The big idea

Now, when you think of a city dedicated to sculpture, Wakefield may not be the first (or even the last) place that comes to mind, but sculpture is one thing that sets this city apart. Two of its most famous sons are world-renowned sculptors and it’s home to the world-class Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

And wide-open spaces may be yet another thing you wouldn’t associate with Wakefield, but again, it has plenty, many reclaimed from the now-defunct coal mines. So a surprising, pleasant city with plenty to shout about.
 

Sculpture

It may be surprising, but you really can find 500 acres of rolling landscape dedicated to sculpture here in Wakefield. Once a private pleasure ground, The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is now a public space showing modern and contemporary art both in the great outdoors and four dedicated galleries, and it really is, if you’ll excuse the pun, a breath of fresh air. Stunning scenery, a good dose of culture and a great bit of exercise all rolled into one? Inspiring.
 
And if you thought there could only possibly be room for one contemporary art facility in Wakefield, you’d be wrong. The Hepworth Wakefield opened in May 2011 and is one of the largest purpose-built galleries outside of London. It’s been built to celebrate the area’s unique artistic legacy and will show works of major contemporary artists such as Eva Rothschild and Edmund de Waal. But this is no ‘look but don’t touch’ gallery, there are plenty of workshops where you can explore and get stuck in to techniques such as sculpture, sketching and creative writing.
 
And not really surprising when you consider that not one, but two of the greatest sculptors the country has produced are from the area. Henry Moore, famous for his abstract monuments usually celebrating the female form (it’s said the undulating lines of many of those sculptures were inspired by the Yorkshire hills) was born in nearby Castleford; and Modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth was born in the city itself.
 

The great outdoors

The great thing about Wakefield is that once you’ve exercised your mind (and soul) with the outstanding array of art and sculpture on offer, you can then exercise your body by visiting one of the Green Flag country parks in the area, such as Anglers Park, for walks and bird watching and Haw Park Wood, for jogging, cycling and horse riding. Or why not try Pugney’s Country Park for water sports, or the famous Trans Pennine Trail, an excellent walking, cycling and horse riding route that links the North and Irish Seas.

The essence

Renaissance

Who’s it ideal for/ how it can make you feel

Do you like creating something from nothing? Or do you simply love the feeling you get when faced with a blank piece of paper – or any raw material – and are overcome with the potential it holds? That feeling is something that Wakefield harnesses very well and as such it is perfect for artists, writers or anybody needing a little inspiration from those that turned negatives into positives.

The interesting bits in the history:

Various Iron Age and Bronze Age artefacts have been found in the area, suggesting people lived in the area in prehistoric times, but it was the Brigantes tribe who made it their home when the Romans invaded in 43AD. The Romans defeated the tribe and built a network of military roads, including one that likely approached what is now Wakefield from the south.

However the area was settled properly by Angles from Germany and Denmark, likely attracted by the plentiful fishing from the River Calder and the quality of the surrounding land for hunting and farming. The name itself is thought to have come from an early Saxon settler, Waca, hence the name ‘Waca’s field’.

By the 11th century Wakefield was under the rule of Danish King Cnut, and the town was of a considerable size; even claimed to have been the Scandinavian capital of West Riding.

In the 13th century the town was a Royal Manor, stretching across to Lancaster, with the magnificent Sandal Manor a stronghold controlling the Calder Valley; wool was the main trade, with cattle-trading alongside. At this time, due to the number of games and sports played in the area and the attitude of the locals, the town had picked up the nickname “Merrie Wakefield”.

In 1460, a significant battle during the War of the Roses was the Battle of Wakefield. It was here that the Duke of York was killed; made famous to this day in the mocking ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ nursery rhyme. To commemorate the Yorkist cause his son, Edward IV, had crosses erected at various places in the town; to this day, unknown people still come and lay flowers at one such spot at the memorial by Manygates School.

The town grew over the next few centuries and became well known for the size of its cloth trade (it made more cloth than any other town in West Riding), and cattle markets- one of the largest in the north, and its’ generally elegant appearance.

Indeed, by the 18th century it was considered a ‘handsome and opulent town’; and around this time another significant trade was opening up for Wakefield; rhubarb. A small group of farmers had created, along with Morley and Leeds, a rhubarb triangle of such quality that by 1870 two trains a day were leaving the town headed for Covent Garden.

