Former teacher uncovers lost heritage of forgotten Yorkshire village

As a primary school teacher in Harrogate decades ago, Terry-Mike Williams had been baffled by a child's curious question as to what was beyond the high playground wall.

So he started researching, and unearthed a riveting tale of railway days and lost heritage in a suburb of the affluent spa town.

Now, having uncovered thousands of archives detailing the history of what was once an independent community, he has opened his findings to the public once more.

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New Park Heritage Centre, having undergone a complete refresh under lockdown, now features new exhibits, photographs, and street scenes to bring this forgotten village to life.

Terry-Mike Williams in an example of the old school setting in the New Park Heritage Centre sited in the school grounds.

"It's about the land, what we've got and our history," said Mr Williams, who will be 70 this month. "And to pair the stories and the archives that people may have. New Park deserves the recognition.

"Everybody knows old Harrogate as a spa town and a beautiful place. Few people appreciate that just over the hill was a community that was working hard to provide gas for uptown.

"It's important that people appreciate that as well as the beautiful side."

New Park, now a suburb of the spa town, began life as a tiny hamlet to house a gas works and its employees which served its more affluent neighbours in High and Low Harrogate.

He started researching, and found an old railway tunnel, once used to transport coal from this tiny gas workers' community to the flourishing spa boroughs of High and Low Harrogate

It was entirely independent, with its own schools and post office, butchers shops and coaching inns. As Harrogate grew, it enveloped the village, with its heritage forgotten to all but a few.

Mr Williams, who spent his entire teaching career at New Park Primary School, had started researching after that student's innocent question uncovered an old railway tunnel.

"That year we did a class on it," he said. "I kept going back to it myself, at home. When people heard I was interested, they started telling me more.

"That is the way it's gone ever since. It's from people in the community that have come to add their bit. Now the archives are tremendous."

As a teacher Mr Williams had been flummoxed when a pupil asked what was on the other side of the playground wall

Some 200 boards with photographs and text have all been revitalised, painted and reprinted, with new exhibitions and images in the miniature museum.

There are sections for a full size replica of the old train and tunnel with sleepers, street scenes, classroom zones, a laundry and more.

Among the tales that have been uncovered are of a dog who would do his own shopping, calling at the post office every day to collect a can of food, with his owners billed at the end of the week.

Another is of a time when the roads were so quiet a policeman could stand in the centre of what is now one of Harrogate's busiest roundabouts. The Little Wonder pub, which started life as a coaching inn, was so named after a horse that won the Derby in 1840 when it was built.

And a final tale which features in the museum's exhibitions is of a lady who was presented with a tablecloth as a gift when she moved away, signed by 170 people in the community.

"She embroidered all the names," said Mr Williams. "That finally has found its way back to the centre. It was that kind of caring community that helped each other out."

When he retired in 1997, Mr Williams was invited by the then headteacher to create his own museum in an old outbuilding at the school. Opened in 2000, it has now been extensively redone.

"This is just 1,000th of the archives that I've got," reflected Mr Williams. "I call my home the heritage centre, and the building is just the visitor centre.

"It's a case of great works from tiny acorns growing. It was only from that child's question that the whole thing has sprung up."