Harrogate man: ‘My college days with Freddie Mercury’

Traditional Harrogate signwriter Paul Humberstone, left, as an art student in London in 1968 with friend and fellow student Freddie Mercury.
Traditional Harrogate signwriter Paul Humberstone, left, as an art student in London in 1968 with friend and fellow student Freddie Mercury.

Fifty years after he went to art college with rock star Freddie Mercury, a Harrogate man is looking back at those heady times - and how Harrogate was then.

Paul Humberstone, 70, still puts his talents to artistic use in Harrogate; he is one of only a handful of traditional signwriters nationwide who still use the old techniques of hand painting signs and gold leaf on commissions from the likes of the Old Bell Tavern, Daleside Brewery and Welcome to Ripon.

Nostalgia - A happy couple in Harrogates Valley Gardens in 1968 taken from Paul Humberstones book of Harrogate photos from the times.

Nostalgia - A happy couple in Harrogates Valley Gardens in 1968 taken from Paul Humberstones book of Harrogate photos from the times.


But he started to learn his trade at Ealing Art College in 1968 where one of his best friends was Freddie Bulsara - or Freddie Mercury as he was to be known after forming the rock band Queen in 1970.


By sheer accident, Paul’s flat when he was a student all those years ago became the centre for Freddie’s earliest dabblings in the rock and pop world.


Paul, who lives in Harrogate but has his traditional signwriting and creative artwork workshop in Sharow near Ripon, said he and Freddie quickly became good friends even though the future international superstar struggled with the Harrogate youngster’s accent.


The talented father of four and grandfather to three said: “Me and some friends from Harrogate Art College, as it was then on Victoria Avenue, had to pick another college for the fourth year of out studies, so we decided to go to Ealing.
“As we were walking around the college, which seemed massive, we passed an open door which turned out to be full of young women. We saw a bloke with black hair, the only lad in the whole classroom and we thought “lucky boy.”
“A week later the same lad walked into the graphics room and said he was bored and had managed to change courses. It was the first time we met Fred.”


At that point Freddie wasn’t the fully-formed flamboyant character who inspired the recent movie Bohemian Rhapsody by X-Men director Bryan Singer.
There were a few clues, however, Paul said.


“He was a private person and quiet until the subject of music came up, then he changed... often saying, “I’m going to be a legend darling!”
We never believed it. He was such a nice character always singing, but not loud. He adored Jimi Hendrix and played air guitar on the rulers at college.
“I would say on a personal level Fred and I got on well, though he probably couldn’t understand my northern accent. But he did try and we aways had a laugh with him
“I remember a little touching moment when we were sharing a joke together and he looked at me and just said very quietly “oh Harold you are a one.” It was a bit like comedian Dick Emery but with pathos.
“We all thought Fred was a bit effeminate; he spoke with heavy lisp. But he had girlfriends at the time.
“We never knew about his really private life or were even that bothered about it.”


As for the recent movie about Queen’s early years starring Rami Malek as Freddie, Paul has seen it and enjoyed it with a few reservations.
He said: “I thought it was good film. The actor playing Brian May was excellent. But Roger Taylor was far too beefy and the actor playing Queen’s first bassist Tim Staffell was nothing like him.
“The worst bit in the movie was when they showed Fred drinking a pint... He was always a ‘spirits only please darling’ man.”


These were exciting times for Paul, living in London in the late 1960s in a flat in Addison Gardens, London W14 with fellow student Chris Smith. It soon became the place where Freddie would hang out, just around the corner from another flat which was occupied by, among others, future Queen drummer Roger Taylor.


But Paul always felt the pull of the north and came back to Harrogate, even producing an atmospheric book of photographs at the time called Sulphur, Sunshine & Lace: Impressions of Harrogate.


Then, as now, the town’s gems which Paul shot in grainy, artistic black and white, were the expected - Valley Gardens, the Royal Hall, the Hales Bar and Farrah’s Toffee Shop.
“I was back up in Harrogate at Easter time in 1968 where my family lived in Franklin Road abnd I’d brought my college 35mm camera.
“It was a warm sunny day and I wandered around, just messing about really.
“Back then nobody in Ealing went to Yorkshire. When they saw my photographs, my college friends were amazed that in the soot-covered grimy landscape covered in smoking chimneys up north there could be such a beautiful place as my town of Harrogate.
“I think my book caught some of Harrogate’s charm.”

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