diamond geezer

 Thursday, October 14, 2021

York has long been a chocolate city.

Most tourists experience this by visiting a themed attraction, dropping in on a chocolatier or buying a KitKat. But you can also dig deeper into the history of the Rowntree dynasty by following one of five excellent Rowntree Walks published by the Rowntree Society. These impressively detailed resources are available separately online or in a 48-page booklet (which I had the foresight to pick up from the Tourist Information Centre four years ago). The walks sprawl extensively across the city so aren't do-able in one go, but are also flexibly dip-innable so when I had two hours spare I decided to give them a try. Do the Minster, the Castle and the museums first, obviously.

The Rowntree story starts above a grocer's shop, which is familiar territory, but in 1830s York rather than 1920s Grantham. Joseph Rowntree was born in lodgings above the family business in a street with the unlikely name of Pavement. It's only short but you've probably been because this is the street that iconic shopping alley the Shambles opens out into. The north side is now mostly Marks and Spencer, specifically the Food Hall, but the south side has retained a number of listed buildings including the one we seek. It'd be great if it was the saggy half-timbered beauty at number 12, now occupied by York Gin, but that's the 17th century Sir Thomas Herbert's House. Instead it's the less ostentatious building nextdoor where today we find Pizza Hut, so it still sells food except these days the cocoa options are Triple Chocolate Cookie Dough or a Hot Chocolate Brownie.

In the mid 19th century chocolate was more about drinking than biting off a chunk with a satisfying snap, so early products sold in the Rowntree's grocery shop included Iceland Moss Cocoa and Improved Homeopathic Cocoa. To get some idea of how the area once looked try slipping down the side passage into Lady Pecketts Yard. This narrow alleyway twists and descends toward the river, very much ticking the lamplit and characterful boxes even if it doesn't really go anywhere much. The flats above Pizza Hut are now known as Rowntree House, although its brass knocker has long been superseded by a push-button intercom. My guide booklet tells me that in the early days a dozen chocolate-making apprentices lodged upstairs, and these once included a certain George Cadbury from Birmingham.

It wasn't Joseph who built the first Rowntree's factory but his brother Henry who in 1864 bought up an old foundry ten minutes walk away at Tanners Moat. The business would have folded had Henry stayed in charge because he was more interested in publishing newspapers, but fortuitously after five years he took on Joseph as a partner and the company never looked back. Fruit Pastilles and Fruit Gums were first developed here in the 1880s and are still going strong. Again you've likely walked past the site because it's on the direct route between the station and the city centre - down on the right as you start to cross the River Ouse via Lendal Bridge. There's nothing to see today, the latest building on the site being a postmodern fortress for Aviva's many office minions. A supplementary factory just along the riverbank has become a much more pleasant garden... and includes a handle-free memorial to cholera-busting epidemiologist John Snow who was born across the street.

While we're in town, Walk One also suggests seeking out Rowntree Wharf. It doesn't take long to step behind York's tourist facade (round the back of a multi-storey car park is sufficient) to a secluded spot overlooking the river Foss. The substantial building rising above the cut started out as Leetham's Flour Mill, one of the largest in Europe, and resembles a thin fortification made of brick. In 1935 Rowntree's bought the empty mill to be their Navigation Warehouse, a place where bargefuls of cocoa beans and gum arabic could be unloaded after being shipped direct from Hull Docks. But road transport inexorably took precedence, taking over completely by the 1960s, and in 1989 the building's shell became an early conversion into flats and offices. Current residents can nip out over the private footbridge and be perusing the menu in Pizza Hut in five minutes flat.

But Joseph had moved his factory out of the city centre long before this. In the 1890s he bought up 60 acres on the Haxby Road, a mile north of the Minster, with the intention of creating a state-of-the-art industrial complex. It came with ornamental clocks at the entrances, a library and a gymnasium because Joseph's Quaker roots made him philanthropic towards his employees. Later additions included an open air swimming pool and a theatre... which is still there and putting on family-friendly dance shows and Disney-based offerings. The company even provided a halt on the adjacent railway line to enable long-distance commuting, but that's just a cycleway these days. And look, one of the original manufacturing blocks is still there.

Locals called it the skyscraper when it was built, being all of seven storeys high, but due to its nut-processing function it was officially the Almond Block. Behind it is the Cream Block, this time of 1936 vintage, and behind that the Cream Block Extension. This trio have been empty for many years but are now, as you may have guessed, in the early stages of redevelopment as luxury flats. The development's called The Cocoa Works (because The Chocolate Works was already taken) and two bedroom apartments on the top floor will be selling for ¬£400,000+. Meanwhile the real work of mass-producing confectionery continues behind, since 1988 overseen not by Rowntree's but by Nestl√©. Their cluster of labs, offices and factory buildings churns out whatever chocolates and fruit sweets the multinational owners still deign to manufacture in Britain, which probably includes Polos, maybe Aeros but no longer Smarties. We do know that 4½ million KitKats are made here every day, rising to five million once they've automated another stage of the process and laid off 98 workers.

I didn't quite get that far north on my brief visit because I had a train to catch, and the current factory's not much of a looker anyway. I also didn't have time to explore Joseph's retirement home in Clifton [Walk 2], York's first Rowntree-funded public park [Walk 3] or the Garden Village of New Earswick [Walk 5]. But as I started my hike back into town either the wind turned or the factory shift changed and the sweet smell of chocolate entered my nostrils, and it was heaven to be here, and all thanks to the foresight of Joseph Rowntree.

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