In the early evening last Thursday, a couple of hours after dark, I was walking up Briggate. I’d been down in the glittering Victoriana of the Adelphi, one the other side of the bridge, poised at the top of Hunslet Road where it meets Dock Street.
The place was busy. Town was busy, many heading home from work, others beginning a pre-Christmas evening out. Plenty of foot traffic on Leeds Bridge, spilling out into the road, vehicles passing. If they’d been carts instead of cars and lorries, it could have been a re-enactment of Louis Le Prince’s 1888 moving pictures of the scene (the first in the world, in case you didn’t know).
Queen’s Court, Lambert’s Yard and Hirst’s Yard, each with their tiny entrances off Lower Briggate, looked like dark portals back to the nineteenth century, each with their menaces and joys. Cross over Duncan Street to see the police arresting someone, possibly a shoplifter or pickpocket. Buskers entertaining, hoping for change in their hats or guitar cases from the generous.
The little ginnels that lead through to Whitelock’s, the Packhorse, the Ship. All of them with memories going back three hundred years. How many drunks had held themselves upright on those walls? How many had waited in the shadows to rob the unwary? How many prostitutes has tumbled their clients just a yard or two off the street?
Further up Briggate, street vendors are crying their wares to drum up trade. Calls that echo back through the years. ‘What do you need? What do you lack?’ They’re there, in the space where Leeds market stood for so long, every Tuesday and Saturday, pretty much from where Harvey Nicks now sparkles all the way up to the Headrow, where there was once the market cross.
So what’s the point of this? It’s simply that, for all the sheen of the 21st century, Leeds is very much the same as it was 200, 300 and more years ago. The same things in different clothes, with different words. We have far more in common with those who came before us in Leeds than we admit or even think. Briggate and the streets that surround it, might change their facades. But that’s the only thing that really changes, along with the tat offered for sale; the nature of people doesn’t necessarily alter that much.
Next time you’re walking along there after dark, think about that.