Wakefield is a small cathedral city in West Yorkshire, located on the hedge of Yorkshire’s largest coalfield. It is not far from Leeds, and the two are well connected. Wakefield is known in the area for being at the centre of the Rhubarb Triangle, a small region in which the plant is cultivated.
Wakefield used to be far more important in the past than it is now. It was the county town of the West Riding of Yorkshire until its abolition in 1974. Although it was already a sizeable town in the Middle Ages, most of the buildings in Wakefield city centre date back from the Victorian era. It nonetheless has some fine architecture. Contemporary art lovers should not miss The Hepworth, one of the best art museums in Yorkshire.
When coming by train, Westgate station is slightly more convenient as it is located closer to the town centre. Kirkgate station is closer however to The Hepworth and the riverside.
The main landmark in town is Wakefield Cathedral, which is hard to miss with its 247-ft tall spire. It is actually the tallest spire in Yorkshire and it can be seen from miles away. Although it is quite impressive, the building only became a Cathedral in 1888 and before that it was just a parish church – and not even a Minster. It was mostly built in the 15th century, but it was renovated in the 19th century by George Gilbert Scott – architect of St Pancras Station in London.
The interior underwent a radical restoration recently and it has lost much of its quaintness. It remains very beautiful however, and the Cathedral boasts a wonderful 17th-century wooden rood screen.
In the northern part of the centre, between the Cathedral and Wakefield Westgate, there is an interesting area comprising most of the local administration. There are three grand Victorian buildings, housing the main institutions – the County Hall, the Town Hall and the County Court. A bit further north, there is St John’s Square, an elegant square at the core of a small Georgian neighbourhood.
On river Calder and on the way to The Hepworth, there is Chantry Bridge, a lovely 14th-century stone bridge on which a chapel was built. It is one of the only four chantry bridges in England – there is another one in Rotherham. The chapel was rebuilt in the 19th century. The bridge once formed the main entrance to Wakefield, but it is now bypassed by a very busy thouroughfare.
The largest museum in Wakefield is The Hepworth, opened in 2011 in the middle of an industrial wasteland. It is dedicated to contemporary art, with a focus on sculpture – it bears the name of Barbara Hepworth, a leading figure in contemporary sculpture who was born in Wakefield. A large part of the museum is dedicated to her work, with many of her sculptures and also her tools and library. Regular top-class exhibitions are also organised. The building itself is a great piece of architecture and some exhibits also take place in the old mill opposite. Open daily, free entry, see website.
Wakefield Museum is devoted to local history. It is housed in Wakefield One, a new building also gathering the library and other council facilities. It is located near Wakefield Westgate. There is a small exhibition on the history of the area, from Prehistory to deindustrialisation under Thatcher. The most interesting part however is the collection of Charles Waterton, a pioneer of nature protection. He lived at Walton Hall – now a hotel, where he created a nature reserve in 1820. Free entry, closed Sunday, see website.