“In Briggate nothing of note,” is Pevsner’s comment on the ancient heart of Leeds, an oddly offhand remark which is immediately contradicted when he goes on briefly to mention two “examples of the characteristic Leeds Arcades”.
When the existing tiny settlement was developed as a new town in the early thirteenth century the landholdings were laid out as narrow burgage plots on Briggate, the approach to the bridge over the River Aire.
Many of these boundaries have survived to the present day, and in the nineteenth century they engendered the city’s distinctive arcades as places for shopping and entertainment.
Along with the surviving City Markets the arcades provide a wonderfully atmospheric experience of the best of Victorian retail enterprise, and are sufficiently well recognised to gain the attention and investment of present-day developers.
The earliest of these long corridor-thoroughfares, covering over the ancient yards and providing access to premises away from the main street, is Thornton’s Arcade (1877-8), built on the site of the Old Talbot Inn and Yard by Charles Thornton.
Several imitators followed – the Queen’s Arcade (1888-9), the Grand Arcade adjacent to the earlier Grand Theatre (1896-9 for the New Briggate Arcade Co), and the Victoria Arcade (1898).
Most sumptuous and celebrated of all was the complex designed from 1898 onwards for the Leeds Estate Co by the great theatre-architect, Frank Matcham, consisting of County Arcade, Cross Arcade and the open Queen Victoria Street and King Edward Street, all designed in “freestyle” with mahogany shopfronts and elaborate façades in Burmantofts terracotta.
Frank Matcham based the shopping arcades on the opulent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (1877) in Milan, and within the same block of buildings stood his Empire Theatre, built at the same time but demolished in 1961.
The County and Cross Arcades came into their own as a result of Prudential Portfolio Managers’ commissioning of a high-quality redevelopment scheme by Derek Latham & Co, completed in 1990 and named the Victoria Quarter.
For this scheme Matcham’s arcades were lovingly restored, with new mosaics by Joanna Veevers and ironwork by Jim Horrobin. In addition, Queen Victoria Street was roofed in a sympathetic modern style which features nine hundred square yards of stained glass by Brian Clarke with iron street-furniture by Alan Dawson.
The spirit of the late-Victorian covered malls has been reaffirmed and updated by enclosing Matcham’s outside walls and encouraging passers-by to slow their walking pace and look upwards.
And on the footprint of the Empire Theatre an unremarkable 1960s shopping mall has given way to the first branch of Harvey Nicholls outside London, opened in 1996.
Since that time, Leeds has continued to develop as the “Knightsbridge of the North”. The Light (2001) occupies a site south of the Headrow. Trinity Leeds (2013) embraces the eighteenth-century Church of the Holy Trinity on Boar Lane, and Victoria Gate was opened alongside the Victoria Quarter in 2016 with a distinctive flagship John Lewis store.
And yet the burgage plots remain.
The intact and celebrated City Varieties music hall, dating from 1865 and originally Thornton’s Varieties, stands near Charles Thornton’s arcade, embedded within the block of buildings and completely devoid of any façade, and in a narrow alley off Briggate stands Whitelock’s, a three-hundred-year-old pub-restaurant that was originally the Turk’s Head, described by John Betjeman as “the very heart of Leeds”.
For all these reasons Leeds is a place to shop until you drop, and afterwards eat, drink and be merry.