setting · yorkshire

A fascinating (and surprising) history trip through Leeds, capital of Yorkshire

I’ve written a few articles on this blog about the settings for my novels, for example my posts on Renaissance Lyon (The Silk Romance), or Richmond Park in London (Penny’s Antique Shop of Memories and Treasures), or Edinburgh (In the Mouth of the Wolf).

Although I live near one of the biggest cities in the UK, and Yorkshire’s capital, I would never dream of using it for a setting – unless I was writing a gritty crime novel, or a dystopian drama. When you’ve commuted through Leeds’ suburbs for years, and been out in Leeds on many a Saturday night (where the ambulances are literally lined up on the main thoroughfare, ready for the night’s revelries – aye, we know how to party hard up north) – you start to see the city with a bit of a jaded eye.

Well, I have to confess I’ve been taking Leeds for granted all these years. Last weekend I went on a historical walk organised by Leeds Civic Trust, and it was a fascinating eye-opener, and made me see my modern city in a totally different light.

Here’s Briggate, the main shopping street. As you see from this Instagram photo, Briggate is quite wide, but apart from that it looks like any other modern shopping precinct in the UK:

I learned on my walk, though, that Briggate is exactly 66 feet wide – and it was designed that wide in the year 1270! I had no idea that every time I passed River Island, Marks and Spencer’s and Harvey Nicks I was walking down an example of 13th century town planning. I wonder what on earth those medieval merchants would think if they could walk down the same street today (or on a Saturday night!)

Here are some more photos, along with some more surprising historical facts.

helena fairfax, leeds, yorkshire, history
Leeds railway viaduct

I knew the railway viaduct spanned the whole of the centre of Leeds. I had no idea that the start of it passed through a Victorian graveyard. If you look closely at the photo you’ll see those slabs on the embankment aren’t just decorative stones – they are gravestones, which the engineers were told had to be replaced on the viaduct embankment once they’d finished work. They’ve been there ever since, and cars drive past them every day.

helena farifax, leeds, history, yorkshire
                  The Assembly Rooms

This drab-looking building houses a couple of restaurants, and I thought it was fairly modern, until I discovered it’s an 18th century building, and used to be an Assembly Room for balls and dances, such as they used to have in Jane Austen’s day. I’ve walked past this building many times, without giving it a second glance. I wonder how many flirtations and scandals took place here hundreds of years ago?

helena fairfax, leeds, history, yorkshire
              Leeds Corn Exchange

The magnificent interior of the Victorian Corn Exchange. Nowadays the building is full of alternative clothes shops and frequented by goths, but it used to be the centre for corn merchants – and corn was exchanged there as late as 1971.

helena farifax, leeds, history, yorkshire
 Cross of the Knights Templar

This cross is screwed into the side of a modern office block near the viaduct. I’ve passed it many and many a time and never even noticed it. (I even had my hen night in the pub opposite!) In the 13th century, the street belonged to the Knights Templars, hence the cross in the wall. (How and where the cross came from, I don’t know.) Nowadays this street is full of bars and restaurants, and no one gives this cross a second glance.

leeds, history, yorkshire, helena fairfax
Leeds-Liverpool canal

A hundred and fifty years ago this part of the city would be pretty much an open sewer. Nowadays the canal is clean and gentrified, and this photo shows the back of one of the poshest hotels and restaurants in Leeds.

Leeds Dock

Here’s where they used to load and unload the barges and ships that went down to the coast or across country by canal, carrying coal and wool. Leeds Dock is now surrounded by expensive flats. I expect the dockers and bargemen would never have believed that their rat-infested warehouses would one day be gentrified and sell for a fortune.

Leeds Market
               Leeds Market

Leeds market is one of my favourite places to visit in the city. It’s still a thriving market today, but nowadays has stall-holders from around the world – Poland, Pakistan, the Caribbean, Africa – whatever you’re looking for, you can find it here. I mentioned that I hadn’t ever used Leeds as a setting – but to let you into a secret, I’m presently writing a short story set in Paris. I haven’t visited Paris for a long while, and I needed to show a Parisian food market – so I based it on Leeds market, and gave the stall-holders French accents. (No one need ever know!)

