday, the Stray is empty save for the odd pedestrian, cyclist, runner or, very occasionally, a horse rider.
Harrogate Borough Council’s website says: “This 200 acres of open grassland and verges wraps around the main urban “old town” of Harrogate.
“It exists for the people of the town and is a popular spot for picnicking, kite-flying, outdoor games and local football matches.
“Two fairs take place annually on Oatlands Drive Stray. Circuses take place periodically. The Stray bonfire is organised each November by Harrogate and District Round Table.”
Stirrings of change arose after the success of the Tour de France in 2014.
The hosting by Harrogate of the first stage of one of the biggest sporting events in the world saw a Fan Park built on the Stray at West Park.
Crowds of up to 20,000 on the Stray not only watched a sprint finish but enjoyed a weekend of food and drink and live music.
The event was such a success, Harrogate Borough Council licenced the live rock music event, Harrogate Fake Festival with a mix of tribute bands and local bands the very next year. It, too, proved a hit with the public.
As for the part of the Stray which runs down Montpellier Hill, that has been utilised in recent years for the Harrogate Christmas Market (organised by Harrogate Chamber of Trade) and a big movie screen (organised by Harrogate International Festivals).
5 What harrogate borough council wants to do now
Harrogate Borough Council hopes to make it easier for it to allow more public events to take place on the Stray.
6 So why can’t they?
Simple. The Harrogate Stray Act 1985, a private Act of Parliament.
The Stray Act places strict rules on how the 200 acres of common land can be used while giving the council the responsibility to protect the land and preserve the open space for everyone.
The original Enclosures Act required the town to keep the Stray at all times unenclosed and unbuilt on as an open, green space for the recreation and enjoyment of the public.
7 So what exactly is the council proposing as a solution?
The council says: “The Stray Act stipulates that for many types of events, only 3.5 hectares (the size of an international rugby pitch) can be enclosed by fencing an area off or having tents or marquees, and that the total time for which any part of the Stray can be enclosed must not exceed 35 days annually.
“Currently, there is an annual programme of regular events such as the fair, often booked years in advance, and there is little scope for any additional events.
“In the case of the Tour de France in 2014, the size of the area and the number of days required for the event meant it did not fit with the restrictions of the Stray Act and the council had to apply to Parliament for a temporary relaxation of some of the rules.
“The same application is being made in relation to the Tour de Yorkshire for 2017.
“To avoid similar repeated applications to Parliament in the future, the council is proposing the Stray Act be amended.”
8 Haven’t we been here before?
In a way. Asides from arguments in the 18th and 19th centuries between livestock owners over numbers of animals, the popularity of cycling led to a major controversy in 2006 over whether bikes were allowed to be used on paths across the Stray.
The Stray’s gradual transformation into an area of public entertainment in the Victorian and Edwardian eras led to raised tempers.
So heated were feelings after the Great Yorkshire Show took place in 1929, known then as the Royal Show, that angry residents drove a cavalcade of Rolls Royces over flowerbeds on the Stray at West Park in protest.
9 What happened next?
The Stray Defence Association. It came into being on the 12th May 1933 and more than 80 years later its objective remains the same, to safeguard Harrogate’s Stray against building and encroachment from all quarters and uphold the Act granting freedom of the Stray to all people for all time.
10 What’s the next step?
Harrogate Borough Council is currently seeking views on modernising the Stray Act to increase the variety, frequency and size of events.
The council says: “We believe there is public support for a modest increase in the number of events held on the land and a desire for greater flexibility around the type and scale of those events.
“The purpose of the consultation is to test the public appetite for change and to understand how far they want us to go in making changes possible.”
The public consultaton will run until Monday, February 6, 2017.
The public consultation is available to complete at www.harrogate.gov.uk/strayact with printed copies also available at the council’s Crescent Gardens offices.
During the consultation, the Harrogate Advertiser will be running a regular series of articles on the debate.
It is inviting the public to give its views via the Harrogate Advertiser Facebook page, website or Twitter @HgateAdvertiser or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org