Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Andrew Liddle
Guest Writer
1:00 AM 16th September 2023

Thwaite Mill, Art Deco Tetleys And The Victoria Quarter

Andrew Liddle walks down a green corridor into Leeds on a journey through time

Aire & Calder at Leeds 

Picture credit: Canal & River Trust
Aire & Calder at Leeds Picture credit: Canal & River Trust
Canals are a magnet forged in the industrial revolution. They draw me back time and again even though I’m just a humble towpath trekker – a gongoozler – secretly envious of narrow boaters, skippering ‘cruiser-style leisure crafts’ gussied-up like gypsy caravans

There are few stretches of inland waterway more pleasantly transformed than Leeds’s Knostrop Cut - ‘Noz’ as it’s known to true Loiners. Here the River Aire, pretty clean these days, runs very closely parallel to the Aire and Calder Navigation which was driven through in the 1770s. For a time, the path separates the two, canal sticking rigidly to its course, river straying away but never too far before bending back.

Woodlesford Lock
Picture credit: Canal & River Trust
Woodlesford Lock Picture credit: Canal & River Trust
Woodlesford Lock, conveniently near the railway station, is well maintained and busy with walkers and boaters. It’s the start of a green and watery corridor leading to the heart of the city. The whole area, once dominated by the coal-fired Skelton Power Station, has now remarkably become something of a tourist trap-meets-nature reserve. Mercifully, the 5 big cooling towers have gone but there are traces of former industrial activity at every turn.

Woodlesford Lock
Picture credit: Canal & River Trust
Woodlesford Lock Picture credit: Canal & River Trust
Those stretches of steely water which birds skim are artificial lakes, ‘flashes’ they’re called, the product of mining subsistence. Skelton Lake, the largest, formed out of an opencast mine, boasts its own 60-acre country park. Moorhens, swans and coots nest along the river banks. Beyond the woods, you catch glimpses of the Tudor-built Temple Newsam, Leeds’s Hampton Court, with grounds landscaped by Capability Brown. Back in the floods of 2015, this whole area took on the appearance of a waterworld.

Skirting Rothwell Country Park, some 125 acres of wetland, woodland, meadow and hedgerows, it’s difficult to imagine the M1 is so close, the city centre is only about five miles away - or that before 1983 this was a busy working colliery, knee-deep in coal dust. In the mid-1990s Leeds City Council and the charity Groundwork Leeds formed a far-sighted partnership to tackle what had become an abandoned eyesore and this complete transformation of the landscape is the award-winning result.

Stephenson’s Rocket was designed and built by the great railway pioneer, Robert Stephenson, in 1829. Keep walking towards the city and you’ll soon come to the amazing water-powered Thwaite Mill - on a 9-acre river island all of its own - which is credited with playing a vital role in the development of arguably the world’s first steam locomotive.

Thwaite Mill

Thwaite Mill Photo:
Restored in the 1990s by the Thwaite Mill Society, the brick-built Grade 2 listed building is now a fascinating industrial museum, with water-wheels and a water-powered crane on display. To the sound of rushing water, you learn how the mill was constructed next to the weir - in 1823-24 - to replace a seventeenth-century fulling mill, where woven cloth was cleaned.

How amazing that this great water-powered grinding stone crushed the linseed that made the industrial lubricant that oiled the wheels of the steam age. In 1872 the mill was adapted to grind flint and china stone for the thriving Leeds’ pottery industry. In the last century it was mostly used to make putty before finally closing in 1972 after suffering flood damage.

Knostrop Flood Lock is a feat of engineering, not so much a lock as three moveable weir gates, a hugely expensive but necessary defence against flooding and effectively the canal’s gateway to Leeds. There’s not much left of the old lock and that quirky swing bridge with the strange three-legged mechanism. The modern high-rise skyline of the big city beckons but first must come the least interesting stretch of the journey, through industrialised Knowsthorpe and Hunslet, best known these days for the Royal Armouries.

Leeds Bridge
Photo: Graham Hermon
Leeds Bridge Photo: Graham Hermon
Granary Wharf, Leeds Bridge, Brewery Wharf and Leeds Dock are ahead, wonderful places which reveal all that’s best about urban renewal and revival. The waterfront now has a lively lakeside promenade. Where once, coal and grain were traded and loaded, there are cafés, restaurants, bars and a modern wharf for house boats. There is even a water-taxi, scurrying about.

