Picture credit Dean Ward (IFY Community)
“Wakefield is a clean, large, well-built town, very populous and very rich” – Daniel Defoe (18th Century writer)
Wakefield is a cathedral city of nearly 100,000 people and is situated nine miles south of Leeds on the river Calder. The town is most famous for its coal-mining heritage, cathedral and rhubarb.
The town’s most outstanding feature is its cathedral, which has the tallest spire in Yorkshire at 75 metres, and can be seen for miles around. Originally it was built on the site of an ancient Anglo-Saxon parish church. After the Norman invasion a new place of worship was built for the town. Over the centuries this has changed through various repairs and renovation which has led to the cathedral we see today. It was rebuilt and extended in the 15th Century and changed its name from All Hallows to All Saints Church. After years of neglect throughout the 18th/early 19th Century the cathedral was re-designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and his son, John from 1858 to 1874 into its current form. It was crucial to Wakefield achieving city status in 1888 and was made a Grade I listed building in 1953. The cathedral was visited by The Queen for the Maundy Thursday service and money distribution ceremony in 2005.
By the River Calder, the Chantry Chapel is one of the last four remaining medieval crossing churches in the UK and can be found at the side of the modern day Wakefield Bridge.
Sandal castle is a ruin on the edge of the city, most famous for being besieged by the Parliamentarians during the Civil War in 1642 and the scene of the Battle of Wakefield, during The War of The Roses in 1460. The battle is also claimed to be the origins of nursery rhyme, The Grand Old Duke of York in reference to Richard, Duke of York, who died in the conflict.
Like many castles in the region it was built by the Normans as a place of power over the population and defence of the town. After the civil war it was largely abandoned and stripped of its defences, with some of the masonry not seen again until the 1960s when extensive excavations were carried out. Their finds are on display at the castle’s museum.
The Wakefield museum, recently re-located to the heart of the city charts the history of the area and its people from pre-historic times to the present day. The revamped attraction was opened by Sir David Attenborough in 2013 and includes a dedicated area to locally born eco-warrior Charles Waterton and other exhibits including Britain’s oldest post box and the pair of Rugby boots worn by local rugby player, Don Fox, who famously missed an easy penalty kick in the 1968 Challenge Cup Final for Wakefield against Leeds.
At nearby Overton, is the National Coal Mining Museum, opened in 1988 and based at the former Caphouse Colliery. Visitors are given guided tours of the mineshaft and there are displays showing how coal was excavated from the earth by miners. Above ground is a visitors centre and exhibitions showing the social history of mining communities, paddy trains, which were used to transport miners and pit ponies.
The Hepworth Wakefield Art Gallery opened in 2011 on the banks of The River Calder. It houses six galleries, influenced by local artists, such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore and others displaying the development of Wakefield throughout the last 200 years.
The Theatre Royal was built in 1894 and still shows a variety of plays, dramas, dance shows and comedy. The city also has three green spaces, the largest of being Clarence Park, which also hosts the Wakefield Music Festival and places an emphasis on promoting local talent.
Wakefield Prison is the largest high security jail in Western Europe, housing some of Britain’s most notorious criminals serving life sentences.
The city is also known for being the capital of the Rhubarb triangle, which stretches to Rothwell and Morley to the North. Rhubarb is a native plant of Siberia, but thrives in the cold wet winters of West Yorkshire. It spends two years in the fields before being transferred to warmed sheds where they are kept in complete darkness. The carbohydrates in the roots turn to glucose, which gives the plant its distinctive flavour. Yorkshire forced rhubarb has now, since 2010, achieved protection status in the EU and the area has become the centre of worldwide forced rhubarb production. The crop plays a central role at Wakefield’s annual food and drink festival held each February and in 2005 a sculpture of a rhubarb plant was constructed in Holmfield Park to commemorate its contribution to the city’s economy.
Wakefield is well linked by road to other Yorkshire towns and cities. It lies between three major motorways, the A1 to the East, M1 to the West and the M62 to the North. The town has also benefited from the A1-M1 link road opened in 1999 providing easier access to North Yorkshire and bypassing Leeds.
The city, like Bradford, has two railway stations: Kirkgate and Wakefield Westgate. The former is the older of the two, opened in 1840 and situated on the Manchester-Leeds line. It provides some services to London Kings Cross and Nottingham, as well as to other local places, such as Leeds, Halifax and Bradford. In the past, Kirkgate station became run-down and derelice, although still operational. The station was unstaffed and over the decades became run-down and derelict, although still operational. In 2008 part of the building collapsed onto a parked car and the station gained a poor reputation for passenger safety. The following year it was dubbed one of the worst railway stations in the UK.
Since then, Kirkgate station had a major renovation in 2013 – 2015 as part of the £4 million project to breathe new life into the area. It now has a cafe, meeting rooms, retail outlet and units for new businesses.
The new Wakefield Westgate station opened in December 2013 and was built 300 yards north from the old one. It is possible to reach London in less than two hours from here and trains run to the capital on a half-hourly basis. Services to Leeds, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh are also available.
At the time of writing there is much debate in the city as to what effects the proposed High speed rail link (HS2), linking London to Leeds will have on the city. The proposed route is set to include 11.4 miles of track running through the Wakefield area, but there are concerns of its environmental impact on nearby Walton Hall and a local nature reserve. In January 2014 Wakefield Council voted against the proposed HS2 plan, arguing that money could be spent on improving the region’s roads and a new airport for West Yorkshire instead.
Wakefield is home to the Queen Elizabeth I Grammar School, founded in 1591 and is a public school for boys. Notable former old boys include rugby-player Mike Tindall, Andy Cato of Groove Armada and football chairman Adam Pearson. Wakefield College, founded in 1868, provides higher education in the city and has over 10,000 students.
