Wakefield City Centre Survey Campaign: History can shape the future of Kirkgate

Kirkgate.
Kirkgate.

It’s one of the gateways to the city centre, stretching from the cathedral to the Hepworth.

Kirkgate is often cited as somewhere that needs improvement but cash is being spent and businesses are moving in to this changing part of the city.

Work to revamp Wakefield Kirkgate railway station work £4.5 million was undertaken in 2013 and 2015, following a campaign backed by the Express.

And a further £6 million was spent on the roundabout at the end of the street while the pedestrian subway was filled in.

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Now the derelict former council offices Chantry House are set to be knocked down and turned into homes after an intervention by Wakefield Council, which stepped in to buy the property.

Restoring this stretch of the city is a big and costly task and can’t happen overnight.

But work is being done to join up the cultural assets and new businesses on the road.

Aside from the Hepworth, Kirkgate is home to the West Yorkshire History Centre – a coup for the city when it opened in 2017 but somewhere that passes a lot of people by.

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It’s home to documents that tell the lives of people in Wakefield over hundreds of years that have been meticulously restored and preserved.

Millions of documents from schools, police, parishes, families and estates covering more than 800 years of local and regional history are available at the West Yorkshire History Centre on Kirkgate.

Between the different files it’s possible to piece together people’s lives and get a broad picture of the way that society worked years ago.

Archivist Helen Walker has worked for the service for 17 years and thinks people need to look different at records.

“A lot of people have an idea that archives are just boring and dusty local authority records or they’re only for academics, and nothing could be further from the truth. They are absolutely fascinating,” she said.

“We have some real treasures here. And it’s important that people see they’re not just a page in a book – they’re real people.”

Downstairs the archive hosts exhibitions that are open to the public on topics including mental health and death.

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Upstairs the centre’s vast archives are stored in sliding shelves in a temperature controlled room to cut down the likelihood of mould or decay.

And visitors can make an appointment to go back and check through the records.

Helen said: “When people found out they have an ancestor in the police for example they can have a look. The records they include a physical description and it brings them to life a bit – you get the hair colour, height as well as their record of when they were promoted or retired.

“We also have Wakefield prison records as well, which are quite popular.

“The earlier entries were in harder times so a lot of people ended up in there for pinching food or clothing.”

Helen said the history of the city and how it has could be traced through the centre’s archives.

She said: “We hold records on businesses around here and at some point someone will look back and think ‘how has this area changed?’

“There’s a lot of development happening on Kirkgate right now, and you find people who remember when there still used to be a butcher here.”

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Helen knows that a lot of people will pass the building day in day out and not really know what goes on inside.

The centre works on projects with schools and holds sessions help people to understand and make use of their resources.

Helen said: “We hold a skills session called What the Heck Are Archives to introduce people and show them how archives are relevant to them. It’s about their family, their local history and it gets them thinking about the records they create in their lives, from diaries to letters.

“We opened the centre with a World War One exhibition of diaries and letters. Those people didn’t write them thinking at an anniversary in the future they’re going to roll these out. We make archives throughout our lives – your birth record, housing record, employment record, business. They are all creating records.”

When Aneta Duchniak moved to Wakefield from her native Poland she was only planning to stay for six months.

But more than a decade after leaving her home city of Czestochowa she has set up roots in the city and owns Duchniak’s Polish Restaurant on Kirkgate.

The restaurant is on the fringe of the city centre and is hoping to benefit from redevelopment on Kirkgate and its key location near to the railway station and the Hepworth.

Aneta said it is a waste to not have a hotel near to Wakefield Kirkgate station, given its proximity to some of Wakefield cultural attractions.

She believes having a place for tourists to stay in that part of town would go a long way to restoring the Kirkgate area.

The restaurant, on the way to the Hepworth, serves traditional food with an upmarket restaurant feel.

On the menu you’ll find a range of stews, cured meat, breaded pork, beetroot soup and other central and eastern European staples.

Aneta said: “People come in all the time and say they have been meaning to come for years. We get really lovely customers. Some coming for the very first time and some who’ve been to Krakow or Gdansk and they loved the dumplings or sauerkraut and are looking for something similar.

“Everything is homemade and made to order. People will find something they like and if they don’t like cabbage they don’t have to have it.”

Aneta worked in warehouses as well the Kings Croft Hotel in Pontefract and Sloane’s in Wakefield while getting the money together to open her restaurant.

At that time she couldn’t have pictured running her own restaurant in the city.

She said: “I first came over to Wakefield when my friend live here. First it was for three months during a gap year. And then the next time she had split up with her boyfriend and I’d split up with mine so I came over and we cried together! I didn’t think that 10 years later I’d be running a restaurant here – I only came for six months. Then it was another six months and another. I didn’t expect it but you don’t when you are 25. It was an adventure.”

Aneta said the restaurant had a strong connection to many of its British and Polish customers but she was still learning about the differences in culture after all her years in the city.

She said: “People are very nice here. It’s changing a bit in Poland but it’s not really the culture to greet strangers and say ‘hi, how are you’ on the street. We don’t really understand it.

“I suppose we can seem a bit abrupt, but I’m also learning – I know that if I apologise in Britain I have to say it five times!”

Earlier this year the cafe was broken into and a till was stolen. It was the second time the restaurant had been targeted by burglars.

But since then a neighbour from the flats next door keeps an eye on the building and gives Aneta a call if anything looks suspicious.

Aneta said: “She’s so lovely – it’s like having my own neighbourhood watch.”

Wakefield Council has completed a £57,000 project to improve part of the cathedral precinct and encourage shoppers and businesses back into the area.

At the Kirkgate end of the precinct, a number of benches were refurbished, trees tidied up and bollards and lampposts repainted.

In our city centre survey street drinking and anti-social behaviour, especially around Kirkgate and the cathedral precinct was one of the things you said you want to see change.

Making the precinct more appealing to shoppers has been a council goal as part of its wider efforts to regenerate Kirkgate.

The council now plans to remove the old, red telephone boxes and replace them with modern, touch screen kiosks that will contain wayfinding information.

There has also been new signage installed and artificial turf fitted around the trees, which have had guards and grates removed to create a more welcoming space.

The council was looking to brighten up the area and a major focus of the scheme was to remove any hidden spaces where anti-social behaviour could take place.

The eight new benches, as opposed to the previous 20, have all been placed down the middle of the pavement facing the same way, to prevent the congregation of groups and to allow the seating area to be visible to CCTV, once again to act as a deterrent to any anti-social behaviour. Coun Matthew Morley, Wakefield Council’s cabinet member for transport and highways, said: “We are really pleased with the work done to improve the area and it is now an attractive and safe place for residents to sit and of course, shop.

“It is also hoped the improvements will attract new businesses into the area, now that we have taken steps to deter any anti-social behaviour and that the Kirkgate end of the precinct can now thrive once again.”

This regeneration to the city centre follows the completion of a £6 million highways improvement scheme to the Kirkgate area, the refurbishment of the train station and the upcoming demolition of Chantry House.

•The original Wakefield Kirkgate railway station opened in 1840

•A £4.5m work to restore Kirkgate station began in 2013

•The West Riding History of Deeds at the history centre has 14 million pages

•£6m spent on revamping the roads and roundabout on the street

•£57k spent on brightening up the cathedral precinct

•Wakefield Council’s lease on Chantry House ended in 2006

•Up to 80 new homes could be built on the site

•Demolition is expected to start in summer and be completed by the end of the year

•Work on the new homes could start in 2021