It’s not just crime fiction fans who love Harrogate’s Theakstons Crime Festival, centred on the Old Swan Hotel; crime writers do too. That’s why they keep coming back, lured by the spa town’s Yorkshire charm, and the chance to talk to and meet their fans at the festival.
So we figured there’s no one better to ask for tips on where to eat, drink and stay in the town than the nation’s top crime writers themselves.
Peter James, author of the Roy Grace series of detective novels, has no hesitation about where to stay when he heads for Harrogate. “I love the Hotel du Vin, both as a place to stay, a place to eat and a place to hang out,” he says.
“The food is terrific, it has one of the best sommeliers in the UK, the bar staff are friendly and efficient, there are tons of comfortable seating areas and a great outdoor area.
“And the rooms are great. I’d never want to stay anywhere else. Indeed, for my money it’s the best Hotel du Vin in the country.” Praise indeed.
If you’re after a quick cuppa en route to a festival talk, Paula Hawkins, author of this year’s runaway bestseller The Girl on the Train, says she’s a fan of Hoxton North for its great coffee.
For food, her favourite is the “absolutely delicious” food at Spanish restaurant La Feria.
And, says Paula, spend some time in the town: “If you’ve got a bit of time between talks, I recommend the shopping. Harrogate has lots of great little boutiques.”
Ann Cleeves, author of the Vera and Shetland series of crime novels, is a sucker for tea and scones at the town’s famous tea shop, Bettys.
“I love to visit Bettys,” she says. “There’s usually a queue for tables, especially during the festival.
“If the weather’s good, buy a pile of goodies from the shop and have a picnic in the beautiful park close to the Old Swan, the festival hotel.”
If you have time, she also suggests heading out of town during your stay.
“My publisher, Pan Macmillan, is having its celebration dinner at Rudding Park Hotel this year,” she says. “It’s a country house hotel a little way out of Harrogate, and if the festival is becoming just a little frenetic for you, it’s a fantastic place for a quiet dinner.”
In contrast, Val McDermid (best-known for her novels featuring Dr Tony Hill, portayed by Robson Green in hit TV drama Wire in the Blood) prefers to dine in town. She has a soft spot for Van Zeller, on Montpellier Parade.
“If you’ve got a special occasion to celebrate, there’s nowhere better,” says the author. “It’s an intimate, stylish restaurant with superb food and a menu that reflects what’s in season. I always get excited at the prospect of lunch there.”
When you’ve eaten your fill, Peter Robinson – author of the DCI Banks books, which have also been adapted for the small screen – suggests: “Take a walk on The Stray, that large stretch of grass, trees and flowers beside the main road.
“You’ll not only get some exercise but also a good view of the fine Georgian hotels and large houses opposite.”
Alternatively, you could strip off for a session in the Victorian-era Turkish baths, which retain an exotic Moorish ambience.
“The marble-lined steam room is a classic, and the wood and tile interior always makes me feel it should be the setting for a Sherlock Holmes story,” says McDermid.
Of course, the book festival itself remains the main attraction for the hundreds of crime fiction fans who make the pilgrimage to Harrogate every year.
One of this year’s “must sees”, says Ann Cleeves, is the Arnaldur Indridason talk.
“He’s appearing on Sunday morning. He’s a Gold Dagger winner, one of the true pioneers of Nordic Noir, and never usually leaves Iceland.”
Another event high on her wish list is the Readers’ Tea on Thursday afternoon. “It’s a great way for people new to the festival to meet other readers and writers informally,” she says.
If my own personal experience is anything to go by, the focal point for writers and readers alike is likely to remain the bar at the Old Swan. “You never know who you might find yourself sitting next to,” jokes Cleeves.
The festival is part of Harrogate International Festivals, next year celebrating its 50th anniversary