THEY’RE having a refit at Whitelocks. Those words will strike terror into the heart of anyone who loves Leeds pubs.
Whitelocks is a Victorian drinking palace of polished brass and copper, gleaming mirrors, sculpted tiles and delicious atmosphere. The very idea that this wonderful jewel should be despoiled by change is a shocking one.
Thankfully the change is being limited to the pub’s “top” bar, further along the narrow airless ribbon of Turk’s Head Yard, which cuts between Briggate and the Trinity centre. In recent years, during meandering changes of direction in management, this has only been sporadically used. Its interior owes much to a careless 80s redesign which left it a poor relation to the main bar so beloved of John Betjeman and more than a century’s worth of drinkers.
So rather than being shocked, one should be delighted the new management understands the true value of The First City Luncheon Bar – and is doing everything to preserve it for the drinkers of the future.
“We are proud custodians of this place,” says owner Ed Mason, who first drank here as a teenager in 1989 while a student at the University of Leeds. “Even at 18 I was a fan of real ale,” says Ed, who moved to Leeds from Devon, and made it his new home. “We used to go to the Duck and Drake and to Whitelocks. This was a palace. That was spit and sawdust.”
After graduating, he had spells at the Hifi Club, Arts Cafe and Faversham, before establishing renowned craft brewery Five Points in London.
But he retained a deep affection for Whitelocks. “When this opportunity came available, I couldn’t believe it. It was still a great pub but the love wasn’t there. Though he admits the decision was “part heart and part head” he is in no doubt that he has taken on one of the city’s true gems. “It’s the very heart of Leeds, both geographically and in the role it plays in city life,” he says.
Though this year has seen Whitelocks celebrating its 300th anniversary, in its geometry can be glimpsed divisions created more than 800 years ago. In 1207, the local landowner sold 30 plots either side of the ancient thoroughfare. Each were just under 50 feet wide, and became workshops, homes, market gardens and taverns. And despite myriad changes since, that measurement precisely describes the street’s modern shopping arcades. At 25 feet wide, Whitelocks sits on half a plot, hence the narrow shape, which will have once been common to a wealth of old bars either side of the road, but now can only be really glimpsed here and at the Ship and Angel a little further along.
The re-opening of the renamed Turk’s Head Bar, marks the start of the fourth century at Whitelocks. “This is just a new chapter,” says Ed, who overcame the significant strictures of listed building consent to oversee a redesign whose low-lighting, marble bar top, and deep blue glazed tiles reflect much of the Victorian design of the main bar along the yard. It opened last week and with some further tweaks will become fully operational in mid-January.
Ed has also seen Whitelocks renew its commitment to real ale, ending decades during which this most beautiful of alehouses did not always serve the very best of ales. Now free of brewery tie, he can stock whatever he wants – and though there must be a temptation to make this the northern home of Five Points, the beers will be predominantly sourced locally. Already, the biggest sellers are Kirkstall Pale and Timothy Taylor Landlord.
Despite some changes, one fixture here will certainly remain – Kim Shires, the much-loved and longest-serving member of the team who has been at Whitelocks since 1982.
Address: Turk’s Head Yard, Leeds, LS1 6HB
Host: Owner Ed Mason
Type: A piece of Leeds history
Opening Hours: 11am-midnight Mon-Thur; 11am-1am Fri-Sat; 11am-11pm Sun
Beers: Kirkstall Pale (£3.70), Timothy Taylor Landlord (£3.80), Theakston’s Old Peculier (£4.10) plus changing choice of other real ales. Also Pilsner Urquell (£4.60), Carling (£3.60), Kronenbourg (£4), Guinness (£4), John Smith’s Smooth (£3.40)
Wines: Good choices available from £4-glass and £15.50-bottle
Food: Quality meals served noon-9pm daily
Disabled: Pub is on one level, but access is rather tricky
Children: Not especially suitable
Entertainment: Occasional themed events
Beer garden: Long yard to the side of the pub
Parking: City centre car parks nearby
Telephone: 0113 2453950 and 0113 2423368
Reviewer: Simon Jenkins