As part of the Heritage Open Days Weekend of the 8th to the 11th of September 2016, Discover Huddersfield organised a number of free guided walks (the rest of the year they charge a very reasonable £3 for each walk). For our Town Centre Lion Hunt, on the Sunday afternoon (a brand new walk theme and route), we met outside the station in George Square, where the statue of Harold Wilson had been given a bunch of natty pink balloons sporting the event’s logo.
Lions are evidently a popular part of Huddersfield’s heritage: so many people turned up that we had to split into two groups. So after a short visit to the station water tower (also specially opened up for the day) the second group, of which I was a member, reconvened at the statue and commenced spotting lions.
Our first, and arguably most famous, spot was ‘Leo’ the Lion Buildings lion. Directly across the road from George Square, the lion on the roof is not the original, which was made of Coade stone (a ceramic-style artificial stone), and eventually succumbed to the effects of pollution, this Leo is made of fibreglass. A twin of the original resides in Lincoln and so far has avoided the fate of the first Huddersfield Leo.
There’s another lion on the building too: a relief sculpture above the door. Overall, however, in spite of its name, Lion Buildings has very few lions compared to other town centre buildings.
No one seems entirely sure why Huddersfield has so many lions. They were certainly a popular feature to be carved on Victorian buildings, and also form part of various coats of arms and their supporters (the animals to either side of the shield) and/or crest, notably the Royal Arms of England and those of the United Kingdom (allowing for multiple lions to appear on one relatively small carving). Huddersfield has retained a greater proportion of its Victorian architecture than many similar towns and cities, but even so the number we counted on one short walk (well over 100) was impressive.
Britannia Buildings to the right of George Square sports a lion alongside the statue of its namesake on the roof, a Royal Coat of Arms supported by a lion and a unicorn, small lions’ heads above the door, and maybe some others. Meanwhile, several buildings on Church Street have paired lions sitting above the main door, along with other real and mythical creatures elsewhere on their facades. As an aside, much of Huddersfield’s Victorian and earlier development was orchestrated by members of the Ramsden family (major landowners until the early 20th Century). Consequently, many streets and major buildings not named for their geographic location or their function are named after Ramsden spouses or trustees — and also after their home towns or principal residences. For example Fitzwilliam Street and Wentworth Street for the Earls Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse (trustees of the Ramsden estate).
While many lions are to be found on obviously important buildings, some are hidden away in unexpected places. One pair are tucked away on a fried chicken takeaway shop, and twelve lion heads can be found up near the roof of the old Picture House, although I needed my binoculars to spot them properly. There are lions on the old Court of Requests (now a pub), and on modern court buildings, lions on university properties (including the Ramsden Building — one of the earliest parts of what eventually became Huddersfield University), lions as well as an elephant on the old drill hall of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. The Ramsden Estate Offices, build shortly after Huddersfield Town Hall, is covered in lions and multiple other beasties, as well as a cheeky chappie exposing his buttocks to the world (legend has it, he was carved by a mason who was about to lose his job).
We ended our walk at the Head of Steam pub, back at the station, which started life as the booking hall for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company (one of the two railway companies that operated simultaneously out of the station). And that company’s Arms also feature lions.
The main lesson of this adventure was that it’s always worth looking up: you never know what you might spot. Also, binoculars are useful but may get you some odd looks if you use them too often when not in an organised group.
Is Huddersfield truly unusual in its lion population? What other creatures are common on the buildings of other towns?