Changing Times In The Largest Indoor Market In Europe

Kirkgate Market In Leeds
Kirkgate Market In Leeds

Kirkgate Market
Kirkgate Market in the center of Leeds in Yorkshire in the north of England is the largest indoor market in Europe.

There were five markets in Leeds at one time – some dating back to the Middle Ages – but as the city became richer and the middle of Leeds became ritzier, the markets were amalgamated in the early 1800s in one central location that expanded until it reached the size it is today.

Although I left Leeds when I was eighteen and came back just three years ago, I still feel that I know the market well. I used to walk through it every day on my way to and from school. I remember varying my route so that I would through different sections of the market on different days.

My mother and grandmother bought fish in the market so I had a certain liking for the fish stalls and would mentally acknowledge that when I passed them.

It was from listening to my mother talking with the stallholders that I learned a little about what to look for in a fish – from the way the fish would curl at the head and tail to the way its eye sinks slightly into its head when it has lost its freshness.

Map of Kirkgate Market
Map of Kirkgate Market
The ‘New’ Building
The building you can see in the photograph above dates back to 1904 – to the heyday of Edwardian England when Leeds was proudly ensconced as a national and international center of the woollen industry.

This new building with its fancy cupolas provided a more upmarket frontage onto Vicar Lane and was built onto the existing market buildings.

Behind The Facade
This map shows the full extent of the market. It is all the of the area shown shaded blue. Within it, the part shown shaded dark grey is the building in the photograph.

As you can see, the posh building is only a comparatively small part of the whole area over which the market extends. The less grand buildings run for hundreds of yards with an open air market at the very far end.

The Origin Of Marks & Spencer
Many firms started their businesses in the market and generations of immigrant and native-born entrepreneurs have passed through on their way to better things.

Marks & Spencer, the world-famous store with branches all over the world started life in Kirkgate market in 1884 as the ‘Penny Bazaar’.

From Destruction By Fire To Architectural Recognition
The market suffered terribly when a fire swept through it in 1975. A large part of the market was destroyed, but the famous glass roof and the cupolas were saved from destruction and no one was seriously injured in the fire.

The building was refurbished and was then placed on the statutory list of buildings of ‘Special Architectural or Historic Interest’. It was given a Grade 1 listing – the highest rank given in England to buildings that are recognised as being of special importance.

That means that every architectural feature of the building is noted, and any changes to the building that are proposed have to pass a stringent set of checks to ensure that the character of the building is preserved.

In a nutshell, it means that very little can be done to the building.

In the case of great public buildings like Kirkgate Market, it means that the site is safe from the hands of developers who might see a chance to build another carbuncle in the city.

Kirkgate Market Glass Roof
Kirkgate Market Glass Roof

The Crowning Glory
The market’s crowning glory is the series of cupolas and towers that you can see in the photograph at the beginning of this article.

Behind those is a central glass roof that sits high above the bustle below. I photographed it from the vantage point of an upper floor balcony and it was only while I was doing so that I noticed the colorful design that reminds me of Scandinavian architecture.

Photography And ‘Looking’
As an aside, that is one of the things I love about photography – how it insists that the photographer ‘looks’.

Seeing the photograph at 100% on a computer screen makes it all the more easy to let the eye follow the curves and features of the design of the glass roof. Don’t you think the colors are attractive?

Kirkgate Market Glass Roof Detail
Kirkgate Market Glass Roof Detail

In The Market
The abattoir that stood next to the market is gone but early in the morning the workers still carry whole animal carcasses in from the out-of-town abbatoir and through to the butchers stalls.

The butchers stalls run down one side of the market, while fish and delicatessen stalls line the other side. Meat, fish, flowers, biscuits, and a million other things that are sold in the market continue to contribute to a unique smell that has been ground into the Yorkshire stone flagstones (local paving stones) by generations of tradesmen and customers.

Changing Times
Some of the businesses in the market have been there for a long time.

T.E. Bethel fishmongers is one such, having operated from Kirkgate market for more than 100 years.

In days gone by, Bethel’s sold cod, haddock, hake, plaice, and mackerel from the fishing grounds off the British coasts and the north Atlantic.

But times have changed and Leeds is now more cosmopolitan than at any other time in its history. And to meet the palates and tastes of this new customer base, Bethel’s now offer many fish that would have seemed exotic just a few years ago.

Tilapia From Mozambique
Tilapia From Mozambique

These include:

    Golden Pomfret from India and China
    Snappers from the Carribean
    Dorade from Greece
    Tilapia from Mozambique
    – and others.
Red Mullet From The Channel Islands
Red Mullet From The Channel Islands

Jamie Oliver’s Ministry Of Food
When I came back to live in Leeds three years ago, I noticed empty stalls and a lack of ‘sparkle’ in the way the market operated.

Over the last year however I have seen more stalls opening up and the market is open for longer hours and the future may look brighter than it did a little while ago.

As a sign of this revival, the nationally famous chef Jamie Oliver has opened a stall named the Ministry of Food in Kirkgate Market.

As long as I have known Kirkgate market it has been the province of ‘working class’ Leeds. Some people in Leeds never shop there, preferring to shop in more upmarket places.

So to see Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food in Kirkgate market helps to bring about a paradigm shift in the way markets are seen.

Jamie also has Ministry Of Food stalls in the markets in Rotherham and Bradford, so all three are in West Yorkshire. I was surprised to learn that there were only these three in the country. I would have expected him to have stalls in markets ‘down South’ near London.

The Ministry of Food offers taster sessions for the courses it runs. The courses themselves run over ten weeks and are dedicated to helping anyone learn how to make ‘fabulous tasty, healthy and simple meals from scratch.’ To join a course, no qualification is needed beyond a desire to learn how to cook.

This is of course in line with Jamie Oliver’s mission to bring healthier eating to the tables of British households.

Golden Pomfret
Golden Pomfret

The Language Of The Market
As I walked through the market today, I was thinking about the give and take, the banter and the discussions and the exchanges – and I took a few photographs as I walked along.

It was while doing this that I saw the same action over and over again.

Of course, it was the exchange of money for goods, and of change given.

As I thought about life in the market, I couldn’t help but think that the human contact is in marked contrast to how we shop in the supermarket.

A Customer Getting Change From A Stallholder In Kirkgate Market - Leed
A Customer Getting Change From A Stallholder In Kirkgate Market - Leeds

This article appears in the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa carnival “The Marketplace” at IndianBazaars where you will find links to more articles about markets around the world!

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