Historical Horsforth - a place of Victorian character

More conservation areas are planned for Horsforth where important Victorian architecture is very much part of the heritage, as Penny Wainwright reports Photographs by Joan Russell

Horsforth residents are divided over whether they live in a large village or a small town but they’re agreed on one thing: that plenty of historic buildings and an independent character make their home on the edge of Leeds an excellent place to live.

Only six miles from the city centre, it has been popular with commuters since the arrival of the railways in the 19th century. In the intervening years, mills, stone terraces and Victorian villas have been infilled with 1930s semis and more modern housing. Though now essentially suburban, Horsforth’s built heritage and natural features, such as its locally-quarried millstone grit and views across the steep slopes of the Aire Valley, give it a special character that many feel is worth special protection.

Parts of Horsforth are already designated conservation areas, one based around Town Street, the other focusing on the Victorian villa developments at Newlay.

In both areas it was recognised that there were buildings of architectural importance which deserved to be protected.

Now Leeds City Council is proposing to add another conservation area to encompass Cragg Hill and Woodside, at either end of Outwood Lane, which include some fine Victorian houses and woodland.

Councillor Richard Lewis, executive board member responsible for city development, said: ‘The area is steeped in historic and architectural interest, including early 19th century chapels, high status 19th century villas and evidence of the textile industry that was so crucial to the development of Leeds.’

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Members of the public were not backward in coming forward when invited to give their views on the scheme. Following two public consultations, the conservation area proposals are currently under review. A spokeswoman for the council said: ‘They are being looked at closely to ensure Leeds City Council makes the most  appropriate decision.’

The council is keen to emphasise that conservation doesn’t just mean preservation; it involves monitoring and managing development in a way that enhances the area’s special qualities. This means green spaces and footpaths would be protected as well as historic buildings, and road signs and street lighting would have to be sympathetically placed, historic features retained and infill sensitively designed.

If the council gives the go-ahead, what would it mean in practice to residents and businesses? New development would have to be sympathetic to its neighbours. So if, for example, you live in a terrace, you may not be allowed to put a satellite dish or dormer window on the front of your house, as planners would consider any alteration in the context of the whole row. You would need permission to chop down trees and any plans for demolition would be scrutinised closely.

It was the demolition of a substantial Victorian house,  St Joseph’s convalescent home, which galvanised local residents into forming an association. Elspeth Taylor, who spent her childhood in Horsforth and still lives with her husband and young family there, said: ‘When St Joseph’s was knocked down it happened so quickly that people weren’t ready. So local residents got themselves together to form a group. As well as the demolition of the building, they were worried about the amount of extra cars that developing the site might bring.’

Elspeth herself has a particular interest in the historic buildings of the area because the house she grew up in, and which her family is now restoring, was once occupied by the celebrated factory reformer, Richard Oastler. There’s no blue plaque recording the fact as yet, but Elspeth’s parents, who now live in the converted stables next door to their daughter, have given it the  name Oastler’s Barn.

‘Horsforth is what it is because of its old buildings, and its woods and open spaces,’ says Elspeth.

‘If the new conservation area does go ahead, it would help preserve this area of beauty.

‘When we have visitors, they always say how lovely it is. It’s a bit of countryside in the city.’

But the local residents aren’t a load of Nimbys. ‘Families need places to live, but old buildings can be saved at the same time as brownfield sites are used to build on,’ says Elspeth.

While she and her neighbours would be delighted if they were included in a new conservation area, not everyone is so enthusiastic. Gamestec, which manufactures gaming equipment in an old worsted spinning mill that would fall just within the new boundary, has put in a formal objection to the council. Any plans the company might have for development or demolition would be restricted but, say local councillors, the building datesback to 1903 and is part of the history of Horsforth.

Others whose businesses are just down the road don’t see their inclusion in a new conservation area as a problem. ‘I can’t see it affecting us,’ says Beverley Hawkins, accounts manager at MG Access, who supply roller shutters at their premises in an old mill in Hawksworth Road. ‘We’re already in a woodland area and have no plans for expanding. If we got any bigger, we’d move. It’s a nice little office I’ve got, with lovely views,’ she adds.  And her reaction is echoed by neighbouring firms.

Whether or not Leeds City Council’s decision goes in favour of the residents who would like to see their area further protected from insensitive development remains to be seen, but what is certain is the determination locally to keep Horsforth a great place to live - no matter if it’s a large village or a small town.

Historical Horsforth

Horsforth’s name derives from horse-ford. No one is sure which was the original ford because every road into the village crosses water but the most often proposed location is at Newlaithes.

 Australia and New Zealand’s woollen industries are thought to have been introduced by the Rev Samuel Marsden who had worked in a blacksmith’s forge in the village.

 The trees that line Stanhope Drive were planted to commemorate the men – and one woman (a nurse) - who died in the First World War.

 Richard Oastler, 19th century factory reformer, lived in Outwood Lane. His campaigning for the rights of working children succeeded in restricting them to a10-hour day in the cotton mills.

Getting there: Horsforth is on the A65, six miles north west of Leeds. Trains stop at Horsforth Station and there’s a frequent bus service.

Where to park: There’s free on-street parking and a car park next to Horsforth Hall Park at the bottom of Town Street.

What to do: Visit the local history museum at The Green, bottom of Town Street, weekends only (Saturday 10am – 4pm, Sunday 2pm – 5pm), closed mid-December to end of March; shop, eat on New Road Side and Town Street.

The print version of this article appeared in the July 2011 issue of Yorkshire Life 

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