Wakefield now has a university joined onto the college which opened in 2017.
The oval ball is certainly the most prominent feature of city’s sporting prowess. The Wakefield Trinity Wildcats are currently in the Super league and play their home matches at Belle Vue. They were formed in 1873 by a group of men from Holy Trinity Church and were one of the original 22 clubs who broke away to form the Northern Union in 1895 at the famous meeting in Huddersfield.
Association football in the town, unlike many other places in Yorkshire has always run a distant second to Rugby League. Wakefield FC, were originally the football team in the nearby village of Emley, who enjoyed a famous FA Cup run in the late 1990s. They are an amateur club who currently share the Belle Vue ground with the rugby team at the time of writing.
There is a thriving nightlife scene in Wakefield, with some revellers seeing it as a cheaper and more accessible night out than larger places, such as Leeds. The clubs and bars are mainly on Westgate, centred on places such as Reflex, Truth, and Nocturno.
Wakefield has undergone numerous regeneration projects in order to boost the town’s economic fortunes, none more so than in its commercial and retail sector. In May 2011 the shopping centre, Trinity walk opened, bringing many high street names, such as Asda, Game and New Look to the city and creating many new jobs. At the time of writing work is ongoing to regenerate Wakefield’s Waterfront on the River Calder with apartments, office space and leisure facilities. Merchantgate in the heart of the city has seen new improved council offices built, complete with new library and re-located museum.
There is more to Wakefield than meets the eye and is a city finally letting go of its past, and with ongoing re-generation, has a brighter future ahead.
There has been evidence of human activity in the Wakefield area from pre-historic times, but it is widely believed that the Angles, from Germany first sailed up the river Calder and settled here in the 5th/6th century AD. The name, Wacafield, which developed into Wakefield has Anglo-Saxon origins and the settlement was originally based around three roads, Westgate, Northgate and Kirkgate.
Like many Yorkshire places it was a victim of William the Conqueror’s Harrying of the north, which was so severe here that the land around Wakefield could not be farmed for nine years.
However it was still recorded as the town of Wachfield in the Doomsday Book and a Norman church was built in the centre along with Sandal Castle on its outskirts forming two of its most notable landmarks.
Wakefield’s wealth started to grow with the granting of a weekly cattle market and also the beginnings of trade routes on the river Calder, which saw Wakefield start to become an important inland port. On its outskirts the first coal mines were being sunk.
The major flash point in the town’s history came with the battle of Wakefield at Sandal Castle in 1460 when the Yorkists, led by Richard, Duke of York were routed by the Lancastrians. Many of their prisoners were held in a part of the Tower of London, which has since become known as The Wakefield Tower. There was also a Parliamentarian attack on the city during the civil war in 1643.
Wakefield’s position on The River Calder became crucial to the town’s development and growing wealth. Originally, unlike other Yorkshire towns, such as Halifax and Bradford, woollen mills were not built in Wakefield because it lacked fast-flowing streams to operate the machinery. Instead it had to look underground to its rich coal seams and stone quarries for its wealth. Furthermore in 1699 the Aire-Calder navigation was created which linked Wakefield to The Humber Estuary just outside Goole.
The railways came to Wakefield in 1840, which increased its ability to export goods and by 1869, 46 coal-mines had been sunk. The town also began to construct mills, which could now be powered by steam, for cloth making and wool. In the fields the first batches of rhubarb were being transferred to dark sheds and the church was being renovated after years of decline, making Wakefield a cathedral city in 1888. It was also the administrative centre for West Yorkshire during this time at the town hall. However, despite these achievements the town failed to develop at the same rate as other nearby industrialised towns, Leeds and Bradford. The population increased in Wakefield by just 9,000 people from 1800-1850, compared to Bradford’s leap from 6,000 to 182,000 over the same time period.
The coal industry in Wakefield continued to flourish and communities around Wakefield became known as “pit villages,” with the mines at their heart. Furthermore seven council estates were built around the outskirts of Wakefield after World War I, expanding the city to its current size.
Wakefield was one of the places at the centre of the 1984 miners’ strike, when the government wished to close many of the city’s fifteen active coal mines for economic reasons and mass strikes and demonstrations took place in the city opposing these moves. Since then the city has struggled to come to terms with the changes made during this period, with high unemployment and poverty reported in some of these communities. However, in recent years Wakefield has become a renaissance town, enjoying mass regeneration of the city centre, modernised railway station, the construction of Trinity walk and the waterfront projects increasing jobs and prosperity in this industrial city which hopes for a brighter future.
It is thought that Wakefield’s name is derived from ‘Wacca’s Field’ in the Old English.
Before the conquest of 1066 by William the Conqueror, Wakefield belonged to Edward the Confessor. After the Battle of Hasting it was owned by William himself. In 1089 Wakefield was laid waste by The Normans in a savage event known as ‘The Harrowing of the North.’ This was a punishment for a northern uprising against Norman rule.
The famous Domesday book show that there were two churches in the vicinity. The one in Wakefield had originally been a Saxon building but this was replaced, in 1100, by a stone built church in the Norman style. It was wrecked in 1315 when the central tower collapsed.
In Medieval times Wakefield was an inland port situated on The Calder. It became a centre for the tanning and woollen trades.
In modern times Wakefield has a population of around three hundred and fifteen thousand people.
The late 20th Century saw the decline of traditional industries in Wakefield , such as coal mining and textile production. Regeneration has begun. The Trinity Walk is a retail development to the north east of the city and the central square has been refurbished with a water feature. There is an art gallery, The Hepworth Wakefield, named in honour of local sculptor Barbara Hepworth.
The city has a famous Rugby League team, the Wakefield Trinity Wildcats. It plays in the Super League and was one of the initial founders of the Northern Union after the split with the Rugby Union, over payments to players.