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The Song of the Swan

Cover  -  Introduction  -  Chapter 1  - Chapter 2  -  Chapter 3  -  Chapter 4 
Chapter 5   -   Chapter 6   -   Chapter 7   -   Pictures

Chapter 6

On the 5th October, 1947, the train service from Kings Cross to Harrogate changed to winter schedules, and Muriel and Geoffrey Wright with their small son, Terence , aged 18 months, in portable high chair, boarded the Queen of Scots Pullman train that day and stood in a crowded corridor for four hours! Bless that 20th century mother for her beauty and her gentleness, and for her good sense in buying the portable high chair for Terence. Then finally, stifled, and aching in limb (and fit for treatment), the family alighted, and gulped down that marvellous Yorkshire air, which when drenched with heather seems at its best in October, and concluded that their postwar appointment as managers of the famous Hydro at Harrogate, and their married life ahead, might possibly include some bees and honey too.

The company secretary soon set the scene of operations and introduced, the friend of a lifetime, a descendant of Betty Lupton, "Mr Harrogate", W W (Bill) Baxter; himself also, but a year or two before, demobbed from the army and re-instated as Entertainments and Publicity Manager to the moribund town of many assets - mostly floral.

The two friends, Bill Baxter, backed by the Corporation, and Geoffrey Wright, backed by his company, strove to re-habilitate, to plant, and to sow and to strive again for that harvest, which had certainly failed between 1939 and 1945, even though, the sacred Stray had been ploughed up to grow food!

"Harrogate, Britain's Floral Resort", was the first banner to be flown in the praise of this lovely town. In his great wisdom and farsightedness, the licensee of the Dragon in Bilton, Alderman Harry Bolland, Chairman of the Finance Committee, formulated the policy of attracting conferences into the struggling hotels and into the splendid Royal Hall, where nearly 1,500 delegates could be seated in plenary session. Bill Baxter went into action, with that verve and enthusiasm which characterises his every promotion, and soon Harrogate was to lead the field in numbers of town conferences held in any of Britain's resorts. Harrogate has never been overtaken by any competitor since, and, with its hotels, has modernised its facilities, built 100,000 square feet of new exhibition halls, and now justly acclaims itself as Britain's Number 1 Conference and Trade Fair Centre.

The Yorkshire Agricultural Society has been provided with land upon which to establish permanent buildings for the annual Great Yorkshire Show in July.

The Harrogate Festival has been sponsored, and with the Halle Festival, the town has been developed as a regional cultural centre too.

Now in 1977, the foundation stone has been laid by the Chairman of the British Tourist Authority, Sir Alexander Glen, of a new purpose-built conference hall with all the most modern equipment and facilities and with extra exhibition and catering services. The tourism chief averred that the venture must be promoted jointly with the town's conference hotels and not separately from them, in order that Harrogate as a whole, can be effectively marketed both at home and abroad, Harrogate will now compete, as well as ever, against the new competition of the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham; against Wembley; against the Barbican in London and against Brighton in the south.

In support, the Old Swan Hotel has come a long way since the wardrobes and dining tables were mended and re-polished in 1947. The Wright family and their associates have poured new money into the famous and well-loved hotel and thoroughly modernised it year by year. Muriel (Micky) Wright has proved herself as an interior designer and decorator even more talented than her architect predecessor. She has created a beautiful country house, with a stately home atmosphere, where today's visitors find their every need is satisfied. The hotel retains its four star rating awarded by the motoring organisations and car clubs of every European country, and has become a founder member of the Prestige Hotels in Britain consortium.

Over the years, all the old bedroom fireplaces have been pulled out; all except the genuine antique pieces of furniture, have been scrapped and replaced with fitted furniture. In all, 130 rooms have their own private bathroom and wc facilities en suite. The bedroom floors have been re-wired, re-carpeted in exclusive patterns, and renovated in every sense.

The biggest transformation, at least in decor, has taken place on the ground floor, where the beautiful Garden Room Suite, has been made out of the old ballroom and Winter Garden (where Agatha Christie was spotted). The writing room is now the Red Lounge, with its magnificent, positively baronial fireplace enhanced by the new decor, whilst the Rose Room is a miracle - as there were no outside windows to let in the light, Micky Wright put three intensities of light over all the ceiling; the effect has been marvellously praised by all who use the room.

The story of the Children's Day Nursery, now the most modern functional conference or meeting room has to be unfolded as it happened. Micky Wright had pressed the directors, including her husband, to let her create a day nursery, so that mothers could come for a holiday and rest knowing that the children would be well cared for by the resident qualified children's nurse; the room was a delight, with giraffes and monkeys and palm trees round the walls.

One day, twenty-eight years ago, Val Green, secretary of Toy Fair (Manchester) Ltd. called at the hotel and asked if rooms could be booked as stockrooms because neither Manchester nor Leeds could accommodate his Toy Fair in the first week in January every year when toy traders had for seventy years prior to the war, habitually met together to show their toys and take orders for the following year's Christmas trade from the invited buyers from all over the North of England, from Scotland and from Ireland.

Geoffrey Wright, much to his wife's disgust, said he thought he had a room which was quite exceptionally suitable for the purpose, not realising for a moment the magnitude of the inquiry. The Children's Nursery won the day for the Swan, when all other hotel managers in the town had turned the inquiry down as beneath the dignity of their hotels. Thus did the Old Swan secure for Harrogate on a ten-year contract the Harrogate International Toy Fair, soon to build up to 350 exhibiting firms, including all the biggest names in the trade, in the doldrum month of January. The town co-operated as best it could, but before the exhibition halls were built, considerably to meet the demand of the Toy Fair, it was the hotels who put bedroom furniture back into storage for the week or ten days and made bedrooms into stockrooms, as well as the reception rooms on the ground floor, which were allocated to the bigger firms.

The Fancy Goods Association, the National Association of Outfitters, and several others adopted Harrogate for their annual fairs. All were successful. Thus with conference and trade fairs, the Harrogate Corporation (blessed with a succession of dedicated mayors) and the big conference hotels working together, a good degree of real prosperity has been restored, much to the benefit of the town as a whole. Perhaps the conference which really shook the post-war town into activity, and which made every ratepayer realize how much these organised visitors would bring with them and leave behind, was the Soroptimist International of 1948. Ladies of all nationalities in the western world arrived and circulated and met and talked and no doubt decided many things; but the Old Swan will never forget the United States delegation which made its headquarters at the hotel. The American ladies were charming to a degree and generous to distraction. They came loaded with all the goodies imaginable, for Britain was still subject to food rationing and they seemed to believe we were starving. They threw cocktail parties for every branch of Soroptimists they met; the older taxi drivers still remember their tips, as these ladies bountiful flashed from hotel to hotel.

Regard which has developed into real friendship, is afforded each year to the Institute of Personnel Management when they hold their national conference in Harrogate, they have been coming now each Autumn for 28 years. Others like the Law Society and the National Housing and Town Planning come every second or third year. The Toy Fair, the Autumn Shoe Fair and the Gift Fair are annual events. Harrogate is proud to receive all these and many more besides whether from home or abroad. This is the new harvest, it is perhaps more difficult to garner than that of yesteryear, but then we are all more experienced and variety is the spice of life! Certainly the conference game gives to hoteliers plenty of variety. No two conferences are ever the same, and installing showrooms for trade fairs is a whole new experience, requiring the services of many different non-hotelier tradesmen for success.




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