History is not a nightmare: Whitelocks Ale House, Leeds
We appreciate the old despite the new and also because of it. James Joyce published Ulysses in 1922 when he lived in Paris: it was about, and set in, the Dublin he had left in 1904. It had taken him eight years to write the novel, during which time Ireland saw a great war, an Easter rising, a war of independence and the signing of the treaty establishing the Irish Free State, and was standing on the brink of yet another civil war. So Joyce’s intensely modernist, taboo-breaking and anti-traditional novel is, nonetheless, also an important and evocative historical document of a particular time and place.
Listening to Radio 4’s adaptation of Ulysses, with its sensual descriptions of porter, stout, lager, cider, burgundy, steak and kidney pies and cheese and mustard sandwiches in Dublin hotel dining rooms and pubs, made me want to visit Whitelocks, Leeds’ oldest pub/luncheon room. For Stephen Dedalus, history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. For Whitelocks, though, history is its bread and butter.
I’ve written about it before, but the historic alley pub, filled with copper, tiles, wooden partitions, mirrors and nostalgia, has recently been taken over by Mason & Taylor. The noticeable improvements consist of a good scrub, a slightly fancier evening menu, new staff and an improved selection of beer (still Yorkshire beer, but better, more interesting Yorkshire beer), with the aim of reversing the fading and withering of age. The policy, it seems, is as much one of restoration as it is of reinvention: making Whitelocks a pub that lives up to the considerable local goodwill.
For lunch I enjoyed a simple but good pork and apple sandwich with a half of Ilkley Siberia, the 5.9% cask rhubarb saison brewed with Melissa Cole. The Siberia had a lighty fruity, almost white wine aroma and a full soft mouthfeel, being in great condition. That gentle and pleasant marshmallowy taste that seems to characterise many of Ilkley’s pale ales held up a tartly sweet and sour bitterness. The savoury and sweet pork and apple sandwich, which was much as it had been when I last visited, was a perfect match.
Turks Head Yard, the narrow alley dominated by Whitelocks, now finds itself surrounded by the redevelopment of Leeds’ “Trinity Quarter”, due to complete in 2013. Leeds City Centre is already a bizarre mixture of the old, new and once-new. I hope that these careful and respectful improvements in beer and service will quietly move Whitelocks from being a pretty museum piece just about kept in business by nostalgia, to a pub that, in its own stately way, is once again as integral and relevant to the beer scene in Leeds as more modern contenders such as the craft beer pioneer North Bar. Although, now I come to mention it, even North Bar is no spring chicken these days.
I highly recommend these two articles about the history, recent decline and new ownership of Whitelocks by Leigh Linley and Simon Jenkins. You can now follow Whitelocks on Twitter at @WhitelocksLeeds .