Whitelocks Remembered

IT’S great to see that Whitelocks is still wonderful.

I was a regular visitor in the mid 1990s and have happy memories of occasional Saturday afternoons sat in the Victorian/Edwardian bar which Sir John Betjeman described as being ‘the heart of Leeds’.

In those days, in my mid-20s, the venerable bar served its hallmark beef and ale pie with mushy peas and roast potatoes from a hot serving counter.

The pie was in agreeable slabs, as part of a larger tray, beneath lights; the mushy peas were doled out in delightfully glutinous fashion, and the roast potatoes glistened like swarthy maidens tempting epicurean sailors onto the rocks of gastro delight.

Lashings of gravy accompanied such from a bounteous ladle. The recipe even once featured in a Sunday magazine years back.

Behind the bar might have been Youngers IPA, No.3 and a host of Scottish and Newcastle ranged beers. A bottle of Newcastle Brown with the meat pie, in surroundings in which Sherlock Holmes might have been imagined smoking in one corner, equalled heaven.

I last visited in 2004, and returning today, in a world which have changed almost unimaginably since 1994, it’s good to see Whitelocks is still thriving and is largely unchanged.

Sitting in the restaurant area – which I seem to recall used to be behind a velvet curtain - with my companion, the hot range of yore looks to be out of use (certainly on this Friday lunchtime), and my meat pie arrived in a white tin dish, accompanied by cabbage and peas in a separate blue rimmed white tin bowl alongside a gravy boat.

None the less delicious – the recipe seemed much the same.

But 20 years after the halcyon ensemble on the 90s, I couldn’t help but feel that something had been needlessly tinkered with. That thing which ‘wasn’t broke’ seems to have been ‘fixed’.

Perhaps some EU directive regarding the serving of hot food from behind a hot counter might be at play; or it may be economically or ergonomically easier to serve in the new style.

But these are minor quibbles; in an age in which the High Street is under threat from all quarters – not least the increasing social trend of many to stay at home on an evening behind a lap top rather than socialise, it’s good to see not that much has changed per se.

Whitelocks is nearly 300 years old.

It opened, as the Turks Head, in 1715, catering mainly for merchants and market traders. The pub was especially busy on Tuesdays and Saturdays when Briggate marketplace was thronged with people.

 In 1867 the licence of the Turk’s Head was granted to John Lupton Whitelock. He was followed by his son William Whitelock, then Lupton Whitelock and Percy Whitelock, who sold the pub to a brewery in 1944.

In the 1880s John Lupton Whitelock began to establish the ornate decor still in place today, the long marble topped bar, etched mirrors and glass. The mirrors are joined by polished brasswork and cast- iron tables, all making for a genuine Edwardian atmosphere.

From the mid-1890s the pub became better known as Whitelock’s First City Luncheon Bar and in 1897 John Lupton Whitelock installed electricity, including a revolving searchlight, at the Briggate entrance to the yard.

Whitelock’s was a favourite rendezvous with stage stars and it received royal approval when Prince George, later Duke of Kent, entertained a party in a curtained-off section of the restaurant.

At one time a doorman made sure that men wore dinner jackets and, as women were not allowed at the bar, waiters served drinks where female customers sat.

Poet John Betjeman enjoyed the atmosphere so much he described it as “the Leeds equivalent of Fleet Street’s Old Cheshire Cheese and far less self-conscious, and does a roaring trade. It is the very heart of Leeds.”

The Spirit group took over in 2004 and caused some consternation when they planned to introduce a standardised menu into the place.

A petition was launched in an attempt to stop the changes by Spirit, which acquired Whitelocks when Scottish and Newcastle let go 2,500 pubs and hotels in October 2003.

After much muttering amongst the regulars, Spirit backed away and sold it two years later to the Yorkshire firm Chennell & Amstrong.

Today it is run by The Whitelock's Ale House Ltd which is determined to take it back to its roots.

In 2008, Whitelock’s was honoured by the Leeds Civic Trust with the 100th iconic “blue plaque” to be hung in the city. It was unveiled by Sarah Whitelock, a descendant of Lupton Whitelock.

The plaque reads:

WHITELOCKS Occupying a medieval  Briggate burgage plot, it was first licensed as the Turk’s Head in 1716. Rebuilt by the Whitelock family in the 1880s, it later extended into the row of Georgian working men’s cottages. John Betjeman described it as ‘the very heart of Leeds’.

The final member of the Whitelock family to run it was Percy, who sold it to Scottish Brewers in 1944.

I miss the Youngers No.3 of the mid 90s and the old style food though I’m reliably informed the Sunday roast is still stupendous - perhaps that is served from the hot tray?

When asked by the delightful staff if they could get me anything else, I was tempted to say: “Other than the past?”, but felt that would have been churlish.

Given the apparent proprietary upheaval of the past ten years at the place (which I’d missed) and also given that Whitelocks is still 95 per cent the same  - and more so that obvious efforts are being made to uphold the old traditions.

In a world in which many pubs are struggling to survive, change is understandable; but it is also refreshing to see that a long lost friend hasn’t changed too much, right at the heart of Leeds.

Should you be attracted, magpie-like, to the Trinity Leeds shopping complex, don’t forget the hidden gem right next door, down the wonderful Turk’s Head Yard.
More info can be found at www.whitelocksleeds.co.uk