the roof: headrow house, aka big lil’sBack
We squeezed through a narrow gap between some parked cars and the wall, looking for some space. In the yard – it’s Bramley’s Yard, just off The Headrow – there were more parked cars to edge around, so we edged around them.
In late February we felt the sun on our faces. The yard faces the backs of everything. The back of a row of buildings on The Headrow, the back of a McDonald’s on Briggate, even the back of Headrow House itself, which calls Bramley’s Yard it’s home but lives there at an awkward angle; one corner juts like a shoulder from an asymmetrical brick dress.
Headrow House used to be called Lower Headrow House, and on the ground floor there used to be a western-themed saloon bar called Big Lil’s, and upstairs was a nightclub called Spooks. Those names have stayed current in Leeds even though the doors were closed over a decade ago; Notorious with a capital No.
It faces the side of the Victoria Quarter, but it’s the back of a side and you would never see it so we might as well call it the back. From here the kaleidoscopic roof of VQ is unrecognisable and unless you know what you’re looking at it’s useless for getting your bearings. So you might as well call it anywhere.
The yard is open to the south. In the sunshine, you could be anywhere. The tarmac is rough and broken, and you can leave it behind using the black iron fire escapes that all feed into the yard. Tied to the top of one of the fire escapes was a Christmas tree, hinting at a wild life.
It felt important, as we shook off winter, to have the sun on our faces; but the higher we climbed the less we could feel it, so we came back down. That’s like an admission of defeat in a city centre. Where there’s no space you go up; you build skyscrapers.
Headrow House is not a skyscraper; it barely breaks the level of the buildings around it. But it has more involvement with the sky than a lot of buildings in Leeds. Keeping it stumpy to fit it in the gap, the architects stopped themselves before adding anything so pointed as a roof. From the tops of the fire escapes across the yard you can see there’s nothing up there, but to get to it there’s a whole lot of nothing to get through first.
Inside Headrow House there are incriminating signs of past attempted refurbishments. Walls are part plastered, the bar is stripped out; but nothing new has taken hold. Windows lean against walls. Thick flock wallpaper hasn’t been stripped away. We went up to the first floor, to what used to be Spooks nightclub, where two performers’ cards are still tacked to the walls, as if Ramon Martino and Paul Light are still expecting a call any day now to their 0532 numbers. The signs for gents and the signs for ladies are from different eras but neither has let go.
The building is narrow but long, the staircases splitting off a third to the east; the windows that wrap round this end overlook the yard and will be the best place to watch the moon rise over the unfamiliar roofscape, should you be here at night. To the west the rooms are long without views, which makes it easier to imagine them filled. With nothing to distract you outside, you could do anything inside.
We went outside, and up. The roof of Headrow House is not the top of the world. It’s not even the top of the world of the Headrow. But the topper buildings have held back from here, as if Headrow House fainted and needs the air.
You get the air, and the water; winter’s rain has collected on the tar roof- covering and formed not a puddle but a lake. We wished for a sailboat or a fishing rod, but we had a lake and the sky and that was enough. The city felt distant. We didn’t need to go any further or climb any higher. There wasn’t any higher to climb.
“You can see why we had to,” said Simon Stevens, from Belgrave Music Hall and Beacons Festival. You can’t see the roof of the Belgrave from here, but you can feel it. Starting in October Beacons Festival will be held at Headrow House for twelve weeks, instead of in the fields of Skipton for one weekend. It sounds like something that shouldn’t work. But on the roof you’ll feel like you never want to work again.
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 22