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Taking the cure

A museum in Harrogate tells the story of the town and its famous spa, and recalls the atmosphere of its thriving past. Kevin Berry reports


The Royal Pump Room

Free for Harrogate schools and pound;1.25 per child for others.Tel: 01423 556188www.harrogate-gov. ukmuseums

You cannot visit the Royal Pump Room in Harrogate without tasting the water. Hannah Knowles, a Year 2 pupil from Highfield Prep School, steels herself against the uninviting smell and takes a sip: "Ugh! It's really salty," she exclaims. "Like lots of rotten eggs."

Highfield teacher Allison Kitching bravely takes a mouthful, then turns away with a look of disgust. The water comes from a sulphur well in the basement and is known for its internal cleansing properties. Some local people, we are told, drink it regularly.

The Royal Pump Room became a museum in 1953, housing details of spa life, representations of original shops and aspects of Harrogate's history. The permanent collection is displayed in a 20th-century extension and temporary exhibitions are usually on show for 12 months. The building is an attractive octagonal alongside a cobbled lane, a short distance from Valley Gardens, where 16 of the 35 springs were supposed to have medicinal properties.

The Highfield pupils have come to see a major exhibition on life in the 1950s, and take in some of the local history. Allison Kitching is impressed. This is her first visit with her class but she has attended a teachers' preview session: "A couple in costume went through the children's booklet. They showed me round the display cases and suggested things to point out to the children. It was very beneficial."

The 1950s exhibition is fascinating, and everyone is busy with a booklet. A previous exhibition, Land of the Pharaohs, had schools visiting from Hull and Newcastle. Such was the interest in that event that some of the exhibits have been remounted in the nearby Mercer Art Gallery.

The 1950s exhibition finishes on April 18 and will be followed by Childhood: from Perambulators to PlayStation. "It's a snapshot of childhood through time," says the exhibition's curator Ros Watson. "The toys, the clothes, schooldays. We have items from our own collection and Harrogate people are loaning things.

"Childhood touches a nerve with people. They've always kept something. It has a great appeal, no matter what our childhood was like. Things trigger memories. I appealed for a pogo stick and got so many offers. But I haven't yet found a Spacehopper."

Children are trying on 1950s costumes and looking at themselves in mirrors.

Some are reading magazines from the period. Everything is treated with care and respect, and children are asked to wear white gloves when handling fragile items.

In the permanent exhibition, Francesca Emsley and Eleanor Foley are gazing at a representation of a Harrogate hotel's reception area, with figures whose costumes are changed to reflect the season. The girls are answering questions about the hats.

Near the door, I spot the ideal souvenir - a postcard showing a Victorian scene, with a line of comically apprehensive schoolgirls waiting to take the water.

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