THE experience you get at Hales Bar depends almost entirely on the choice you make as you step through the main door.
Head left and you find yourself in a simple taproom of flagged floors, art deco lampshades and a wood-burning stove. They call this the Vaults Bar; it’s lovely and unspoiled, yet by making this choice you might be oblivious to the pleasures which awaited had you turned right into the Main Bar.
A bunch of us called in on a Saturday afternoon a few weeks back and turned straight into the Vaults. It was only when we wanted to make further investigation of the hand-pulled beers served in the other room that we stumbled into this amazing cavern of artefacts.
A long bar stretches right along one wall; at intervals along its polished wooden counter are tall brass gaslights, each topped with a flickering column of naked flame, as though some over-sized Bunsen burners had been repurposed for their antique value.
This idiosyncratic touch is entirely in keeping with a pub – well, at least two thirds of a pub – which celebrates its antiquity by giving drinkers the curious feeling that they have stumbled into a dusty old museum which just happens to serve great cask ale.
A number of inns were established close to the sulphurous wells of Harrogate as early as the 17th century, as the town began to find fame for its iron-rich ‘chalybeate waters’ and the healing properties these were believed to possess. By Georgian times, this was a seriously fashionable destination.
Sulphur springs still flow beneath the cellar and the distinctive odours occasionally percolate up to the bar.
And though the pub’s website is happy to claim this as Harrogate’s oldest pub, a plaque outside is slightly circumspect about its precise age, simply indicating that the pub’s cellars pre-date 1770, placing it in the same bracket as lovely old Whitelock’s in Leeds, a pub to which it bears some similarities.
It became Hales Bar in the 1880s having previously been variously known as Hodgson’s and the Promenade Inn. And to step inside is to be bombarded by the sights of some Victorian museum of curiosities. There are glass cases of taxidermy – seabirds, owls, squirrels and stag’s heads – a huge clock, terrifiying antlers and mirrored advertisement for drink such as Powers Whiskey and Tadcaster’s Celebrated Ales.
This historic interior was once harnessed for the publicity shots for movie classic Chariots Of Fire. On our visit, it happened to be hallowe’en, so much of this had been draped in cobwebs, adding to the ‘Night At The Museum’ effect.
All this must form an evocative backdrop for the pub’s programme of live music; the two separate rooms are also available for private hire.
The choice of beers changes regularly, though one permanent fixture is the crisp and refreshing sessionable 3.7% ABV Hales Ale, which is brewed locally by Daleside.
In capital letters, above the barrels and spirit bottles of the ornate back bar, the proud legend reads: ‘Ales and porters supplied to the gentry for over a century’. Long may this continue.
1-3 Crescent Rd, Harrogate, North Yorkshire HG1 2RS
Type: Historic town centre inn
Opening Hours: Noon-11.30pm Sun, Tue, Wed; noon-1am Thur-Fri; 11.30am-1am Sat. Closed Mon.
Beers: Changing choice of real ales, including house beer Hales Ale, brewed by Daleside.
Wines: Decent selection
Food: Good choice of pub meals served lunchtimes daily
Children: Welcome in Vaults Bar only
Disabled: Straightforward access
Entertainment: Acoustic music Wed evening and Sun afternoon, karaoke Thurs, disco Sat
Functions: Both bars are available for private hire
Beer garden: Attractive area to the side
Parking: Pay and display nearby
Phone: 01423 725570