Visiting Leek - in search of art, architecture and antiques

Greystones with the tower of the Nicholson Institute

Greystones with the tower of the Nicholson Institute - Credit: Archant

Derbyshire Life travels to the Staffordshire town in search of art, architecture and antiques

To experience one of the most exhilarating drives in the Peak District, follow the A53 from Buxton to the Staffordshire town of Leek. After running over the shoulder of Axe Edge, the most southern of the great hills of the Pennines, the road passes the Roaches and Ramshaw Rocks, a series of fantastically-shaped outcrops, some of which look as if they have been sculpted to resemble human heads. As the road begins to drop away from the high moors, it follows a succession of ups and downs with the severity of a roller coaster ride before it finally comes to rest at the entrance to Leek.

Looking as though it were in competition with the strange geometry of these rocks, the most prominent feature in the townscape of Leek is the tower of the Nicholson Institute. This quirky structure is an amalgamation of a small porthole-like window, a much larger multi-paned window, half-moon and triangular pediments and a copper dome with a vaguely Teutonic look about it. The Institute was designed by the architectural practice of William Sugden and Sons, which was responsible for many other buildings in Leek that range in style from Arts and Crafts to Scottish Baronial, with the result that the town is a place with architectural surprises at almost every turn.

Joshua Nicholson was a local industrialist who wanted to give the people of Leek an opportunity to learn and expand their cultural horizons. The Institute he founded is still used for this purpose, because it houses a museum, an art gallery, a public library and a Tourist Information Centre. It also has an extension, added in 1900, that is now the Leek campus of Buxton and Leek College. Despite its showy appearance, the Institute hides deferentially behind a beautiful 17th century stone-built house called Greystones, which carries a plaque that records that ‘William Morris and Leek founder members of The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings saved this building in 1884’.

William Morris, the passionate Socialist, poet, writer, brilliant designer and leading member of the Arts and Crafts movement, lived in Leek between 1875 and 1878. Ever searching for perfection, Morris had come to the town to learn the techniques of dyeing from Thomas Wardle, who owned a local dye works and had developed a successful way of dyeing Indian Tussar silk. In 1879, Thomas’ wife, Elizabeth, founded the Leek School of Embroidery and passed on to the members of the group her amazing stitching ability, especially in depicting human flesh.

The brilliant skills of these three pioneers are illustrated in the superb Arts and Crafts exhibits on display in the Nicholson Institute, which look as fresh and attractive today as they did when they were first created. The nearby Church of St Edward contains a very beautiful embroidered panel of six angels, outlined in gold thread and set against a background of rich green silk, as well as several other dazzling examples of panels and altar frontals made by the Leek School of Embroidery. Many of the church’s equally glorious stained glass windows were manufactured by the firm of Morris & Co, largely using designs by Edward Burne-Jones and by William Morris himself.

The most eye-catching of all the windows in the church are two enormous and colourful rose windows, designed by George Bodley and manufactured by Morris & Co. They are unusual in being located on the walls of the north and south aisles, rather than at the west end or in the transepts as is usually the case for rose windows. Yet another striking example of stained glass manufactured by Morris & Co is a window designed as a memorial to Elizabeth Condlyffe, whose endowment of 1867 was used to build six almshouses designed by Richard Norman Shaw, a prolific architect who was once dubbed ‘the architectural Picasso’.

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Another wonderful collection of designs from the past is to be found in Little Vintage, a shop housed in part of Parker House. This fine building was the birthplace of Thomas Parker, who was made the first Earl of Macclesfield in 1721 and later became Lord Chancellor. Little Vintage sells ladies’ fashions in vintage and retro styles, with the aim of ‘celebrating eras of outstanding fashion and bringing vintage clothes to this generation’. Another example of past meeting present is Foxlowe, a stately Georgian building, now occupied by the Foxlowe Arts Centre, on Stockwell Street. As well as incorporating exhibition spaces, a cinema and a popular café, it hosts a theatre company.

The cobbled Market Place across the road from the Arts Centre has regular indoor and outdoor markets, a monthly food market and a Saturday Antiques Market. Leek is well known as a centre for antiques. Timeless Treasures, in King Edward Street, is run by Graham Dodd, who has been dealing in antiques and curios for over 30 years. Breaking off from attending to the many people who were rummaging around his shop, he picked out a beautiful Italian-glass ornament in the shape of a horse as a perfect example of one of the ‘timeless treasures’ in his collection.

King Edward’s Street has several impressive examples of mock-Tudor buildings. It also houses the Victoriana Tearooms, one of the most delightful tea rooms you are ever likely to visit. Each floor of the three-storey building is sumptuously furnished in the manner of a Victorian dining room containing period furniture, ornaments, paintings and photographs. Owner Deborah Jolley said: ‘My aim in setting up the tea rooms was to make a welcoming, homely place and to recreate the atmosphere of a Victorian family home’. However, the four dining areas, named after four of Queen Victoria’s children – Beatrice, Victoria, Alice and Edward – would not be out of place in a royal palace.

Deborah also owns an adjacent Victoriana Emporium, which sells jams, chutneys, preserves, vintage sweets and other vintage gifts. The nearby Odeon antique shop has rustic pine, painted furniture and restored lamps and chandeliers. Other antique outlets in the town include Leek Antiques and Interiors, on Brook Street, which has an extensive selection of 17th to 20th century furniture, plus decorative items for the home and garden.

Vintage items of a different sort are to be found at Classic Collectables on Haywood Street. This little shop has been run for the last eight years by Richard Heath, who has 20 years’ experience of dealing in antique and vintage toys. With its extensive collection of Dinky and Corgi model cars, toy soldiers, Airfix models and Hornby model trains, Classic Collectables is a great source of nostalgia for those of us who have fond memories of toys that meant so much to children who lived in a pre-computer age. When I expressed regret that I had not kept my old Dinky toys, Richard said: ‘Dinky toys are very collectable, but they have much greater value if they are still in the box in which they were purchased. A well-preserved packet can be worth twice as much as the model itself.’

Richard’s shop is located opposite the Nicholson War Memorial. At 90 feet high, this is one of the largest war memorials in the country. It was constructed from white Portland stone and has four clock faces. The structure is dedicated to Sir Arthur Nicholson’s son, Basil Nicholson, who was killed in the First World War. Sir Arthur was the son of Joshua Nicholson, the founder of the Nicholson Institute, that other prominent landmark where we began our journey around Leek – a town that is a mecca for lovers of antiques and for people who come to see the truly wonderful embroideries and stained-glass designs produced by leading members of the Arts and Crafts movement.

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