The Corn Exchange in Leeds is a beautiful Victorian building, designed in 1861 by Cuthbert Brodrick and opened in 1863 as a trading floor for the sale of corn wheat, barley, hops, beans, peas, and seeds. This circular stone building has an unusual spherical roof that pokes out like a great grey spring shoot from the cold earth. I love a lot of things about this building – its history as a trading space and how Leeds has managed to keep this aspect despite plans to turn it into a food hall or a music hall, the touchable past in its stone and the modern interior of vintage boutiques, piercing parlours and a tea shop, alive side by side – but most of all I love the memory it holds of nature entering this cool stone building day after day, year after year.
When you walk into The Corn Exchange today the large domed roof creates a feeling of endless light and sky, while the basement, only opened to the public in 1985 following refurbishments, is cool and feels distinctly ‘underground’. This basement was originally designed to allow for the comings and goings of horses and carts and you can almost smell the fresh animals and hear their shoes as you walk the basement floor now.
Then there’s the corn itself, straight from the farmer’s fields, the peas and seeds, the barley and hops, all entering this beautiful building and being bought and sold on a daily basis. Those small pieces of nature flooding in and out of the stone.
The Corn Exchange ran as such right into the early part of the 20th century, but by the 1970s the call for a corn exchange was in decline and other uses for the building were being looked into, as well as the possibility of demolition.
Thankfully this building remains and not only is it still standing, but it continues to be used as a trading space. Our needs and wants might have changed over time, but The Corn Exchange is still a busy space for buyers and sellers. The goods have altered, but the spirit stays the same.
And if you look carefully, you can still find small pieces of nature. Go down into the tea shop and see delicate ornate trees stand alongside tables and chairs. Enter the little beer house and feel the memory of those hops sold here over a hundred years ago, still present. Check the entrance of the building for blooming flower baskets in summer. Or visit the famous Corn Exchange bulldog who sits in the window of his owner’s jewellery shop and urges passes by to give to the homeless.
Nature, and our nature as people, continues largely unchanged here, just like the solid stone of this enduring building, and the echoes of nature and life inside it.
Samantha Priestley is the author of the Folded Word short-fiction chapbooks Dreamers (2014) and Orange Balloon (2016). She’s a novelist, playwright, and essayist who spins words into gold from her home in Sheffield, UK.
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