Heritage weekend will offer rare glimpse of textile barons' inner sanctum

Ian Herbert,North
Monday 20 January 2014 03:30
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Any self-respecting Yorkshireman would have once blanched at the prospect, but in the name of cultural democracy one of the most discreet establishments in Leeds declared itself ready yesterday to open to the public for the first time in 150 years.

The Leeds Club, a peaceful oasis for textile barons when it reflected the city's growing prosperity from mid-Victorian days, will throw wide its doors as part of this month's Heritage Open Days weekend.

The club's colourful history includes a long-standing role as an accurate barometer of impending justice. A court was once housed in the building opposite and for years members of the club could tell if a defendant was going down in the afternoon by how much wine the judges were consuming at lunchtime.

The 200-member club – still proud of a liberalism that admitted women as early as 1984 – will temporarily dispense with its collar-and-tie dress code and also provide morning tea and sandwiches at its Grade II* listed premises on 14 and 15 September. But visitors should not expect recreation at its snooker tables or in its ballroom. And be warned: mobiles are not etiquette in the foyer or club room.

As ever, Britain's most popular voluntary cultural event – involving 2,200 buildings this year – aims to move perceptions of heritage away from traditional images of historic homes and crumbling castles towards buildings that are part of everyday life.

That explains the inclusion – among the castles, cathedrals and churches in ancient cities – of factories (such as one at Scarborough that makes ice cream on the sea front), football clubs (Exeter City), Sikh temples (one converted from two 19th-century houses in North-ampton) and an insurance company (Friends Provident in Surrey, the first purpose-built insurance company head office built in the London green belt, in the 1950s).

Leeds is not the only place to yield up the secrets of an inner sanctum. In Exeter, the Grade II* former Benedictine St Nicholas Priory, dating from the 11th century and usually closed to the public, will open up its refectory for the first time.

The Holy Jesus Hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne will reveal its 15th-century dungeon. The Blackpool Grand Theatre, where stars from Ken Dodd to Noel Coward have appeared, will give backstage tours. And a Masonic hall in Somerset will be opened up.

Back in Yorkshire, an antidote to the serenity of the Leeds Club is provided at the Park Hill Flats in Sheffield. What might seem a dire example of brutalist 1960s architecture is now England's biggest listed building (Grade II) and will be open to all.

More conventional venues for an event that attracted a total of 800,000 people last year include Temple Church in Bristol, a remarkable 15th- century edifice famous for its gravity-defying leaning tower, which survived the Blitz.

The open days, organised by the Civic Trust and funded by English Heritage, take place from 13 to 16 September. London has its own Open Days on 22 and 23 September and there are similar events this month in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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