Is our future behind us?

53 Northgate, Wakefield, as it is today – Fino Pizzeria and Cicchetti, showing the new front added to this c. 15th century building in the 1990s. Before this, it looked like the building next door to the right of the picture but its appearance today is perhaps closer to how it originally looked.

I’m going to go out on a limb here; bear with me.

As President of Wakefield Civic Society, I often find myself being asked to comment on what sort of city Wakefield should aspire to be, particularly given the apparent decline in retail and the empty shops to be seen on the high street (a problem which besets many towns and cities, of course, not just Wakefield). We need to envisage what sort of place Wakefield could be and what it can offer for residents and visitors if it is to retain any sense of vibrancy and vitality.

Creating that vision for Wakefield isn’t quite as easy as it looks. In trying to think about the future, it’s only natural to think about the past. What makes the city unique and distinctive, certainly in terms of the physical fabric of the buildings and street layout, is steeped in its history.

We know that Wakefield has existed as a place of settlement for over a thousand years (it was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086). It made its reputation (and much of its money) through the textile industry, quarrying, coalmining and, of course, as a market town. It was a centre for both trade and administration and, in the 19th century, prior to the arrival and eventual dominance of the railways, it was a thriving inland port. In 1472, King Edward IV of England established the Council of the North, an administrative body created not only to maintain the king’s peace in the North but also to stimulate economic growth. The Council of the North was based in Sheriff Hutton and Wakefield (Sandal Castle) before finally moving to York. Later, Wakefield became the administrative capital of the West Riding of Yorkshire

Peter Brears’ book – the front cover features an illustration showing how the bread booths on Bread Street might have looked.

As such an important centre in both commercial and administrative terms, it is perhaps not surprising that the streets and yards were lined with some fairly impressive buildings. A new book, The Buildings of Tudor and Stuart Wakefield, by historian Peter Brears (£19.95, published by Wakefield Historical Publications) reveals just how fine those medieval buildings were. (The book is, incidentally, a really useful resource for anyone interested in the history of the city and one I can wholeheartedly recommend.)

The Black Swan in Silver Street, Wakefield

Sadly, many of those timber-framed buildings are lost to us having been demolished to make way for new properties more suitable to the ‘modern age’. Few examples remain but the Black Swan in Silver Street has managed to hang on, looking more or less as it might have done back in the day, while other survivors are a little less obvious, having been hidden by more recent stone or brick fronts. Such an example is the run of buildings at 53-57 Northgate which at one time would have been one house, according to Brears’ book, but which was subsequently divided into separate properties. No. 53 was given a replica front in the early 1990s to take it back to how it might have looked in the 15th century (plate glass windows notwithstanding) while its neighbours retain the stone fronts (see photo above).

Pastiche? Certainly. But people seem to love it and behind that relatively new front, itself now nearly 30 years old, their lies a genuinely old building, that dates back to at least the fifteenth or early 16th century. The year ‘1596’ moulded into the plaster ceiling of the upper floor is probably the date of an internal re-ordering carried out maybe a hundred years or so after the house was first built.

The former Golden Cock Inn, 31 Westgate, Wakefield. Demolished in 1963.

In Westgate, there stood the Golden Cock Inn. This early 17th century building stood for over 300 years, eventually being demolished in 1963 and some readers may well remember it, not as a pub but as a couple of shops. According to Brears’  book, the building was recorded in photographs as it was taken down and at least some of the timbers were taken into store by Wakefield Museum so that the building could be re-built at some point in the future.

Well, that rebuilding hasn’t happened – and I have no idea whether the timbers have survived. But what if they have? Could the building be recreated? Even if none of the original timbers survive or are usable, would it be viable to build a copy of the Golden Cock Inn and possibly other buildings that have been lost to us?

There is the problem of finding somewhere to erect such buildings. The Golden Cock Inn certainly couldn’t go on the original site – that is now occupied by modern shops – albeit of fairly undistinguished design, typical of the 1960s. So a new site would need to be found – but that shouldn’t be too difficult; there are plenty of empty plots in the city centre, many used as ‘temporary’ car parks.

The site of the Golden Cock Inn as it looks today.

If you follow the conversations about Wakefield that take place on social media, you will be aware that there is huge interest in the history of the city and its built heritage – both in the buildings that are extant and the ones now extinct. Many people, it seems, would like to go back to the past, at least for a poke around. Some very much regret the passing of the buildings that we have lost. Photos are poured over and memories shared. All too often, the developers, planners and councillors who presided over this post-war destruction of our city centre get the blame – sometimes a little harshly: the Victorians probably demolished as much of the city centre as did the planners and developers of the post-war period (although the Victorians replaced the buildings they destroyed with new edifices that are aesthetically pleasing and which have stood the test of time in contrast to much of our 1960s’ ‘cookie-cutter’ architecture.

Now, I don’t really want to suggest that Wakefield’s future lies entirely in the past. We need to be a thoroughly modern, digitally connected city that is outward looking and facing up to the challenges ahead. But we also need to create the sort of city centre that is attractive to residents and appealing to visitors. We should be looking to create, or more accurately, recreate, the local distinctiveness we have been in danger of losing in recent years: let’s make something which people will take to their hearts and be proud of; something in fact that they will not only want to see for themselves but will want to show off to their friends and family who have the bad luck to live somewhere else!

One way of doing this would be to rebuild perhaps just one street with replicas or reconstructions of some of the timber-framed houses and shops that would have once been so evident across the city. Whether they be used as museum pieces for people to explore or as premises for people to live in and work from I leave for future discussion. Done well (and avoiding what I sometimes call ‘the Disneyfication of heritage’ – none of this ‘Ye Olde Worlde’ nonsense please!), the project could have great potential to stimulate interest not only in our own history but in history and architecture more generally. There could be school projects linked to the enterprise; community workshops, writing and art classes and so on. Heavens, there might even be a TV series in it. Visitors would come a-flocking, I’m sure.

Now, I’m not usually one for suggesting we build old stuff (and if I was, I’d be recommending we go for something in Art Deco rather than medieval style), but horses for courses and as a learning and research project that could involve the community, I’m in.

If there’s anyone out there with the resources and enthusiasm to make this happen and the clout to make it a reality, I’ll be right behind you….