Wake up in Wakefield

Venue: Wakefield, Yorkshire
Date: 24 Jun 2016 - 26 Jun 2016

Sarah Holt joined Group Leisure readers to explore Wakefield on the latest Reader Club trip.

Due to its location just nine miles from Leeds and 28 miles from York, Wakefield has become one of the UK’s understudy cities. Tending to be somewhere people pop in to on the way to somewhere else, it’s waited in the wings of the UK’s tourism industry. But un-rightly so – as I and a party of Group Leisure readers discovered on the latest Reader Club trip.

Our three day break to the city and its surrounds started with an afternoon at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. This open air gallery floods out across 500 acres of parkland and is also home to five indoor galleries. The works of art on display – both inside and outside – change regularly, making a chameleon of the every exhibition space.

During our visit, the enigmatic Swiss artist Not Vital was exhibiting across the attraction. The pieces on display explored material, place and identity. Many of the outdoor works added an other-worldly aspect to the park, including a spherical piece called Moon, which looked like it was made from liquid mercury and mirrored and morphed every physical movement near it.


Pictured: Moon, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Despite containing 80 different sculptures and further changing art works, YSP isn’t just for art lovers. As our guide for the afternoon, Alex Young, explained “The landscape of the park is one of the biggest sculptures of all’. Groups who love the outdoors can take tours of the grounds. And you certainly don’t have to be arty to enjoy the cream tea that the park can lay on for groups in its restaurant or café.

Day two of our trip took us into Wakefield centre, where you don’t have to go far to find evidence of the singularity of the city.

Take the cathedral for instance. Like all of the UK’s cathedrals, Wakefield’s is dense with history. Guided group tours will introduce you to the most complete collection of Charles Kempe stained glass in the world and let you in on the history of the octagonal font. However, they’ll also introduce you to the unique labyrinth in the building.

Installed in the cathedral in 2013, the labyrinth is a path of contemplation. Visitors – religious and not – are encouraged to take their shoes off and walk around it and pause in the centre for reflection. It’s made from stone quarried in nearby Holmfirth and walking round it delivers a yogi-like calm.

Cathedral guides will also give you an insight into the events that are held in the building. Everything from rock concerts to murder mystery plays are put on in the place.

Across the road from the cathedral is Wakefield Beer Exchange. This recently opened beer café is another city exclusive. The owners curate the contents of these premises as carefully as the people who run YSP. Everything on sale here – from the real ale and gin to the fizzy pop – comes from independent and specialist producers. It’s a legitimate black market for drinks.

Beer Exchange

Pictured: Some of the group at Wakefield Beer Exchange.

Groups can arrange tasting sessions here. During our Reader Club weekend, the group sampled everything from biscotti beer to rhubarb gin.

The third stop of day two of the Reader Club trip took us back into the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle and to the Hepworth Wakefield.

Ranked by The Times as one of the world’s 50 greatest galleries, it’s one of the largest purpose-built exhibition spaces outside of London. Spanning 1,600 square metres, it brings together work from Wakefield’s art collection, exhibitions by contemporary artists and works by Barbara Hepworth.

For me, the highlight of this space is the area where you can learn all about Barbara Hepworth’s artistic processes. Some of her sculptures were more than 20 feet tall and the gallery shows you her tools and explains how certain pieces were made.

Groups are well catered for here, too. Guided tours, out of hours introductions and catering like sparkling afternoon tea are available for parties to book.

The final stop of day two of the Reader Club trip was at the National Coal Mining Museum, where we took what one GTO described as “One of the best guided tours I’ve ever been on”.

There’s plenty to learn in the museum at the surface of this attraction, but the real highlight is an underground tour, which takes you 140 metres beneath the surface of the earth and into the disused coal mines.

Tours are led by former miner guides and let groups earthworm their way through the mining tunnels to learn about the history of coal mining in the area. Dioramas have been set up to show visitors what coal mining was like in the past from Victorian times to the 21st century.

There’s plenty of space in the tunnels, so at no point do you feel claustrophobic, and you’re given a hard hat and light to make it easier and safer to explore.

Our trip to the National Coal Mining Museum ended with a cream tea – the miner sized portions came out warm from the oven and were served with dollops of cream and slicks of jam.

Sarah with a miner

Pictured: Sarah with a miner at the National Coal Mining Museum.

On the final day of the Reader Club weekend, the group headed to National Trust Nostell. This 18th century mansion is set amid 300 acres of gardens and parkland, including a rose garden, kitchen garden and Menagerie Gardens. The stately home itself, meanwhile, contains one of the largest collections of Chippendale furniture in the world.

Guided tours spill the property’s secrets and let slip the stories of servants, the housekeeper and royal debauchery.

Over the coming year, Wakefield and its surrounding area will welcome a number of big new developments. In September, a £3.5 million renovation project will be completed at nearby Pontefract Castle, which will see a big new visitor centre open.

In 2017, meanwhile, a brand new art hotel is set to open at the Grade II listed Bretton Hall in the centre of Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  

During our trip it was clear that the city’s transition from understudy to leading lady is well under way. It shouldn’t be long before Wakefield’s name is up in lights are far as UK tourism is concerned.


Where to stay

The Cedar Court Hotel Wakefield was our base for our weekend Reader Club trip. On the first night the hotel laid on a carvery buffet meal for the group. On night two we sat down for dinner followed by entertainment from a Gary Barlow tribute act.


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