Almost as far as the eye can see was once a vast complex of store yards and warehouses with armies of men busy offloading coal and goods from the barges. Not that long ago large swathes of it had become derelict and inaccessible, but now Clarence Dock ‘village’ is a brave new world of hotels, apartments, offices, chic shops and gourmet restaurants. The ‘towpath’, popular with strollers, joggers and speedy cyclists, seems to connect so many historical industrial sites, now tastefully modernised.

The Art Deco Tetley
Photo: Graham Hermon
The Art Deco Tetley Photo: Graham Hermon
The former headquarters of the best-known local brewery, a magnificent Art Deco building, has become The Tetley, ‘a centre for contemporary art and learning’. It’s difficult not to be overwhelmed by its immense archive relating to the history of the brewery that stood on the site for nearly 200 years. There are artworks and artefacts, paintings, architectural plans, photographs, silverware and furniture on a grand scale. But also ephemeral items like beermats and commemorative posters, once part of the colourful decor of the workingman’s home from home when Tetley was king.

The Calls, Leeds
Photo by William Maddicott on Unsplash
The Calls, Leeds Photo by William Maddicott on Unsplash
The Calls, on the opposite bank, is another historic area now boasting restaurants and bars housed in restored warehouses and buildings.

Thinking of Tetley’s, I quicken my steps on the cobblestones to Dock Street and the iconic Leeds Bridge. Built in 1850, it lays claim to be the birthplace of cinema because in 1888 the Frenchman, Louis Le Prince, filmed horse-drawn traffic on the bridge, capturing the world’s first moving pictures.

Photo: Graham Hermon
Photo: Graham Hermon
I have a nostalgic pint in the restored Adelphi, originally one of those extravagantly decorated ‘gin palaces’. It’s now plush again in a way it never was in my time, but which I warm to. These office workers, suited and booted - but tieless - out for a long lunch might be surprised to know the place once rang to the sound of Jazz, Rock and Irish music - and the Tetley’s bitter, brewed a stone’s throw away, flowed like water and tasted like wine.

Before 1959, the dark reddish-purple trams used to clank and scream along Briggate. Now pedestrianised, it’s the busiest and brightest street in town, one of the destinations in the north for upmarket shopping.

The Aldephi Pub
Photo: Graham Hermon
The Aldephi Pub Photo: Graham Hermon
The most celebrated name for those wanting refreshment is, of course, Whitelock’s Ale House, in Turk’s Head Yard. Virtually unchanged since its makeover in the 1890s, gleaming mirrors pick out all its period features, the polished brass and copper, the burnished wooden panels, stained glass and faience tiling. Once comfortably ensconced, it’s easy to agree with the former poet-laureate, Sir John Betjeman, that here is ‘the very heart of Leeds’. Certainly, there can be no more appealing place to dine than this most choice example of a city ‘luncheon bar’ - if like Betjeman you admire the Victorian period.

Outside, the elegant boulevard created when Briggate was widened in 1868, is alive with buskers and street artists and sleepy with people sitting in the sun. The jewel in Leeds’ crown is undoubtedly the Victoria Quarter, the glittering arcades, Queen’s, Thornton’s and the Grand, worthy of comparison with the fashionable world’s finest. As the work of Frank Matcham, designer of the London Palladium and countless famous theatres, it’s perhaps not surprising there’s such a wealth of grand operatic touches from the marble columns, pink terracotta facades and gilt mosaics to the delicate murals and wrought-iron filigrees.

It’s sobering to think that before the canals effectively made Leeds a rich inland port with access to both coasts, this spot where people come to buy their Louis Vuitton, Mulberry and Reiss was once the site of the Leeds’ slaughterhouse. Times change!

The Canal & River Trust, which looks after the Aire & Calder Navigation, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and Woodlesford Lock, is the charity working to protect the nation’s historic and ageing canals. The Canal & River Trust is faced with soaring costs of looking after the region’s canals and river navigations at a time when available funding is stretched. Following the announcement of a reduction in essential government grant funding over ten years from 2027, the proposed cuts will see the value of public funding for canals reduce in real terms by more than £300m - or 40% - compared to recent levels. The Trust warns this will threaten the future of the historic canals, leading to their decline and to the eventual closure of some parts of the network. In order to protect more than 2,000 miles of canals and rivers in England and Wales, including the structures such as locks, bridges, and reservoirs that feed the canals, the charity has launched the #KeepCanalsAlive campaign, for more information click here.