THE blackboards and heavy velvet drapes which once divided Whitelock’s splendid old bar from its genteel restaurant have now been removed, bringing new light and air to this lovely space.
It invites superlatives. Leeds’s most beautiful, most unspoiled, most famous pub is as much the “very heart of the city” as it was when poet laureate John Betjeman described it so, many years ago.
And yet it is so easily overlooked. Thousands of shoppers in Trinity Street and Briggate must pass unknowing either end of Turk’s Head Yard every day, oblivious to the pleasures a little walk up the alleyway could bring.
The pub was once the Turk’s Head, its name pregnant with the bloodthirsty mystery of the crusades. And though it adopted the name of owner William Whitelock in Victorian times, the street name remained as a relic of the time when nascent Leeds grew around a crowded gridwork of yards and alleyways linking its major routes.
Most are now long-forgotten, bricked up or built over, their ancient utility sacrificed on the altar of commercial purpose. In the few that remain, the DNA of ancient Leeds can still be glimpsed in its much-changed modern face. Angel Inn Yard, a short hop north from here, retains that same geometry, though the pub itself lacks the astonishing proletarian grandeur of Whitelock’s.
To step inside is to enter a gleaming, polished palace of late Victorian indulgence, every much a refuge now from the madness of the world outside as it was a century or more ago. It is as though a beautifully ornate Pullman carriage from the Orient Express had slipped free from the railway museum and parked itself in the city centre, the great stores and shopping arcades moulding themselves around it.
The bar itself is unique, its shiny copper counter and long, curving frontage of sculptured tiles a reminder of its role as “the first city luncheon bar” – a subtitle it still proudly wears and a function it is beginning to embrace once more. The notion that these tiles, turquoise, ivory, brown and yellow, are genuine Burmantofts Faience is not an altogether fanciful one. When the modern-day Whitelocks was laid out in the 1880s, the suburb now best known for St James’s Hospital was still exporting its much-prized ceramics all over the world.
Though not so grand as the glazed Burmantofts terracotta used to such dramatic effect by Alfred Waterhouse in his Great Hall at Leeds University, the ornate tiling at Whitelock’s and at the Garden Gate in Hunslet show this famed product of the city at its functional, working-man best.
Staff behind the bar tower above their customers, handing pints down from their raised position above the counter. Time was when the pub’s impressive array of handpumps reflected its place in the Scottish and Newcastle empire, but in recent times Whitelock’s has been through far too many changes of ownership than a pub of this importance really should have to endure. Quality has cruelly suffered at times – something readily acknowledged by new licensee Pete Walker whose first job on taking over six weeks ago was to instigate a serious deep clean.
It shows. Everything from the ruby red banquettes to the oak screens bears that scrubbed-up sheen. Polished mirrors advertise long-gone products such as Henley’s Bottled Cyder and Fenwick’s India Pale Ale each etching deflecting the light in a dozen directions. Frosted glass diffuses the reflected sunshine and peppers the room with little dazzles.
Reflected in the bright copper of the bar and the table tops, Whitelock’s glows in a reassuring sepia, as though captured in the frame of one of the Victorian photographers whose pictures of the building, its staff, and its eponymous owners, decorate the walls.
Above the door is an ancient painted sign pointing the way to “E Hawkins, Engraver” who presumably once plied his artistic trade from a room upstairs.
Newly-varnished, the picnic tables outside in the long flagged yard offer a refuge from the bustle of the city, where outdoor drinkers are warmed by the sunshine from a narrow sliver of sky.
This was always a journalists’ pub. The proximity of their offices made Whitelock’s a draw for writers from the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post, which shifted away to Wellington Street in the 1970s, and the Yorkshire Evening News, which closed in 1963. All were thriving close by in Betjeman’s time, and he loved the atmosphere here – comparing it to the Old Cheshire Cheese, that famous Fleet Street haunt of writers from Johnson to Dickens and beyond. At one time all the waiters here were dwarves.
The handpumps now offer a Yorkshire beer festival in miniature. Local microbreweries like Revolutions, Kirkstall and Brickyard, compete with the bigger rivals Copper Dragon and Theakston’s. The choice will change regularly, “but we won’t be having Tetley’s,” adds Pete, though I can’t ever remember the city’s favourite beer being sold here, even when it was actually brewed nearby.
I opt for pale, refreshing, slightly citric Three Swords from Kirkstall, fast becoming a favourite, which I pair with slices of cold beef and horseradish, clutched between chunky slabs of crusty white bread (£4.50). I fancy it’s the sort of fare Betjeman might have enjoyed, or any of the Turk’s Head customers back to Georgian times. By early evening, the Luncheon Bar menu is replaced by a quality dinner menu, with carefully-created choices such as pork belly (£12.50) and roast cod (£13.50).
Join Simon Jenkins for an evening beer tasting on Saturday at Waterstone’s in Albion Street, Leeds, where you can try eight different ales and stouts from around the UK. The event starts at 7pm and tickets are on sale from the shop.
Hosts: Pete Walker
Type: Beautiful period piece, still the city’s best Opening hours: 11am-midnight Sun-Thur, 11am-1am Fri-Sat
Beers: Theakston’s Best (£3.20), Old Peculier (£3.50), Golden Pippin
(£3.20) plus a changing selection of guest beers from £3.20-£3.50.
Kronenbourg (£3.50), Stella Artois (£3.50), Becks Vier (£3.30), Carling (£3.20), Guinness (£3.50)
Wine: Good selection
Food: Served noon-9pm daily
Beer Garden: Long courtyard with picnic tables
Disabled: Wheelchair access easiest to the beer garden, but pub itself is less easily accessible. No special facilities.
Children: Welcomed, but no special facilities
Parking: City centre car parks nearby
Telephone: 0113 245 3950