The 19th century was a period of growth in Wakefield, although not at the rate of nearby towns such as Leeds, and considerable civic pride, reflected in the number of new buildings and improvements that took place. The canals helped the town’s trade and facilities were expanded, including building a new Corn Exchange. Cloth manufacture declined, replaced with a significant coal mining industry, and the smell of brewing and malt roasting hung in the air.

And so to the last century. Despite the disappearance of the coal industry, there’s been much re-development of Wakefield, especially in the city centre; a new focus on providing services for the surrounding towns and villages, and a significant investment in shopping and tourism.

How to experience

For a city that could claim to be the spiritual home of sculpture in the country it’s probably rather apt to start at the wonderful Yorkshire Sculpture Park, just off junction 38 of the M1.Now an international centre for contemporary sculpture, set in 18th century parkland, this place challenges and delights at the same time; with over 60 sculptures on display in the beautiful landscape, alongside art on sale in the shop and restaurant centre.

And if that inspires you to start carving things from the natural landscape why not carry on the theme further up the A637 at the National Coal Mining Museum? Here you can don a hard hat and travel 140 metres underground down one of Britain’s oldest working mines; visit Hope Pit, a fully restored colliery complex dedicated to science; view the museum exhibits to get a feel for life over the last century as a miner; and even pop and meet the retired pit ponies.

Heading up the A636 towards Wakefield there’s a number of country parks and beautiful landscapes to take in to get a good feel for the best of the Wakefield area, and how it’s evolved. Pugney’s Country Park was previously an open-cast mine; now it’s home to a 250-acre park, including two lakes, a watersport centre and a nature reserve. And nearby, in fact overlooking the lake, are the remains of Sandal Castle- a reminder of the importance of the city in the Middle Ages. Take a trip up the hill and check out the views.

To the south of Sandal Castle ruins, there’s a choice of different outdoor experiences. Newmillerdam is an attractive country park with a relaxing blend of woodland and a lake, including a rather charming boathouse; Haw Park Wood is a73-acre area of ancient replanted woodland, with an all-weather footpath network; and nearby Anglers Park- once one of the country’s deepest opencast coal mines- is now a beautiful woodland and lake, and one of Yorkshire’s most important inland bird sites and a site of Scientific Interest for migratory birds. Enough choice there?
Now, let’s head into the city itself.

Travelling in on the Denby Dale Road, head straight into the city centre and the Ridings Shopping Centre. Here you’ll find over a hundred stores, and a selection of places to eat and drink. From the Ridings stroll west along Kirkgate (one of the original four streets in the city; the others being Northgate, Westgate and Warrengate), and you’ll find the Theatre Royal on the right. There’s been a theatre here for over 200 years, but this is of Victorian origin, designed by famous theatre architect Frank Matcham, who also designed the Hackney Empire and the London Palladium. Behind the theatre you’ve got the Art House workspace, an inclusive workspace for artists and budding sculptors.

Now stroll back along Kirkgate, turn left along Marygate and left again onto Wood Street. Here you’ll find the Wakefield Museum. Previously an 1820’s music salon, now you can find out about the history of the city, including a trip into a South American rainforest following in the footsteps of local boy Charles Waterton, creator of the world’s first nature reserve (near Haw Park Wood at Walton Hall).

From here, head back over the Bullring and you’ll find the Tourist Information Centre and, behind there, Wakefield Cathedral (it’s quite easy to see; it’s the tallest building in the city, and can boast the tallest spire in Yorkshire).The site was once home to a Saxon church but the current cathedral can boast over a thousand years of history; highlights include the superb Reredos- or screen behind the altar- said to be one of the finest Victorian examples in England. After the cathedral maybe pop over to the Trinity Walk Shopping Centre, the city’s newest shopping centre, with over 60 stores, including Debenhams.

Heading next south along Kirkgate and go over the River Calder. Look here for the Chantry Chapel of St Mary, one of only four surviving bridge chapels in the country, and the only one in a city. Dating back to the 14th century this was built by the people of Wakefield and at the time was believed to be the most beautiful bridge chapel in the country. And so finally, to the impressive new Hepworth Wakefield, the stunning new art gallery celebrating the areas unique art contribution. Judged by The Independent as ‘one of the finest contemporary art museums in Europe’ this is a beautiful building; with ten galleries, a striking modern building design and a dramatic setting by the river weir, this fair sums up what’s best about the city of Wakefield.

When to visit

City pics

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Lancaster
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Preston
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Stoke