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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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…
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!