What the locals really think of Horsforth
PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 February 2019
Joan Russell Photography
What's the enduring appeal of this particular suburb of Leeds? Richard Darn finds out
Here is a confession. I’d never actually been to Horsforth until I was asked to write this article. Yes I had whizzed through on the train, but I never stayed long enough to register it as a visit.
The producers of the Hollywood war movie, U571, clearly hadn’t been either.
The film, released in 2000, recounts how American sailors captured an Enigma code machine from a stricken German submarine, braving self destruct charges to recover the precious bounty before the sub was scuppered. Within days the machine was helping code breakers at Bletchley Park crack enemy cyphers.
The problem was that this was actually a British fleet, involving three Royal Navy ships, including the corvette HMS Aubretia, not American sailors that captured the code machine. Significantly HMS Aubretia was paid for by Horsforth residents who raised the astonishing sum of £241,000 in just one week to help the war effort – enough to build two ships.
Hollywood’s warping of history made waves this side of the pond, which turned into a tsunami of protest in Leeds. The local MP sent a letter to the American president, Bill Clinton, who responded by acknowledging Horsforth’s role in the real story. His response is now an exhibit in the charming village museum.
If you are not from Leeds you need to know that Horsforth was dubbed England’s largest village in the 19th century – although it now has a town council – and that it is a desirable suburb of the city with a long history, earning a mention in the Domesday Book.
Locally quarried stone was used to build the impressive Kirkstall Abbey a short distance away, and the parish has nurtured a veritable who’s who of worthies, from Sir Roy Hardy Dobson, managing director of aircraft firm Avro and a key figure in the development of the Lancaster bomber, to actor Malcolm McDowell of Clockwork Orange fame and politician brothers Ed and David Miliband, both of whom were educated at Featherbank Primary School.
Horsforth’s enduring appeal boils down to a simple fact – it is a very liveable place. There’s no magic formula here. You find the same mix of older buildings, leafy streets, and charming open spaces in other upwardly mobile parts of Yorkshire cities. Bishopthorpe Road in York springs to mind, along with Ecclesall Road in Sheffield. But they have gained added popularity because so many urban centres are struggling for an identity, the result of poor planning decisions which swapped historic streetscapes for shopping centres and dual carriageways. The suburbs have been the beneficiary.
As if to prove the point, Horsforth boasts more stone buildings than any other part of Leeds. There are smart Victorian villas aplenty, cottages dating to the 18th century and its architectural continuity is largely intact, protected by conservation area status. It has all the traditional ingredients of a British town centre and surprise, surprise, it’s thriving.
The only graffiti I spotted was 4,500 years old and on a hefty lump of gritstone rock in the Peace Gardens. Decorated with a pattern of six carved holes, its origins are in pre-history and it is very similar to what you might see walking on Ilkley Moor, where such relics have been found, often associated with burial places. This particular example was discovered in Horsforth in the 1960s and taken to Kirkstall Abbey for safe keeping, before being re-located to its present spot in 2010. It remains an enigmatic object and a reminder that history runs deep in these parts. What we see today is just one snapshot in a continuing story.
On the grey and cold Monday I visited, the main street seemed fairly quiet. But I quickly discovered that was because the tea rooms and restaurants were packed. I counted six cafes in a five minute stroll, a similar number of banks with human cashiers (remember them?) and a plethora of pubs. There are at least 15 according to one local I quizzed.
Variety abounds, with the opening of a new vegan eatery (The Greenhouse), a wine shop and tasting room (Once Upon a Vine), together with the older, but lively Courtyard Café, which provides work placements for people with a learning disability and other support needs. The food looks lovely.
With train links to Leeds and Harrogate, development pressures locally are enormous, so I’m glad to see there’s an active civic society fighting to protect the built environment and also a village historical society who ensure the past is embraced, rather than forgotten. In tune with recent commemorations, a World War One trail has also been laid out around the village.
If this sounds your kind of place and you have a young family, then the quality of local schools becomes all important. Those in Horsforth are highly rated. One that caught my eye for its name alone was The Froebelian School, which takes its title from an influential German educationalist, Friedrich Froebel, a pioneer of early years learning which put the emphasis on play. It was established by Miss L Hoe in 1913 and today has been rated amongst the top 100 prep schools in the country.
My parting thought on leaving Horsforth was why other suburbs can’t emulate its example – small shops offering a diverse range of goods, plenty of places for people to meet and chat and a focus on retaining buildings that give an area a distinct character. There’s a notable absence of megastores and it’s all on a human scale.
It may have been a bleak winter’s day, but I warmed to England’s biggest village. Just imagine how good it is when the sun shines.