UNTIL Sunday lunchtime, when my little party of hungry diners was shown up the spiral staircase to the Cross Keys’ upper room, I’d been oblivious to the fact that this part of the pub is dedicated to the great engineer James Watt.
If anyone deserves the recognition it is surely Matthew Murray, who designed and built the first steam locomotive, revolutionised flax spinning machinery at Marshall’s Mill in Holbeck – and opened his own Round Foundry nearby, establishing this part of Leeds as one of the engine rooms of the industrial revolution.
Watt may be the more famous name, but his role in Holbeck’s development was rather more questionable. He sent engineers from his Midlands works to spy on Murray’s plant, he challenged Murray’s patents in an attempt to tie him up in red tape – and then he bought land neighbouring the Round Foundry to prevent the business from expanding.
The connection with the Cross Keys is simply that the room was hired by Watt to accommodate those engaged in industrial espionage; perhaps a campaign should be launched to have it renamed, and Watt’s statue removed from City Square.
The decline of the Cross Keys mirrored that of Holbeck as an industrial superpower. It closed in the 1980s, and by the time the North Bar group found it, it was being used as a tyre store by a local garage. It speaks volumes for their loving restoration of this historical landmark that it now feels as though it has been here forever, unchanging and undisturbed.
Whether this pub still attracts spies is – by definition – hard to know, though it would be no surprise to learn that a rival pub group had sent its staff down here to report back on the quality beer, the friendly service and the first-rate Sunday lunches. These are values which Watt and Murray would both appreciate – after a hard day in the foundry, this would be just the place to come.
The Cross Keys has been a key part of the North Bar chain for many years now and now serves beers from the more recently established North Brewing. My pint of North Pale proves a perfect accompaniment to the kind of hearty dining for which this place has built a strong reputation.
We rang some weeks ago to book, but already places were scarce; we had to come earlier than planned and leave by a set time. This is clearly a pub trading high on its reputation. That it thrives in a marketplace where both the Midnight Bell and Northern Monk offer muscular competition, tells you plenty.
The James Watt room – all bare brick, exposed beams, floorboards and a sober blue-grey palette – has been given a Christmas makeover with garlands, baubles and cascades of fairy lights. The room is soon abuzz with conversation, the second bar up here removes the need to traipse up and down that vertiginous staircase with drinks. The room looks out over the ornate architecture of the Tower Works, once the heart of industrial Holbeck.
Sunday lunches soon arrive – light starters such as mackerel salad, ham hock terrine and French onion soup are followed up by plates of roast topside of beef, with potatoes, kale, carrots and steaming gravy.
But beware, parking around here can be problematic. There are numerous brownfield sites which have been re-purposed as car parks, but almost all are restricted to staff who work in some of the big offices nearby. On this occasion, I settled for one of the large car parks on Whitehall Road – a good ten minute walk away.
Water Lane, Leeds
Address: 107 Water Lane, Leeds, LS11 5WD
Type: Modern city alehouse with traditional values
Opening hours: Noon-11pm Mon-Thur, noon-midnight Fri-Sat, noon-10.30pm Sun
Beers: Changing choice of ales from North Brewing
Food: Quality pub meals served noon-3pm and 5-9pm Mon-Fri; noon-9pm Sat and noon-8pm Sun
Disabled: Yes but upstairs room is reached by staircase
Beer Garden: To rear
Entertainment: Sunday evening quiz plus occasional beer festivals and special events
Functions: Areas available for private events, including for weddings
Telephone: 0113 243 3711