Kirkgate Market holds a special place in the hearts of most Leeds residents, especially those of a certain age who were dragged there by their parents to do the weekend shopping.
I was a weird kid in that I liked going with my dad to buy the stuff we needed for Saturday night dinner and Sunday lunch. He taught me how to buy meat – the first thing to do is to check out the strip lighting above the window. If it is red, then walk away as they are trying to make the meat look better, but if it is white that is fine. If the joints are too square they have been cut whilst frozen with a band saw rather than being properly butchered. I could go on, and usually do, so when I heard that there was an organised walking tour of the old place I thought that I would give it a try.
The tour was run by Rob Kilner, a chap I had met at a Leeds Literary Festival event when he was a volunteer steward on a Poetry Ghost Walk around the City, so I knew of his love for the place. What I didn’t know was how deep his knowledge was and the number of connections he has in the market, which gave the tour a unique twist.
About a dozen of us met under the Marks and Spencer clock, where we were given the health and safety talk along with a brief outline of what was to come. Rob had managed to gain access for us to the upper floor and gallery which runs above the trading space and was a real eye-opener. We were treated to talks about the origins of the market and how it has developed, either organically or out of necessity after the fire in 1975, when a large part of it was destroyed. Rob also told us of the redevelopment plans which have turned my beloved Butchers’ Row into a ghost street ready for its conversion into an Aparthotel.
I do not intend to give you the details of these enlightening facts as I wouldn’t like to spoil it for you should you decide to give a future one a go, but what I will say is that the tour was brought to life by the stall holders with whom Rob seems to be so familiar. The chap at the Nut Shop gave us a chat about tiger nuts, something I still hate sixty years after I was force fed them as a child. We then were given the low down on the hosiery trade by the lady at the stocking shop, a chat about baking and a trip to the bowels of the premises, where Scotty at the Barber Shop gave us a demonstration as to how to sharpen a cut-throat razor.
After a comprehensive wander around all parts of the indoor market, we made our way up the staircase to the Kirkgate Suite where some old photographs had been set out for us to compare the ‘then and now’. This also gave us the opportunity to access the open gallery, from where the magnificent roof was clearly visible in all its splendour. Because the handrail is quite low, this floor is not normally open to the public so it was a rare treat. The gallery is supported by a row of cast iron brackets in the shape of wyverns (two-legged dragons) a motif which is repeated in the roofing structure along with the Leeds coat of arms.
I must say that this was a very informative and entertaining tour of one of the jewels in Leeds’ crown, delivered superbly by Rob. It is great to know that there are people both willing and very able to conduct tours like this in order to bring the past, present and future to life. The other great thing about the tour is that it is absolutely free, so should you happen to be interested in attending one in the future, they are run on a monthly basis, the next being 27th July, so please register here. You will never look at this place in the same way again.