A Wander round Wakefield.

23 Mar

Once it was a mere field owned by an Anglo-Saxon called Waca. Waca’s field has long since disappeared beneath concrete, stone and bricks. It is now the West Yorkshire town of Wakefield. Correction — Wakefield is officially a city and has a Cathedral to prove it. But it doesn’t feel like a city. It is only the size of a large town. My friend, Ian, and I like to wander round old towns.  It’s one of our post-retirement hobbies. Towns are more manageable than cities but usually have more to offer than a small village. They are the perfect size for a day trip.

Up to this week, Wakefield, was just a place I glanced at from a train window, as we briefly stopped at Westgate station. A cluster of towers, cupolas and spires caught the eye as the town spread up a low hill. But then, when the train moved away, they quickly slipped out of  sight and out of mind. I had actually been there a couple of times in the 1960’s. I had acquired my dad’s Lambretta ( I was desperately trying to be a mod) and the Leeds conurbation was a comfortable 50 mile run from my home town. With a friend on the pillion we went out searching for adventure, and somehow we ended up in Wakefield. ( I don’t know how.) In fact we had a puncture there and a kindly garage mechanic helped us mend it. It was in the new 60s market hall of Wakefield that we discovered our version of paradise. It was a stall selling old juke-box singles. Everything we had heard on Pick of the Pops was there at a very cheap price. We were like little kids let loose in a sweet shop!  We would then chug back down the A61 to Chesterfield with huge grins on our faces, happy to be laden down with hits by  The Beatles, Stones,  Kinks et al. After that though, Wakefield disappeared from my radar until my recent visit.

Ian and I travelled on the struggling train system from the north-east of England to West Yorkshire. In this way, we made the journey part of the “adventure.” This time Ian had a train cancellation at Chester-le- Street to delay him so by the time I met him at Leeds we had already missed our connection and only caught the next service by the skin of our teeth. I have lost count of how many times I have had to run for trains at Leeds, across the busy connecting bridge, fighting through the crowds and running down  seemingly endless sets of stairs, seeing my train waiting to depart. It happened on my way home as well. But thankfully we made it on to the LNER London train — first stop Wakefield Westgate, 9 miles to the south east of Leeds. It was time to relax and look forward to the day. Once again the familier towers and spires slid into view, but this time I was going to afford them more than a passing glance.

As I looked at the cluster of buildings spreading out from the station, I thought of all the people to whom this is home and all the full, eventful lives that have been lived there over the centuries. If a town (or city) could talk wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear what it had to say? One of my favourite singers-songwriters, Mary Chapin Carpenter, had exactly that train of thought. One of her songs is titled: ” I am a Town.” An ordinary American town by the side of the highway, introduces itself. ” I’m a blur from the driver’s window”, “I am a church beside the highway, where the ditches never drain”, “I’m the language of the natives, I’m a cadence and a drawl”. It’s such an evocative song.  A humble, ordinary town trying to catch the attention of the travellers passing through. This idea has caught my imagination and came back into my mind as we wondered up to Wakefield’s centre. What would the bricks and stones tell us if they could speak?

Yes, an ordinary town ( or city) it was. We wanted to catch a slice of everyday life rather than visit a list of starry “sights”. As we followed city centre signs we were struck at how quiet Wakefield was. It was almost eerie. Then we realised that it had 2 major malls — The Ridings and Trinity Walk — and so presumed that many of the shoppers were there. Such malls are very convenient and provide shelter in the winter, but, at the same time, they suck the life out of the surrounding streets. We didn’t go in as most shopping malls are roughly the same, irrespective of the place and we were seeking buildings that were more characteristic of the area. Thus we resisted the lure of central heating and canned music and pressed on towards the cathedral. Wakefield’s cathedral is right in the centre of the little city, unlike say Doncaster Minster which has been severed from the town by a busy dual-carraigeway. The Cathedral has the tallest spire in Yorkshire. It is a beautiful building in the Perpendicular style of the early 15th century. The original 11th century Norman church replaced an earlier Anglo-Saxon place of worship. In the 19th century it was re-designed by the famous architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. Extensions were then added in the 20th century to honour two of Wakefield’s most famous bishops — William Walshaw How and Eric Treacy. The cathedral is a very beautiful and impressive space. When we entered an organ was thundering out but when the music finished, a serene peace descended. We saw a lovely modern altar, pulpit and font but there were still medieval remnants such as the strange , carved mythical beasts in the choir stalls. There is an abundance of attractive stained glass windows from late Victorian times.

Attached to the cathedral are: a cafe, a shop and the tourist information centre. However, when we arrived asking for street maps, heritage trails and guidebooks, the 2 nice ladies we spoke to didn’t have much to offer and seemed genuinely bemused that tourists had actually decided to visit the tourist office. Obviously, Wakefield does not experience heavy tourist tread. We ended up with a blue-plaque guide-book which turned out to be out of date and which had a very confusing map. Ian and I specialise in going to places that few people want to go to. When I tried to prepare for this trip by consulting the latest Rough Guide to England, Wakefield wasn’t even mentioned! This is despite it having an impressive cathedral and the award winning Hepworth Gallery down by the river. Barbara Hepworth, the famous 20th century sculptress, came from Wakefield.

