The Unchanging Leeds No One Notices

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.

Diving Deep Into History

Yesterday I felt very privileged. For a few minutes I could look deep into the heart of Leeds’ history. 400 years into the past at the oldest house in the city, three storeys, each one jettied out from the one beneath.

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Let me explain: This week saw the opening of Lambert’s Yard, a new retail/arts space on Lower Briggate. From their windows, and especially the gallery on the floor above, you can look down into the yard and across at the wonderful Grade II listed house. You can’t go in, it’s in a real state of disrepair, but simply to see it after so many years of it being shut out of sight is a joy. As are the buildings behind it. A little younger, from the look of them, probably 18th century, but still beautiful in their simplicity.

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On the surface the house doesn’t look too magnificent. It’s been wood-boarded with tongue-and-groove boards, an ugly white board on one side for repair. The days when it was timbered and limewashed have long faded (look in the gable and you can see where the timbers were cut). But it’s a slice of old Leeds history, and God knows there’s precious little of that left, certainly from pre-Victorian times. Gaze out of the windows, see beyond the surface to the lives that were lived there over the centuries.

No one knows who built the house, or who lived in the yard back when Elizabeth I was still on the throne. What we do know is that the yard took its name from the Lamberts, tea merchants who worked and lived in the house up until the early 1900s. Before that…look and make up your own tale. Just as I did (see below).

Go to Lambert’s Yard is you can (162-163 Lower Briggate) and see it for yourself. And while you’re there, buy something so this place can stay open and grow into something deeper, where we’ll all be able to reach out and touch history.

 

The last part. The limewash.

            He stood in the yard and watched the workman up on his ladder, working with his trowel to give a smooth finish, brilliant white on the gable above the third story. The sun came from behind the clouds and caught it, gleaming.

            The man kept going, working the same piece over and over until he was satisfied, then climbing back down, slowly. He was a hunched old man, a smock over his clothes, legs bowed with the years, a full beard and a quizzical eye. The best in Leeds, folk said. But the best was what he wanted for this house, so he’d paid the workman his price. It had been worthwhile.

            He’d worked hard enough to afford it, the design in his head for years. Every month he’d counted the coins in the chest, although he already knew exactly how many were there. From his marriage, then the births of Adam and Hannah, the death of his father, he’d wished the time away until today.

            There was money in wool these days. Not like the trade from Bristol or Norwich, but enough to give a fair living to a man with enterprise in his heart. Not the way it had been before Henry has taken all the wealth from the churches. He’d heard the tales when he was young, passed on from his grandfather’s father. How Kirkstall sold all their wool abroad, precious little for the town.

            The workman lowered his ladder and began to clean his tools.

            “You’ve done a good job.”

            The man shrugged.

            “Just what you paid me to do.” He raised his head. “It’ll last years, will that. A well-built house.” He hoisted the ladder on his shoulder and left.

            It was. It ought to be for everything it cost in materials and design. The frontage on Briggate, the gate through to the cobbled yard. A house in the latest fashion, each storey jettied out from the one beneath, not only in the front but on the sides. Good mullioned windows to bring in the light, entrances to the yard and the street. Strong hearths for heat and a kitchen to prepare a feast.

            With a warehouse for cloth, a strongroom for his accounts and money, and cobbles down over the mud, it was finished. Finally.

            He stood by the entrance to the yard, gazing across Briggate. The old house had been home to the family longer than anyone could recall. Cramped, cold, dark. It was no place for a modern man and his family. When his father died, as soon as the coffin was in the ground, he’d begun to make his plans. His mother would have objected. She’d have talked about the history in the wood, but she’d been gone these twenty years now.

            He could hear the children inside, running up and down the staircase. Soon enough he’d go in and tell them to have respect for property. For now they could have their moment of fun.

            One long shelf in the warehouse was full, the cloth bundled and tied. Already sold, simply waiting for a boat to carry it down to the coast. There’d be more to take its place. He’d bought lengths at the market on Leeds Bridge two days before. It was off with the fuller now. Dyeing, then stretching on the tenter frames, carefully cropped and ready to go on its way. It took time. Success took patience. His father had drummed that into him. But it needed more than that. An eye for opportunity, the willingness to gamble, to parlay a little into a lot.

            He had orders from the Low Counties, down into Italy, all the way to Jamestown in Virginia. A man had to look to new markets. It was how he’d been able to afford this house. Soon others would follow, he’d wager good money on it. Richard Sykes had talk about building when they shared a jug of wine last month. And there was Metcalf, although he probably had even grander visions. The only one who wouldn’t was Bowman the shoemaker. He loved that place with its bowed windows for showing off his goods.

            Leeds had grown and changed, there was no doubt about it. When he was a lad there’d been nothing to the place, it seemed. Now he saw new faces each day, and more people on the streets than he could count. Folk with money in their purses.

            He slapped a hand against the house’s corner beam, feeling it solid under his palm. A house to last for years and years. For his children and theirs, and all the generations to come.