THE little knot of streets bounded by The Calls, Kirkgate and the railway line have seen a host of changes in recent years, as this once shady, dangerous part of town has been rediscovered by bars, restaurants and other businesses.
The excellent Lamb and Flag in Church Row is perhaps the most visible sign of this flourishing renaissance, a beautifully sensitive restoration by Leeds Brewery breathing new life into a crumbling 19th century building where the Lay Verger of the parish church once had his lodgings.
While following a similar path by re-inventing dilapidated premises for a new purpose, Wharf Chambers takes an equal and opposite approach to that of the Lamb and Flag. Here, a workers’ co-operative has wrought a low-budget conversion, embracing the grime and neglect of this building’s long history to create a bar which is utterly at home in its utilitarian surroundings.
It is a members’ club, but at just £1 for an annual subscription it doesn’t add much to the price of your first round. “We let people come in the first time as non-members,” says Eleanor, who serves us at the bar. “After that we expect them to join.”
And like at the Lamb and Flag, the Duck and Drake, Brewdog, the Black Swan – and several other bars which have created a great new drinking circuit in this interesting off-centre pocket of the city centre – there is a commitment to real ale here too.
The choice of beers changes regularly, but it often features at least something from the excellent Brass Castle. On this visit the Malton brewery is represented by two beers from the opposite end of the spectrum – the entry-level Cliffhanger (3.8% ABV) and the dangerously potent Annexation (8.3%) which is sold by the half-pint measure. Another North Yorkshire brewery, Great Yorkshire, based in Cropton, provides the lager.
Eleanor is a member of the nine-strong committee which sees to the day-to-day running of Wharf Chambers. Staff take a wage, of course, but profits are ploughed back into the business and to fundraising causes.
As you might expect from anything with ‘workers’ and ‘co-operative’ about it, there is a definite left-ish stance to the ethos. Around the walls are posters and flyers, some advertising live music, film nights and literary events, and others promoting the campaigns and activities of the interest groups which use this space. Women’s rights, green action, vegetarianism – it rather put me in mind of the student union noticeboard of Oxford Polytechnic when I studied there during the grim days of Thatcherism, the Falklands and Greenham Common.
We take our drink to one of the pockmarked and unmatched tables, where spent steel casks have been pushed underneath, presumably awaiting collection. The red floor tiles are scarred with decades of footfall; the brickwork, faced with the white ceramic of an abandoned underground station or gentlemen’s toilet, bears the patina of age.
“It’s over 100 years old,” says Eleanor. “We don’t really know what it used to be, but it had some industrial purpose. We know it was a hosiery factory for a time, and someone reckons they made pork pies here too, but that might have been a joke.”
Wharf Chambers is the Jeremy Corbyn of the Leeds bar scene. On the surface, it’s rather shabby and down at heel, and yet with a clear purpose and a mission to do something that’s very different to those around it.
And it’s increasingly popular – in this case, even with the media.
23-25 Wharf Street, Leeds, LS2 7EQ
Opening Hours: 5pm-midnight Mon-Wed, 5pm-1am Thurs, 5pm-2am Fri, 3pm-2am Sat, 3pm-midnight Sun
Beers: Changing selection of real ales from around £2.80-pint, plus craft beers and Yorkshire Lager (£2.80)
Wine: Limited choice
Entertainment: Regular programme of live music and films in the bar’s separate performance space. Also football table and board games available.
Children: Not suitable
Disabled: Slightly difficult access and some split-level areas inside
Events: Areas available for private hire
Telephone: 07523 307089
Reviewer: Simon Jenkins