We left the information centre and retreated to a cafe to make our plans. We couldn’t resist going into “Marmalade on the Square”, such a wonderful name. It was a spotlessly clean cafe with very large, tall windows letting the light stream in. The coffee and cake were excellent too. This cafe and 2 others is in an early 20th century building (1907) formerly known as Central Chambers and before that the “Grand Clothing Hall”, the HQ of the outfitters, John Manners Ltd. It’s an elegant building in light stone with domes , gables and subtle ornementations. It also has smooth, curving corners rather than sharp right angles. It stands on a triangular site between two open spaces — the Bull Ring and Cross Square. It made a lovely photo with the spire of the cathedral in the background.

After our enjoyable repast, we decided to go down to the river area. Wakefield sits on the north bank of the River Wharfe, nestling to the south east of the Pennines. It was once a thriving inland cloth and grain port. As well as the river, various canals linked it up to Britain’s once busy inland waterways system. There were the Aire and Calder, and Calder and Hebble Navigations plus the Barnsley canal going to the south. This transport system was eventually replaced by Turnpike roads. The town stands at an important  junction where the main road from the midlands to the north meets a major road coming from the Pennine Hills to the west. Later, when the railway came in the 1840s, Wakesfield’s Kirkgate station was an important stop on the Leeds to Manchester line. Today, the city has 2 railway stations ( Westgate and Kirkgate) and is situated very close to the M1 motorway, but its river area is now very “quiet”, or rather it would be if it wasn’t adjacent to a bridge carrying a busy 4-lane highway across the Wharf. Down in this area are the well-preserved, 18th century offices of the Aire and Calder Navigation, like a small, classical Greek temple. Also here, south of the river, are the remains of 2 old mills and an 18th century warehouse. They are adjacent to the ultra modern Hepworth Gallery. Inside, it’s display rooms are spacious and flooded with light, but outside it looks like a jumble of sombre grey cubes. We thought it looked more like a prison than an art gallery. Wakefield of course does have a well-known prison but we didn’t include it on our itinerary.

When we got down there, the river was in full spate. After a recent period of stormy weather, the Wharfe had been turned into a raging torrent. A barge had been wrenched from its moorings and had become jammed between the fast flowing water and one of the arches of the road bridge. I hope nobody was on it at the time! Our destination was an ancient 14th century bridge which lay beyond the busy road bridge. At the end of it is a very rare 13th century Chantry Chapel.  The Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin, is one of only four surviving bridge chapels in the country. It sounds exciting doesn’t it? Well, to tell you the truth it was a bit of an anti-climax. First of all we had great trouble getting across to it because of the incredibly busy 4 lane main road that lay inbetween. There didn’t seem to be much thought for pedestrians and the nearest lights appeared to be at least a quarter of a mile away. We eventually plucked up courage and dodged across when the main stream of vehicles was temporarily held back by lights. I imagined  them all impatiently revving up as if at the start of a Grand Prix. The medieval bridge beyond was deserted — no visitors except us, despite it being trumpeted as one of Wakefield’s most famous sights on its website. The medieval chapel at the far end of it looked sad and forlorn. It’s windows were screened by anti-vandal wire mesh and its roof was protected by lines of anti-pigeon spikes. To my disppointment, I found out that only its base was original 13th century. Much of the upper part had had to be rebuilt in 1847-48, and even some of the Victorian replacement was restored in 1939 because the architect had chosen a stone that quickly weathered and deteriorated. The chapel is still a grade 1 listed building however. It is occasionally used for special functions but mostly it is neglected and ignored. Chantry Chapels were paid for by wealthy people so that others could pray for their souls as they passed through Purgatory. I doubt that even if prayers were still being said at this one, they would be heard above the constant din of the traffic on the next door bridge. Ian and I thought it was very sad. We also abandoned a plan to stroll along a riverside path because it was muddy and strewn with litter. It was disappointing.

We returned to the city centre alongside the busy road. It wasn’t eerily quiet here! This area was scruffier and had down- at- heel little shops and businesses. We noticed a couple of East European food shops featuring Polish, Czech and Slovakian produce. We didn’t notice an Asian presence though, unlike in nearby Dewsbury which we visited last year. However, I am aware that an impressive mosque was constructed there in 1995, although we didn’t spot it because it is a bit outside the centre. Thankfully we soon regained the cathedral area and walked away from the torrent of traffic. Up one side of the cathedral is an attractive , pedestrianised area. It has avenues of trees, raised beds of plants, art deco globes acting as street lamps and attractively patterned block paving beneath our feet.  On our left was a line of 1930s large stores but only a rather diminished Marks and Spencers seemed to have survived the arrival of the malls and internet shopping. From old photos from the 60s it seems that this was one of the major shopping streets in Wakefield. I looked at scenes which showed it busy and bustling with shoppers and traffic. Earlier photos showed that trams used to trundle up and down the main streets of the city. Now this area, although pleasant, is fairly quiet. Much of the retail activity is now being done elsewhere. Wakefield is not alone in experiencing this fate of course. The centre is struggling to maintain its relevance.

