Whoever came up with the idea for the Heritage Open Days needs a pat on the back. For four days every September we’re given the chance to learn more about our local history and heritage than we might otherwise be able to. Historic buildings and sites are opened up in a way that they aren’t during the rest of the year. This might mean that buildings that are in private hands are opened to the public, behind the scenes tours are laid on, entry fees are waived, or volunteers are on hand to answer questions or give tours. Every year I intend to make good use of the opportunities and I usually fail, so I was especially determined this time. I had a whole weekend of activities planned – I didn’t manage all of it, but I did good.
My first goal was to have a snoop inside the Tetley headquarters building. For those that don’t know, there’s been a brewery on the site since 1791. Joshua Tetley bought it in 1822 and the present building was built in 1931. The brewery was closed in 2011 and most of the site has now been demolished. I had a couple of reasons for waiting to go. Firstly, it was a nice opportunity to see inside a historic building that hadn’t been open to the public. Secondly, what does an art deco office look like and how many of the original features have survived? And thirdly, it would be interesting to see the “before” picture before it embarks on a new life next year.
As to the first point, there’s something quite exciting about going where you couldn’t go before, like being let into a secretive world. And who doesn’t like to be a bit nosy?! Unfortunately there weren’t any old papers lying around, but the plaques on the doors denoting who would have worked there fed the imagination. The answer to the second point was – quite a lot. From the original lift to the fireplaces and little hatch between the manager’s office and the one next door, there was no sense that modernity had come along and spoilt everything. For instance, there were new lights, but they were subtle and in keeping with the rest of the building. Not to mention the wonderful life still being there. The next phase of the site’s life will be as an art exhibition space, under the auspices of PSL (Project Space Leeds), a local organisation set up to create professional exhibition opportunities for young and emerging artists based in Leeds and the north of England. It’s going to be fascinating to see how such a creative group makes use of the site. It opens in spring 2013, so we don’t have long to wait to find out.
My second visit was to the Roundhouse, a building that thousands of people drive past every day, probably without giving it much thought. But actually it’s rather significant. It’s alongside Wellington Road as you approach Armley Gyratory from the city centre, and was once part of the sprawling railway network around Leeds. And this is where my reason for visiting comes in, because from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, several of my family were railwaymen, and I want to know more about what it was like. The building predates them, but nevertheless gives an insight into the world they knew.
It is one of the few, if not only, surviving examples of a complete roundhouse of the 1840s, complete with original 50’ timbers in the ceiling. It was used to ‘stable’ (a term I find quite cute for some reason) the locomotives – in the centre was a turntable on to which you’d drive and then be turned in the direction of the appropriate berth for the night. I’m sure anyone who’s read or seen Thomas the Tank Engine can picture the scene. Despite the building of a half roundhouse next door (now Majestic) and another roundhouse nearby (demolished in the 1960s), their full use was short lived as locomotives being bigger and the sheds were no longer practical. A larger, more flexible, facility was built on the other side of the city centre and the roundhouse began to have other uses.
Ordinarily you would never get to see inside, but because of the interest of the occupants, Leeds Commercial Ltd, it was opened up on a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon (hard to picture that over the last few days!). Some real care and attention had gone into it, with vans being parked up inside to act as temporary display boards for all manner of old photographs, site plans and maps, which I could quite happily look at for hours. I’m glad it survived, a part of the early history of the British railways and a remnant of the vast railway infrastructure of Leeds, much of which has long gone. It’s also helped me to imagine a small part of my great grandfather’s working life – he was a driver and would have put his engine to bed in something similar every day. He died long before I was born so I’ve never been able to ask him what it was like to be a train driver, but at least I now have a prop for my imagination to work with.
But I’m also glad that there are people out there who are so interested in the history of their buildings that they’re willing to give up their time to share it with the rest of us. So to everyone who’s involved in the Heritage Open Days, thank you.