I’ve always had a strong affection for the very heart of Leeds and first knew it when the buildings were still black with soot and vehicles could go everywhere in what is now a huge pedestrian precinct. I particularly remember shopping here before Christmas in the early seventies and finding it almost impossible to make my way along the pavements, which were packed with shoppers because the roads were likewise thronged with cars. It is much more pleasant now, with space for pedestrians as well as pavement cafés (one in a street completely covered with a glass roof that seals it from the weather and gives it the feel of the various Victorian arcades that lead off Briggate) and talented buskers; the several covered shopping centres (the latest, Trinity Leeds, adjoining Boar Lane) are a magnet to thousands of visitors from across Yorkshire and beyond.
The casual visitor, however, will probably miss the ‘ginnels’ (passageways) and ‘yards’ that preserve the history of Victorian Leeds and that thread their way through the buildings a breath away from the main shopping streets. The entrance to the far-famed ‘City Varieties’ theatre is in one such, though it has been considerably changed and modernised. And in one of these, leading off Briggate and cheek by jowl with the Trinity Centre, is the oldest pub in the city, Whitelocks. I suppose that I, too, should have missed it, but my husband, who seemed as a student to manage to find his way to most of the hostelries in town, took me there many years ago. I went back with him to enjoy lunch there on my return from China.
Here, indeed, is local Leeds. Sitting alongside us were a grandfather (his accent marking him out as a Leeds man) and his two grand-daughters, both of them students, who bought him lunch and beer, put him in the picture about their mother, his daughter, and bid him a merry farewell as they headed off to afternoon lectures; to my left, during the time we were there, a succession of elderly Horsforth (I asked!) couple, a market trader I recognised from many years’ enjoyable shopping in Vicar Lane’s Leeds City Market and a younger man who came in to sup his pint and put the working day aside for a while. The long bar was crowded with suits on lunchbreak and large groups of city workers of one kind or another.
Whitelocks has to be seen and experienced first-hand: it is a jewel of Victorian/Edwardian décor, replete with brass and copper and marble and coloured tile and mirrors and stained glass and ironwork. It gleams with a sociable splendour that makes ‘having a drink’ into an occasion of moment. For the contemporary cognoscenti, the range of real ales is special, the food traditional and beautifully prepared. Here is an inn which cherishes its guests and makes them feel warm inside.
It opened as an inn in 1715, serving local traders and customers in what was then a Briggate market; its original name, The Turk’s Head, lives on as the name of the yard, but the inn was rebuilt and (as its blue plaque confirms) extended to absorb a row of Georgian working men’s dwellings by the first of the Whitelock family, who took over the licence in 1867 and transformed it. Fortunately, it has been preserved for future generations of Leeds folk to enjoy.
My imagination was caught by my first visit there, on a foggy November evening; there may not have been gas lamps, but there was gloom in the ginnel and a warmth of welcome within. The past reached out and drew me in, to think of the divide between the relatively wealthy Victorian and Edwardian customers of ‘Whitelocks First City Luncheon Bar’ and the vagabonds and urchins and footpads outside in the sooty darkness, who no doubt relieved some of them of their wallets and purses. For a crime writer, pubs with character and a powerful history have huge potential. I’m sure that Whitelocks could very easily find its way into a story and may very well already have done.