Off to Harrogate today, via Knaresborough, which has just been voted Best Dressed Town ahead of the Tour de France. It’s done a fine job. The whole town is festooned with bunting: not the signature knitted-yellow-jersey bunting favoured all over the rest of the district, but hundreds upon hundreds of white T-shirts, decorated by the schoolchildren of the town. It all looks very festive, and combined with a yellow bike trail to send you bike-spotting down every street and in every shop window, it’s made for a fine community effort. I still have a soft spot for red-spotted Hawes however, which we visited last week. But Knaresborough’s Mayor has tricked out his house in red spots too.
Harrogate though. What a shock. We were diverted away from West Park Stray, and once we’d parked up, we discovered why. This usually car-filled thoroughfare was a pedestrian-only zone. No, that’s not true. There were no cars, but instead, huge articulated lorries, buses, media vehicles from all over Europe, Tour de France vehicles so large that no ordinary parking place could accommodate them. There was even an immense lorry whose purpose was to offer, at just the right moment, 3 rows of tiered seats for about 3 dozen spectators. All this circus came from the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Germany…. but above all, from France.
All around us, busy teams of workmen and women, technicians, electricians, craftspeople, media types rushed busily around, talking in the main in French. We spotted registration plates from Val-de-Marne; le Nord; Pas-de-Calais; even the Haute Garonne, the next door département to the Ariège. And suddenly, I was assailed by homesickness. It was just like being back in France. There was even a marquee filled with one particular team of workers sitting down together and sharing a midday meal. That really whisked us back. We wandered about, listening in, and engineering conversations with any French type taking a breather. England’s nice, we’re given to understand, but our motorways are a nightmare. We know.
But this immense team is only one of several. There are others in Leeds, in York, in Sheffield, Cambridge and London, the other five towns where the three English stages begin or end. I’d never previously understood quite what an industry the Tour de France really is.
Local teams from Harrogate itself had already uprooted many of the town’s pride and joy, its colourful flower-beds, in favour of providing viewing platforms for spectators who want to see the Race finish there on Day One. I expect it was the right decision. No self-respecting flowers could survive the expected onslaught, and the beds that remain look particularly magnificent.
When we’d looked around for a while, we nipped into a supermarket for some odds and ends we’d forgotten. This is what the fresh produce department looked like……….
Normal life has been suspended, for one weekend only.