Here’s one of my favourite stalls – the one with the old-fashioned English sweets…

Which to choose...?
               Which to choose…?

Sometimes when you live near a place, you don’t appreciate its worth. My walk round Leeds made me see a familiar city with a fresh eye. I really enjoyed the day!

* * *

Do you live in or near a large city? Do you know much about its history? Have you ever been surprised to find out something new about a familiar place?

If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!

17 thoughts on “A fascinating (and surprising) history trip through Leeds, capital of Yorkshire

  1. When you realise that you have to change your perspective about some things it makes you look at your opinions on other things Helena … I love the history of place.

    Creative idea to give the stall holders French accents :)

    I’ve linked your post with #TalkoftheTown xx


    1. It was fascinating to see a city I’ve known for years with a completely different eye, Shaz. It’s definitely changed my perspective.
      Thank you so much for adding the post to #TalkoftheTown!
      (For anyone following this comment thread, check out Shaz’s weekly Talk of the Town post, where you can add your own blog links: It’s a great way to get noticed and to discover new articles)


  2. Fascinating, Helena – I learned a lot of new things about my home city!
    (Sherbet pips for me, by the way . . .)


    1. I learned so much new stuff, Helen. I feel a bit embarrassed not to know some of these things. I’ve lived round here for decades! (I’m quite partial to a quarter of Rhubarb and Custard :) )
      Thanks for dropping in!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It certainly does, Ken. A couple of hundred years isn’t that old to us. When I wrote I thought Leeds was a modern city, I was thinking 18th century when it really got going. I was really surprised to find the main street was 13th century.
      It’s one of the things I like about our cities – you can be outside a Costa Coffee one minute, and by a 12th century church the next.
      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for dropping in!


  3. Interesting post and photos, Helena. Thank you. I found the Knights Templar sign to be extremely interesting. We’ve been to some Knights Templar sites or places having some association, probably the biggest being Temple Church in London. There is an association with Roslyn Chapel in Scotland, which was beautiful. I find the subject fascinating and have a number of books on the Knights Templar.

    We presently live in the smallest city we’ve ever lived in and plan on getting out…lol. I’ve lived in many large cities. Since it always was only for a few years, we delved into the history and historic sites and visited or on our holidays we research where we are going. Of course life is full of surprises.


    1. Hi Susan, that’s so fascinating that you’re interested in the Knights Templar. I don’t know very much about them, only that I think they had a bad reputation in England in their day for greed and violence and they weren’t supposed to be very Christian at all. (But maybe all my knowledge is only based on reading Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe)
      You must have had an interesting time living in so many different cities. I hope your new move comes off. Thanks very much for dropping in!


  4. Love the pics and your comments, Helena. I think you must set a book in Leeds now. Love the Knights Templar cross and oh, that could lead to a most interesting story of intrigue and romance. I too, have used something I’ve seen one place in another for the sake of the story. We call it “fiction” after all. I’ll share. :)


    1. Hi Marsha, you’re so right about the Knights Templar cross. I’m going to try and find out more about them, and where the cross came from. I love what you say about us writing “fiction.” Writers are like magpies!
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for sharing!


    1. I picked out dome of the nicest photos of Leeds, James. Some parts aren’t nice at all, but I suppose every big city is like that. I do love this part of the world, though.
      Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment!


    1. Hello, Maggie, great to hear from you. I’d be very interested in reading your article. I used to live near Woodhouse Moor many years ago. If you’re able to send me a copy, that would be wonderful! My email address is Helena dot Fairfax at gmail dot com.
      Thanks very much!


  5. A great reminded of how much history is on our own doorstep and how often we walk past with unseeing eyes! sending a link of this to my husband as he always appreciates (and usually knows about) the changes in some of the UK cities.


    1. Hi Rosemary, it’s so true we often dismiss the history on our own doorstep. When I travel abroad on holiday, I visit all the sights and try and learn as much as possible, but I’ve never paid much attention to Leeds, as it’s such a familiar city to me. If your husband is interested, the walk was arranged by Leeds Civic Trust.
      Thanks for dropping in!


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