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From car park to Yorkshire Dales garden

Simon Cotton, Managing Director, HRH Group talks about the roadmap to welcoming people back to hospitality in Harrogate.

This week has been one of my favourite weeks in hospitality for a number of years. Whilst it is a tough time for our industry at the moment, the community feel of encouragement and excitement of opening up again for a third time has been overwhelming and the local support and feel good factor on the streets of Harrogate could not fail to warm even the coldest of hearts.

Plan side by side

In recent weeks I have been privileged to work with a number of local people, including a Chelsea Flower Show Gold Award winning landscape gardener, horticulture specialists, a construction firm, a local charity and a wholesale plant nursery to name a few. We managed to create a community project that has brought both smiles to people faces and, I am not ashamed to say it, income for our business at a time when the whole industry, particularly local businesses need it the most.

When the Government announced that hospitality would be shutting for third time in January, here at The Yorkshire Hotel we knew that once again when Harrogate was reopened we would have to do something impressive to not only entice customers back but also make an effort to stand out from the crowd with everyone opening at the same time.

When Boris’s roadmap out of the latest lockdown was announced it was a surprise to hear that hospitality would only open outdoors for the first five weeks, limiting the availability of space to serve customers. Boris himself announced that restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars could open in beer gardens but should also look to use their car parks and other available space to create alfresco venues from 12th April. And whilst a great opportunity, enticing people to come out in the April weather to sit in a car park just doesn’t seem quite sexy enough to get most to venture out and spend money on good food and drink!

Family side

Last year when we reopened we created Costa del Harrogate with a beach scene outside the front, which proved very popular, so we knew all eyes would be on us to create something impressive once again. After refurbishing our restaurant and opening The Pickled Sprout as a botanical inspired restaurant and bar, I knew a floral tribute with a Yorkshire focus would be the perfect fit. So, in the midst of this creativity to transform our car park into something desirable enough to make April alfresco the new must in Harrogate, the idea was born to create first a garden, which then quickly moved to the vision for ‘Ales in the Dales’ a pastiche to the Yorkshire Dales in the car park of The Yorkshire Hotel.

I called around a number of friends and business contacts starting with the Richardson Family who own Johnson’s of Whixley, a superb wholesale Nursery. Next I spoke with Phil Airey at Horticap and he introduced me to well-known landscape gardener, Nick Fryer of Nicholas Edwards Gardens to create a vison of what we could do. He far exceeded my initial thoughts on creating a garden and he drew up the most ambitious of plans, some may say the most ambitious car park beer garden in the UK! Several days and meetings stood in the car park later, we had artist David Griffin paint an artist impression complete with a dry stone wall, hills, grass, plants, shrubs, trees and even sheep. The vision was to create the iconic Yorkshire Dales in the heart of Harrogate in front of The Yorkshire Hotel; a fitting alfresco scene for such an iconic location.

Train 799 x 500

This was shared with the hotel’s neighbours and Harrogate Borough Council and the button was quickly pushed to go ahead.

Whilst the sheep are of course ornamental, the rest of the garden uses real plants, trees and shrubs and even a specialist grass called WOW grass, something that is used for many show gardens and is very hardy to lots of footfall and weather conditions. Day one of the build saw HACS construction delivering 120 tons of topsoil as well as over 150 tons of Yorkshire rocks and stone. The landscaping sprung to life as the week progressed with the help of all the companies and individuals involved and the final piece, which many people, including the staff thought I was joking about all the way through, was the arrival of a miniature steam train to complete the vision. It was such a wonder to behold, seeing our vison become reality. People did ask, why the train?....my answer, “why not!”

During the 5 day build we had all four British seasons in one, with at one point fir trees planted in full snow with Phil singing “Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree” going down particularly well on social media! To be honest, half way through that day I wondered what we’d got ourselves into but each day I put out a video clip of the progress and with people messaging asking for the next one when I wasn’t quick enough creating it, I realised we had captured the mood of the town for reopening.

Of course, on opening day the sun shone, the wind, rain and snow stayed away and the Ales in the Dales garden was brimming with chatter, laughter, the clinking of glasses and the faint sound of a miniature steam train tooting up and down. It is wonderful to be able to be open again, trading and serving customers, even if it is only outside for now. But the best part for me is the sound of people enjoying themselves with laughter echoing around a place that for months has been a ghost town. I hope as everywhere else opens in the town, and those who are not as lucky as us to have outdoor space to utilise, do so with great success and our beautiful town bounces back as a wonderful full scale destination for locals and tourists.

Ribbon side by side

I would like to thank everyone involved in making Ales in the Dales a possibility. In particular;

  • Nick Fryer of Nicholas Edwards Gardens, for his vision and creativity to dream even bigger than me!
  • The team at Horticap, in particular Phil Airey, their Assistant Manager for their inclusion approach to landscape gardening, ensuring our project was sustainable and being our official charity partner; it was great to have some students involved on planting day.
  • Johnsons of Whixley for donating over 260 plants trees and shrubs to the project, many of which will be reused by Horticap afterwards.
  • HACS Group for donating 120 tonnes of top soil, 150 tonnes of Yorkshire stone and the use of their plant hire and team to create the iconic Yorkshire hills
  • Living Stone, duo Jason and Tracey Potter, for building a dry stone wall and creating quite the stir for a few days before the build began
  • Akula Living for lending a large range of outdoor furniture
  • Lindum Turf for the specialist grass
  • Welcome to Yorkshire for help in promoting and the loan of the big yellow Y
  • SSD Miniature Railway for bringing and operating their miniature steam train
  • David Griffin our artist

Final thanks go to the whole team at The Yorkshire Hotel and The Pickled Sprout for their continued belief in whatever crazy ideas I come up with, always rolling up their sleeves to get the job done and all with a smile on their faces. I have the best team here and none of this would be possible without their un-waivered dedication.

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