A battered piano, whose black lacquer has been streaked with a gaudy rainbow of colours, stands near the end of the bar, with a note inviting customers to play.
Such home-grown taproom entertainment, whose bloodline stretches from Albert Trotter through wartime singalongs, to turn-of-the-century American ragtime and beyond, is entirely in keeping with a very modern bar styled as something altogether older.
Its arrival, aided by investment from the city council and Heritage Lottery Fund, marks a turning point for Leeds’s oldest street. Kirkgate has seen better days. Once the main thoroughfare of our growing city, it first linked the parish church to the market gardens beyond where Briggate stands today. The first Cloth Hall, the very root of the city’s expansion and prosperity, opened here in 1711.
Perhaps it was the arrival of the railways which began Kirkgate’s steady decline, crudely slashing the street with the low ugly bridge which carries York-bound trains to an embankment thrown up across the ancient churchyard, displacing the graves. As Vicar Lane and Briggate thrived, as commerce shifted to Lands Lane, the Headrow and Albion Street, decades of shameful neglect rendered Kirkgate a place to be avoided.
Perhaps the opening of a bakery, bar and deli, selling great beers and Yorkshire produce, is the surest sign that things are at last looking up.
It’s housed in the 18th-century home of a cloth merchant, though its name is older still. Long before the Domesday Book, Wapentakes were administrative areas, larger than a village, smaller than a county, where weapons would be raised in the air as a show of approval for the Chief. Meetings of the Wapentake of Skyrack, centred on modern-day Headingley, would be held at the venerable “Scir Ac”, the original Shire Oak which stood in Otley Road until 1941 and gave its name to rival pubs on either side of the junction.
The modern-day Wapentake has a small display of weaponry of its own, with four old rifles forming an arresting centrepiece above the sideboard behind the bar, whose mirror glints with the alluring amber gleam of whiskies and rums. The real ale handpulls and craft ale fonts sit beside a glass cabinet of rich chocolate cakes; those who come in for tea or coffee and a slice of something sweet and calorific are just as welcome as those drawn by the beer.
The renovation has rediscovered the original shop frontage, while a battered painted sign from the wholesale warehouseman who once plied his trade here has pride of place on one wall. Here and there the plaster is stripped back to the careworn brick, the furniture a boot sale array of tiled tables, upholstered dining chairs and a cosy church pew just wide enough for two.
A spread of hanging bulbs illuminate the space, their arcing radiating array of black wires giving the impression of two giant spiders, their beady eyes open for prey.
A rake of steep narrow stairs lead from this main room to a further drinking area where there is the rather surprising addition of Sky Sports, quite a contrast to the homespun entertainment downstairs.
I choose a pint of easy-going, gently citric 3.6% Bandit pale ale from Keighley’s Wishbone Brewery. My wife, without the worry of driving or having to take coherent notes, goes for the rather stronger Atlantic blonde ale from Sharps Brewery in Cornwall.
This latter beer is something of an exception here, with everything from the ales to the cakes to the pork pies sourced almost exclusively locally, ensuring that this is genuinely what a wapentake has always been – a little piece of Yorkshire.
Address: Kirkgate, Leeds
Type: Bakery, cafe and bar
Hosts: Anton Welburn and Emily Youell
Opening Hours: 7.30am-11pm Mon-Fri, 10am-11pm Sat, 10am-9pm Sun
Beers: Changing range of cask, keg and bottled beers
Wines: Decent choice
Food: Interesting menu combines deli specialities with pub food classics, mostly Yorkshire-sourced
Disabled: Straightforward access but with split-level areas inside
Children: Not especially suitable
Entertainment: Piano downstairs, Sky Sport upstairs
Beer garden: Narrow area to rear
Parking: City centre parking areas nearby
Telephone: 0113 243 6248
Website: wapentakeleeds.com – which is currently blank!