Kate Ryrie celebrates this historic market hall in the heart of Leeds
If Leeds was sitting down to write its autobiography, chances are Kirkgate Market would make the first sentence or two. Located on one of the city’s most historic streets, it’s been the beating heart of Leeds for over 160 years, and today – despite a challenging year – it’s no less of a cornerstone for trading, eating, socialising and everything in between.
It’s a place steeped in history but moving with the times
Today’s market was established in 1857, and the tagline: "many stories told, many still to tell", gives some insight into its rich heritage. This is the place where Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer first set up shop on a barrow in 1884 – a piece of history today remembered with a forest green M&S stall and matching clock tower at the centre of the main hall.
The architecture of the famous market hall
Known as the 1904 Hall, the indoor portion of the market is the largest of its kind in Europe, today playing host to a vibrant community of traders – some new, some that have been around for decades. Here, the architecture is something special. Red, gold and green panels frame an ornate glass ceiling, the owls of the city’s crest peer out from every arch, and paving slabs combine with the cavernous space above to create a continuous echo of the market’s daily soundscape.
And after more than a year of closed-up stalls, absent traders and general uncertainty, it sure is a relief to see and hear Kirkgate coming back to life in 2021. Now, as it has been for centuries, this is the place to support the community as you buy local – at a time when independent businesses need it more than ever.
What can you buy at Kirkgate Market?
Whether it’s fresh fruit and flowers or freshly baked bread, a new pair of tights, a haircut or a week’s worth of locally sourced meat complete with friendly cooking instructions – there’s something here to meet every need and match every taste. Comestibles come without excessive plastic packaging, with most traders happy to put their wares straight into buyers’ own reusable containers. It’s a place steeped in history but moving with the times – the majority of the stalls now accept card payments, and new technologies and traders are never far away.
In 2016 came the opening of the now renowned Market Kitchen – a huge, airy space between the 1904 hall and the sprawl of outdoor stalls at the back. This much-loved part of the market is now back open for business, which means you can head there to find street food from all over the world – Turkey, India, Vietnam, Greece, Mexico and Yorkshire to name but a few.
Kirkgate Market post-lockdown
With a series of safety and hygiene measures now in place across the venue, spending a few Saturday hours browsing tabletops of unique wares and tucking into a paper plate of sizzling street food is once again a must for a Leeds weekend. Head down on 25th July for a vegan special, with ethical and sustainable goods on offer from a range of local businesses. You can register your interest in the vegan event if it sounds up your street.
Kirkgate Market is a welcomingly authentic part of the city. And not the buzzword type of authentic – the real, homegrown "this-is-how-it’s-been-for-100-years-and-always-will-be" type of authentic. Vendors still compete to beat their neighbours’ prices. Stroll down Fish and Game Row and you’ll see and smell the goods in all their glory – but there’s something wonderful about the whole thing, its friendliness, its Leeds-ness.
A lot of work has gone into making this place safe and accessible for families and children. The market is a Child Friendly Leeds Ambassador, meaning it’s dedicated to making Leeds a better place for young people to grow up. That status sees everything from dazzling Christmas puppet performances to projects like the Young Traders Market, which gives young entrepreneurs the chance to set out their stall and sell in a real trading environment.
Tours of Kirkgate Market
If all that’s not reason enough to take a leisurely stroll to the magnificent storybook of history and haggling right on our city’s doorstep, then perhaps the idea of a heritage walking tour might just tip the scales in Kirkgate’s favour. After a hiatus due to the pandemic, these Saturday morning tours are back, offering the chance to join an expert guide for a fascinating tour through the market’s nooks and crannies. You’ll meet traders, experience a rare breed of friendly banter and learn some of the rich history that steeps this part of Leeds. Tickets for the Kirkgate Market tour start at £10.
Go for the experience, go for the story. Go for the sake of rejecting the drone of a self-checkout screen and getting some real human contact. Go for incredible food from every corner of the world. Go to find the real Leeds – the one that’s been there for almost two centuries and isn’t going anywhere. Go for the cheapest, freshest veg this side of having your own allotment. Go to see it all for yourself.
Kirkgate Market, 34 George St, Leeds LS2 7HY; Monday - Saturday, 8am-5.30pm.
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