Best Things to Do in Wakefield (Yorkshire, England)

Up to the 1980s coalmining was the backbone of this city in West Yorkshire.

The landscape had been mined since the 15th century, around the time Wakefield witnessed a decisive battle during the Wars of the Roses.

The open cast collieries that used to scar the countryside have been flooded and turned into nature reserves and parks, while the Caphouse Colliery is now England’s National Coal Mining Museum.

It just so happened that two of England’s greatest artists, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore were born around Wakefield within a few years of each other.

You can appreciate their Modernist sculptures at the fabulous Hepworth gallery and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Let’s explore the best things to do in Wakefield:

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

In the grounds of Bretton Hall is a world-class and ever-changing exhibition of modern and contemporary sculpture.

Billed as the UK’s leading outdoor gallery, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s collection is partly made up of works that featured at temporary exhibitions in London parks from the 40s to the 70s.

Among them are several pieces by Henry Moore, forming one of the largest collections of his bronzes in Europe.

There are also sculptures by the likes of Barbara Hepworth, Ai Weiwei, Jaume Plensa, Joan Miró and short-term exhibitions that tend to focus on individual 20th-century sculptors like Eduardo Paolozzi Lynn Chadwick and Phillip King.

Fine 18th-century monuments from the estate are scattered around the park and there are also indoor exhibitions at the modern Longside Gallery and the restored St Bartholomew’s Chapel from 1744.

Wakefield Cathedral

At 75 metres Wakefield Cathedral’s spire is the highest in Yorkshire.

Constructed on top of a Saxon church, the cathedral has lots of original Medieval design, from Norman to Perpendicular Gothic.

Between 1858 and 1874 the Victorian master restorer George Gilbert Scott and his son John Oldrid Scott regenerated the building after more than a hundred years of disuse.

It’s not hard to find the oldest parts: the wall of the north aisle goes back to the mid 12th century, the same period as the piers in the nave, which support Gothic arches from the 13th century.

Overhead, cast your gaze up to the wooden coffered 15th-century ceiling, adorned with ornately carved bosses.

The choir stalls are also 15th-century and have 11 misericords with outlandish mythical beasts and a Green Man.

Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin

The oldest and finest example of just four surviving bridge chapels in England, this stunning monument dates to 1356. The chapel is built from sandstone on a small island on the Calder, along a nine-arched bridge completed in the same year.

The main facade is made up of five exuberantly carved panels, representing the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Ghost.

You can only get inside on special open days, but if you’re one of the lucky few you’ll get to admire the stained glass windows, restored in 1847, and take the spiral stairway down to the sacristy and crypt.

Theatre Royal

Opened in 1894, Theatre Royal is Wakefield’s prime performing arts centre.

The building was designed by Frank Matcham, who conceived dozens of theatres across the country in this period.

Theatre Royal has the smallest auditorium of Matcham’s theatres still standing, and incorporates of an earlier theatre building.

The venue is both a producing and receiving theatre, putting on its own pantomimes in the Advent season, and with a creative director, John Godber, who has several awards under his belt.

There’s a diverse line-up of visiting musicals, plays, comedians and live music acts, so it’s a good idea to check the calendar before you come to Wakefield.

Pontefract Castle

Some way east but still within Wakefield’s city limits, Pontefract Castle had a fearsome reputation in Medieval times.

The castle was laid low in the Civil War in 1649 as it had been a Royalist stronghold and withstood a series of sieges.

But large pieces of the curtain wall are still standing, as well as the lower portions of the multi-lobed keep and the basement of the tower where Richard II was imprisoned at the end of the 14th century after being captured by his successor Henry Bollingbroke.

Richard is believed to have died at this place in 1400, most likely through starvation.

Nostell Priory and Parkland

On the site of a dissolved Medieval priory, this lavish Palladian house was designed by James Paine and Robert Adam as a statement of wealth for the Winn family.

The house was begun in 1733 and enhanced by successive generations of the family, each keen to project a message about their power and social status.

This has left us with an amazing National Trust property, with jaw-dropping Rococo and Neoclassical plasterwork, Chippendale furniture, and art by Pieter Breughel the Younger, Hans Holbein the Younger and Hugh Douglas Hamilton.

There’s also a precious longcase clock by the era-defining 18th-century inventor John Harrison.

Outsider is 300 acres of parkland, woven with lakeside and meadow trails, and dotted with monuments like the Obelisk Lodge and Druid’s Bridge.

Robert Adam’s stable block are the estate’s visitor centre and Courtyard Cafe.

Sandal Castle

The decayed vestiges of this Medieval castle dominate the east flank of Pugney’s Country Park.

Sandal Castle was founded at the start of the 12th century as a Norman motte and bailey.

The surviving stonework is from the 15th century when the castle had its most eventful years, during the Wars of the Roses.

In 1460 the pretender to the English throne Richard Plantagenet was killed close by at the Battle of Wakefield.

Shakespeare’s play, Henry VI part 3 is set at Sandal Castle during this period.

Richard Plantagenet’ son Richard III chose Sandal Castle as his northern base not long before he was famously killed at Bosworth Field in 1485. After Richard III’s death the castle fell into decline and its stone was quarried.

The ruins are very picturesque and have all-encompassing panoramas of the West Yorkshire countryside.

Where to stay: Best Hotels in Wakefield, England

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