Ian and I started our blue plaque exploration. It was quite interesting but a bit confusing as new plaques had been added since the guide was printed. Basically, we ignored the non-descript and badly deteriorated 60s and 70s buildings and sought the stone Victorian edifices of the city’s 19th century heyday. They are mostly clustered on Wood Street and Westgate. These were largely impressive and in good condition. A couple were hidden behind scaffolding  and sheets screening the restorers busy at work. There must still be a lot of work for stone masons in the town (city). On Wood Street we were impressed by The Mechanics Institute, the Town Hall and at the very top: County Hall. The Mechanics Institute, paid for by public subscription, included an assembly room, a library and a news-room. This reflected the rise in literacy levels once compulsary schooling was introduced in the second half of the 19th century. The Institute is  graced with Georgian style windows and a line of 6 classical- style Ionic capitals. It is still a venue for large functions. Next to it is the impressively large Town Hall with a striking clock tower ( no pun intended) which has become another major feature of the Wakefield skyline. Finally, at the top of the hill is County Hall, built in dramatic Gothic style in 1898. It has towers, pillars, gargoyles, stone reliefs , pediments and big windows on all sides. It is a very large, impressive structure. At the top is a graceful cupola which makes its own distinctive contribution to the skyline. OK, it’s not exactly Rome, but this ensemble of Victorian public buildings made for an attractive and impressive sight. In the middle of them was another building hidden away behind restorers screens. When that is finished, Wood Street will be a memorable sight for lovers of Victorian architecture.

Inside County Hall , which is the administrative HQ for West Yorkshire ( formerly the West Riding), it was even more impressive. One might call it Wakefield’s hidden gem. It looked more like a beautifully decorated Gothic church, with multiple Norman style arches, large windows, a grand sweeping, snaking staircase, lovely Delft- style tile-work, delicate wrought iron banisters, mosaics and very unusual, colourful murals. One depicted a Viking longboat for reasons I never found out. I would like to return and have a proper guided tour sometime, on an heritage open day. As it is, the kind lady on reception just let us have a quick peek at the vestibule and the staircase. We thanked her and remarked that it must be very nice to work in such a sumptuous environment. She agreed she was lucky, but then complained that it was too cold in winter and too hot in summer! Some people are never satisfied!

Westgate also has impressive Victorian buildings. Primarily there is the Theatre Royal and Opera House designed by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham in 1894. It replaced an earlier theatre at that site. In the 20th century it served as a cinema and then a bingo hall but then returned to its original function as a theatre in the 1980s. It is a Grade 2 listed building. Opposite it is the equally impressive Unity Hall which was formerly the Victorian Co-operative building of Wakefield. It has now been restored and is used for events, weddings and conferences. It’s good that it has been given new life but sad to see that even the venerable Coop has become a victim of modern shopping habits. Unity Hall, like the theatre is made from red brick decorated with stone patterns and pictoral reliefs. It has large, curving, church like windows. Another striking street in Wakefield centre is Cheapside which features old, early 19th century wool-staplers homes and warehouses. Today they are mostly occupied by soliciters’ offices but the top floor hoists for the wool sacks can still be seen.

I’m sure that in just a few hours we didn’t see everything that Wakefield has to offer. We didn’t go into the museum for example and somehow missed the Gissing centre, the former home of the famous Victorian novelist George Gissing. We didn’t venture into the Hepworth Gallery either because of the usual time constraints. We had to make time for a late lunch at Cafe Lounge 46 back near the cathedral. It is a pleasant eating place with good food and friendly service. I don’t know where the idea that all Yorkshire people are dour and brusque came from. Everyone we met was perfectly charming. Ian marked the service in Cafe Lounge 46 as 12 out of 10. I think it was because the waitress kept calling him “my love.”

Finally it was back to the train station for another thrilling chain reaction of delays, missed connections and, surprise, surprise, sprinting across the bridge and down the stairs at Leeds station. It had been another fascinating town trail revealing the usual mix of delights and disappointments. We missed out the mind- numbing malls ( being men, we are not great shoppers) but acquired some sense of its Victorian hey-day. I imagine that many of its citizens commute into nearby Leeds, but Wakefield, as a small city , still retains its own identity. It seems mostly proud of its past and makes sure it takes good care of its important public buildings.  Wacu’s field may be long gone, but in another sense, it is still going strong.

Advertisements

2 Responses to “A Wander round Wakefield.”

  1. Robert Chamberlain March 23, 2019 at 10:05 pm #

    Thanks Stuart for reminding me of my old stomping ground of “Shaky Wakey” as locals call it because people tend to go there to get drunk. There’s a lovely 2 hour walk along the canal from my hometown of Dewsbury to Wakefield, which I used to regularly walk to do some open air preaching near the cathedral. It was great to read and bring back some good memories 🙂

    • scrapstu1949 March 24, 2019 at 10:56 am #

      Glad you enjoyed it Robert. My friend and I do lots of town trails and I always like to write about them

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: