The Past, Present And Future Of West Yorkshire City Wakefield


As Tileyard North, the major creative development, opens this month, Bethan Andrews delves into the history, arts and creativity of the West Yorkshire city

There’s good reason why Wakefield is the talk of the UK right now, not just because of new exciting developments landing in the Yorkshire city, but because they’ve only further gone and shone a spotlight on the already thriving creativity scene. From mining history to sculptural fame, and perhaps most importantly, creativity in droves, there is a multitude of reasons why Wakefield is attracting new visitors in their droves.

And with Wakefield set to become home to the largest community of creatives outside of London through the introduction of the first installation of Tileyard North this month, what better time to celebrate the city and its rich history. Tileyard London is Europe’s largest music-centric creative community, so for something so huge and creative to land in Wakefield, it’s sure to put the Yorkshire city on the map as the heart of a northern creative centre. Opening in the Grade II-Listed Rutland Mills complex neighbouring The Hepworth Wakefield on the city’s waterfront, the hope is that the regeneration of this area for Tileyard North will facilitate the talent already in the region.

Up until the eighties, Wakefield was mainly known for being a mining city, with coalmining making up the backbone of the place. Fast forward to today and the open cast collieries have been filled and turned into nature reserves and parks, but as a nod to the past, ​​the Caphouse Colliery is now England’s National Coal Mining Museum. Nestled in a valley below the Yorkshire Moors, you’re spoilt for choice with rural prowess, too, and sweeping countryside views.

The Hepworth Wakefield C Wakefield First
The Hepworth Wakefield (c) Wakefield First

From then to now

Historically, Wakefield was known for its position in the wool trade, with the first wool market starting in the city in 1308, which meant cloth weavers and makers decided to settle there from around 1400. By the 16th century, alongside its popular Halifax neighbour, Wakefield had become a centre for cloth finishing and dyeing, with the 19th and 20th centuries seeing it flourish as the heart of the woolen cloth industry.

It was the waterfront and waterways that allowed Wakefield to prosper in the early ages, with the transport links allowing it to be a hub of industry, lined with mills and warehouses,  maltings and other businesses. According to the Wakefield Historical Society, the waterfront was “made navigable for boats in 1761 and became part of a through waterway route for goods to industrial Lancashire and Cheshire with the opening of the Rochdale Canal throughout in 1804 and then the opening of the Huddersfield (narrow) Canal in 1811,” allowing the city to be connected and important. Naturally, trades were attracted to Wakefield due to its good transport links and soft water for dyes. You can still see remnants of the many industries that came to the city now, such as textile manufacturing, corn merchanting, malting, boat owning, and building and repairing.

The city centre of Wakefield is small, which is a benefit to tourists who just want to wander and soak up the historical architecture and feelings of the old centre. Wood Street, just next to the Cathedral, is a great place to start to see a glimpse of old Wakefield through the buildings and design. You’ll find four iconic buildings here: the Court House of 1810, The Music Saloon of 1821, the Town Hall of 1880 and County Hall of 1898.

The Cathedral, complete with Yorkshire’s highest spire, is certainly worth a visit for history buffs. A blend of medieval and Victorian architecture, the impressive place of worship is filled with avant-garde art. It’s also worth seeking out the Chantry Chapel, which is one of only three bridge chapels left in the country.

Culture vulture

While we’re on the topic of architecture and beauty, Wakefield is a place that does this very well, and just down the road from the Cathedral, the Theatre Royal Wakefield is a building that shows this off beautifully. The Victorian theatre building is the design and vision of famous architect Frank Matcham and the Grade II* listed theatre, built in 1894, is the smallest surviving Matcham theatre auditorium. Keep your eyes peeled for Heritage Days in the city, where you may be lucky enough to step behind the scenes to areas of the theatre usually hidden from the public. With new funding just announced for the building, too, there will be a lot more coming from the popular theatre in the year to come.

You can’t exactly talk about Wakefield without talking about the wonder that is the award-winning Hepworth Wakefield, set within the historic waterfront, overlooking the River Calder. The gallery opened in May 2011 and was awarded Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017. Named after Barbara Hepworth, one of the most important artists of the 20th century who was born and brought up in Wakefield, the gallery presents major exhibitions of the best international modern and contemporary art. It is also home to Wakefield’s art collection – an impressive compendium of modern British and contemporary art – and has dedicated galleries exploring Hepworth’s art and working process.

While in Wakefield, it would be rude not to pay a visit out to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, too. ​​The Hepworth Wakefield and The Yorkshire Sculpture Park were both recipients of the world’s largest museum prize – the Art Fund Museum of the Year award.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Awaken the arts

Tileyard North is not the first foray into creativity – Wakefield has been showcasing the arts for years. Clearly, it has a rich artistic culture and history, and a recent project set within the city is one to look out for if you want to find out more about the artsy past of the place. Artist Ekaterina Sheath has designed an outdoor trail along Upper Westgate, which is designed to allow the public to re-imagine the history of Wakefield. Part of a four-year programme, the art is promoting the Upper Westgate Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) area and is a collaboration between Wakefield Council and Historic England. Taking inspiration from the industrial heritage of this part of the city, the art trail is bold and exciting to witness and is a brilliant way to enjoy a tour of Wakefield while engaging with history. You’ll find the pieces on lampposts and around six adjoining listed buildings including Unity Hall, the Theatre Royal Wakefield and The Lodge at the Orangery and each one illustrates a unique story relating to the sites.

The Art House is also well worth a visit, a place where artists and audiences of all kinds are welcome to engage with the creative process through a year-round programme of exhibitions and events. Plus, the city does festivals in a big way, with the annual Rhubarb Festival taking over the city for a whole week in winter, an eclectic mix of food, drink, art, heritage, live music, comedy and performances. Then in spring, it’s time for Long Division. This vibrant love-letter to independent music brings together the perfect balance of established artists with up-and-coming acts at venues all over the city. In summer, you’ll find Seaside in the City, with thrilling street theatre and a giant sandpit.

What’s On in October

Daniel Arsham at YSP From 1 October

Daniel Arsham: Relics in the Landscape is the first UK museum display of work by the highly acclaimed North American artist Daniel Arsham.

Wakefield Model Railway Exhibition 8-9 October

The Wakefield Model Railway Exhibition, organised by the Wakefield Railway Modellers’ Society, returns for 2022 – the first show in three years!

Hannah Starkey at The Hepworth Wakefield From 20 October

The Hepworth Wakefield will present the first major survey of British photographer Hannah Starkey

Wicked Wakey 28-29 October

This Halloween, Wakefield BID is turning Wakefield into the spooky centre of Yorkshire with Wicked Wakey!

Robatary Wakefield

Eat and greet

Experience Wakefield take us deeper into a tour of the city with a look at the fabulous food and drink options on offer

Wakefield’s reputation as the “Merrie City” can be traced back to the Middle Ages. And whilst it would be difficult to predict what medieval socialites would have made of chilli stouts, guava induced IPAs and rhubarb ales, it’s safe to say their thirst for good times would be thoroughly quenched by the district’s modern-day assortment of real ale and craft beer establishments.

Ossett Brewery is an independent beer creator based in the district, with a growing portfolio of pubs and bars. Within Wakefield city centre, The Hop’s outdoor courtyard and frequent rotation of ales is a perennial favourite. But be sure to take note too of Luis Bar (with its own onsite microbrewery) and the beautiful King’s Arms sat atop the peaceful Heath Common just a few minutes’ drive from the centre. And if you’re keen to get backstage, the brewery in Ossett offers guided tours.

Pontefract too is home to an array of inviting pubs, many with histories as long and dramatic as the town’s Castle. The Robin Hood is an award-winning example, with a dedication of 12 rotating pumps. It’s run by Henry Smith Brewery, who brew in Castleford and also run the 250-year-old Bradley Arms in Featherstone.

The Merrie City is also home to many restaurants, and what could be better after a long day of exploring and taking in the sights than a mouth-watering meal with friends and family. For a taste of Eritrea, head straight to Corarima to discover authentic Abyssinian cuisine. This lovely restaurant, located in the Civic Quarter, offers exquisite vegetarian, largely vegan and gluten-free fare, in a charming, modern and yet simple environment.

Only a few minutes away and described as the meeting of Yorkshire and the Pacific, Robatary combines Japanese style cooking with influences from Indonesia, Peru and the West coast of America for a tantalising culinary experience like no other. From small plates to more traditional meals, Robatary’s dishes embrace fireside cooking, in which your food is cooked over hot charcoal.

For those who prefer great British dining, Iris creates modern cuisine that excite the taste buds with a relaxed dining experience that sources local seasonal produce of the highest quality to create a unique menu.

Osset Taproom Dpi
Ossett Taproom

Farms shops are also aplenty across the district. Farmer Copleys’s 2019 trophy for the Best Farm Shop of the year from the Guild of Fine Food speaks for itself. Based in Pontefract, it boasts lovely attentive and welcoming staff, great choice and reasonable prices in one place, with an excellent vegetable stall and fantastic butchery. In October, book your place early for their world-famous pick your pumpkin experience!

One of the first farm shops in the district, Blacker Hall Farm pride themselves on the fact that 75% of everything sold in the shop is produced and prepared on site, especially their famous award-winning beef products. If you’re near Castleford and are looking for a good honest down-to-earth farm shop with no frills, Methey Bridge Farm shop is the one. Excellent produce – meat, seasonal vegetables, bread, dairy, fruit, preserves.

Find out more at experiencewakefield.co.uk

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