On the hunt for lions in Huddersfield

Chris Marsden and Madeleine Longtin pictured by the lions outside Huddersfield Town Hall. Picture by Simon Hulme.
Chris Marsden and Madeleine Longtin pictured by the lions outside Huddersfield Town Hall. Picture by Simon Hulme.
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Stephen McClarence has a preview of one of the more offbeat events in next week’s programme of Heritage Open Days, as he goes on the trail of lions in Huddersfield. Pictures by Simon Hulme.

Towards the end of our Huddersfield lion hunt, the three of us are gazing up at a coat of arms. It’s over the entrance to the Head of Steam pub at the town’s railway station and it’s puzzling us. Through binoculars, its crowns and fleurs de lys (and lions) are clear enough. So are the words “Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company”. But what’s the motto on that scroll? “Can’t make it out,” says Chris Marsden. “Not very clear, is it?” says Madeleine Longtin. “I think it says Jacket potato AD 1836,” I say, tentatively. And we agree that’s unusual on a coat of arms. Even over a pub door. But read on.

The Heritage Lions Project, Huddersfield .Picture by Simon Hulme.

The Heritage Lions Project, Huddersfield .Picture by Simon Hulme.

Chris and Madeleine are giving me a preview of the town-centre “lion hunt” that will be one of the more offbeat Huddersfield events in next weekend’s national Heritage Open Days. Billed as “England’s biggest festival of history and culture”, the annual Open Days weekends offer free access to thousands of “secret places” and buildings that are normally closed to the public or charge entrance fees; last year more than three million people took part.

Yorkshire is staging more than 500 events this year. There are plenty in Leeds, Sheffield and Hull, but surprisingly few in York; maybe York can afford to be a bit blasé about “heritage”.

Across the county, you can go behind the scenes at the Marks & Spencer Archive in Leeds, explore the history and mystery of Hull’s back alleys, see the last liquorice field in Pontefract, and join a walking tour of Sheffield’s football heritage. Nothing, however, is quite as unexpected as the Huddersfield Lion Hunt (“No bravery required... binoculars encouraged”).

One of 30 Huddersfield events, it will be led by Chris, chair of the town’s Civic Society. He’s a man of urgent enthusiasm, darting here, pointing there and giving an excited running commentary on the lions we meet round every corner of our urban safari. “Some are friendly, some are fierce, some are sad,” he says.

The Heritage Lions Project, Huddersfield..Picture by Simon Hulme.

The Heritage Lions Project, Huddersfield..Picture by Simon Hulme.

Of course, they’re not (don’t be disappointed) real lions. They’re carved in stone or on coats of arms, lying in wait, prowling or growling, rearing or roaring, menacing or musing. We spot... well, for the moment let’s just say we spot far more than I’m expecting. They’re mostly from between 1850 and 1936, regal souvenirs of the heyday and waning of the British Empire.

“If you see a lion, you think of Britain,” says Madeleine, an American student at Huddersfield’s university. She has helped co-ordinate Open Day events for Discover Huddersfield, a partnership of local societies and organisations promoting the town’s buildings, businesses, social history and good urban design. She comes from a small Californian city called Dana Point. So how does she find her new home? “It’s nice to have a change of environment,” she says. “What I love about it is that it’s a Victorian town and the place I come from was only founded in the 1950s.”

The first lion we see is the biggest and most famous. It’s across St George’s Square from the grander-than-grand station – often described as a stately home of the railways – and beyond the statue of Harold Wilson, a Labour lion in his own right, stuffing his pipe in his pocket.

Prowling the parapet of Lion Chambers, above the Ciao Bella Mediterranean Restaurant and the Vinyl Tap record shop, the pale grey 11ft long lion glowers rather gummily up Railway Street. I assume it has been there since 1853, the date on its plinth. Not so, says Chris. The parapet’s original stone lion gradually decayed and was replaced by a fibreglass copy in the 1970s: a lightweight by comparison.

Counting as we go, our tour takes in the Dixy Chicken takeaway (two lions, looking somehow both predatory and cute), a shaggy gold beast on the coat of arms at the former Quarter Sessions Court and a pair of stylish Art Deco lions designed to be flag pole bearers on the former Co-op. And there’s a frieze of 12 of them on Caffe Nero.

The total “bag” is a fair proportion of Huddersfield’s 130 lions. We’ve done what the tour sets out to do – to get people to look at possibly familiar buildings in a new way and raise their gaze above shop window level.

Chris is a great enthusiast for Heritage Open Days. “It’s good for organisations to open their doors and show themselves to the world,” he says. “And it’s great to have inter-community involvement, to have older people telling younger people what a wash dolly was, for instance.”

Madeleine adds that young people are often just concerned with the future and that this is an opportunity to understand “where you’ve come from”.

Discover Huddersfield pursues this aim with an enterprising series of ten handsomely produced town trail leaflets including buildings linked to transport, the local radical heritage (Harold Wilson features), public art, cultural diversity and European exile communities who settled here. There’s also the niftily named Shuddersfield Ghost Trail, which suggests that the railway station may be one of the country’s most haunted. It’s certainly one of the most handsome, and still has its former Victorian water tower, which features in Huddersfield’s Open Days. Among much else, the weekend also includes the Bullecourt Museum, whose military collection takes in the Crimean War, the two world wars and the Falklands.

There’s an open day at the Sikh Guru Nanak Gurdwara, and behind-the-scenes tours of the town’s Library and Art Gallery, the Lawrence Batley Theatre and the John Smith’s Stadium, which won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Building of the Year award in 1995.

Events range both high (the Victoria Tower on Castle Hill) and low: Walking Over Mines, which explores the labyrinth of invisible coal workings just below the surface of the town centre. It’s part of the intriguing Fourth World Congress of Psychogeography, being staged at Huddersfield University. Psychogeography? “A creative and playful way of travelling around by foot... using ideas and chance or spur-of-the-moment decisions”.

Discover Huddersfield has also published a Real Ale Trail, which takes us back to the Head of Steam to puzzle about the jacket potato motto on the coat of arms. The three of us study it even more closely and Chris slowly puts down his binoculars. “Sorry to be boring,” he says. “But it says ‘Incorporated AD 1836’.”

And the verdict on our lion tour? A roaring success.

■ Huddersfield Town Centre Lion Hunt: Sunday, September 11, 2.30pm. Meet at Harold Wilson statue in St George’s Square. heritageopendays.org.uk