Lord Mayor Brian Cleasby - Why I love Horsforth
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 March 2016
Joan Russell Photography
Former Lord Mayor of Leeds Brian Cleasby tells us about his favourite West Yorkshire village
He might have been lord mayor of the county’s biggest city, raised many thousands of pounds for charity, helped to set up Yorkshire Television in 1968 and represented Horsforth on Leeds City Council for more than 20 years, but Brian Cleasby will never be a proper local.
‘As the lord mayor, I was invited to the annual Christmas party for the over-70s at Trinity University in Horsforth,’ he remembers with a wry smile. ‘I pointed out that I’d just turned 70 so could come back next year as a guest. No, you can’t, I was told, you’re not from Horsforth, so you’re not invited.’
While others might have been a bit miffed, Brian, a Liberal Democrat councillor for the ward on Leeds City Council, says he admired his fellow diner’s candour and local pride – traits shared by a great many in this feisty West Yorkshire village that simply refuses to be dismissed as just another suburb.
In the 19th century, Horsforth achieved note as the village with the largest population in England. It continued to grow through the decades thanks to the railways, turnpike roads, tramways and the nearby canal, but remained resolutely a village until brought under the umbrella authority of City of Leeds metropolitan district in 1974.
In 1999, a parish council was created and almost immediately exercised its right to declare Horsforth a town. And now, well, it depends who you ask.
‘We have a village museum,’ says Brian, neatly side-stepping the issue, ‘and that’s not something many other Leeds suburbs can boast.’
Volunteers from Horsforth Village Historical Society helped set up the museum in 1998 at The Green which sits, perhaps not surprisingly, at the heart of the old village.
Among its many interesting artefacts is a letter from then US president Bill Clinton sent to local MP Paul Truswell in 2000 acknowledging Horsforth’s contribution to the war effort. This refers to the £241,000 the town raised in the Second World War to build the corvette HMS Aubretia.
The museum typifies Horsforth’s distinctive architectural style, mainly due to the sheer number of buildings created using sandstone from local quarries.
The town (village, suburb: delete as you see fit) has a long and celebrated history of producing high quality stone. Not only did it supply the building materials for Kirkstall Abbey, but it also provided stone for Scarborough seafront and sent its prized sandstone from Golden Bank Quarry as far afield as Egypt (where they have interesting ideas of what to do with giant blocks of stone).
But it’s not just sandstone that gives the village it’s architectural identity; it’s also something known as the ‘Horsforth corner’.
‘No one outside the village has ever heard of it,’ said Brian, ‘but once you point it out, they see it immediately.
‘On most buildings, the entrance is in one of the four walls, but in Horsforth the entrance is in the corner and set back to give you more usable space inside. It’s ingenious really and something we’re quietly quite proud of.’
Horsforthians are also proud of their famous acting sons Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter films), former Emmerdale stalwart Frazer Hines and Hollywood star Malcolm McDowell. But it’s the local sportsmen who tend to get top billing.
England international footballer James Milner was a star player at Horsforth School, Leeds United legend Norman Hunter still lives in the village, and gold medal winning Paralympian David Stone and the seemingly unstoppable Brownlee brothers all began their careers here.
The town is continuing to invest in its sporting potential by building a new all-singing, all-dancing cricket pavilion (due to open this spring) in Hall Park and a new state-of-the-art skate park to replace its old, slightly tired one.
‘We have a very proud sporting tradition and want to make sure our young people aspire to the same heights as the likes of Norman Hunter and the Brownlees,’ said Brian. ‘When I told a meeting of youngsters that we’d secured £106,000 for their skate park, they just couldn’t believe it. But we believe in investing in our young people.
‘All they have to do in return is create the next generation of champions who are going to bring more gold medals back home.’
There’s already one very noticeable gold medal in Horsforth marking the entrance to the Brownlee Stone Centre, the village hub, which was developed in what used to be the old library and mechanics’ institute.
‘This is my favourite spot in the village,’ said Brian. ‘It’s not a town hall as such, but it does the same job. I like it as a building, but I also like what it signifies: the coming together of a village and its determination to retain its own identity despite the relentless pressure to become just another part of the urban sprawl.’
He might not be from Horsforth – or even from Yorkshire (he was born in Stockton-on-Tees) – but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more passionate about the village or more concerned about its future.
‘There is a danger that Horsforth could eventually lose its identity as it and the surrounding suburbs continue to expand, but I think that makes it more important than ever that we encourage our young people to be proud of where they’re from and to aspire to greatness.
‘My teacher once told me: reach for the stars and you might get to the rooftops; reach for the rooftops and you might never leave the ground. That’s stuck with me over the years and is a philosophy I encourage people to live by.’