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West Riding
Wakefield city centre from Sandal Castle
Grid reference: SE335205
Location: 53°40’48"N, 1°29’31"W
Population: 76,886
Post town: Wakefield
Postcode: WF1-4
Dialling code: 01924
Local Government
Council: Wakefield

Wakefield is a large city in the West Riding of Yorkshire. It stands on the banks of the River Calder on the eastern edge of the Pennines, and its urban area had a population of 76,886 at 2001 census. It became a cathedral city in 1888, at the creation of the Diocese of Wakefield and the town's elevation to city status in that year.

Wakefield was dubbed the "Merrie City" in the Middle Ages[1] and in 1538 John Leland described it as:

a very quick market town and meately large; well served of fish and flesh both from sea and by rivers ... so that all vitaile is very good and chepe there. A right honest man shall fare well for 2d. a meal. ... There be plenti of se coal in the quarters about Wakefield"[2]

The site of a battle during the Wars of the Roses and a Royalist stronghold during the Civil War, Wakefield developed in spite of setbacks to become an important market town and centre for wool, exploiting its position on the navigable River Calder to become an inland port. During the 18th century Wakefield continued to develop through trade in corn, coal mining and textiles.

Name of the city

The name "Wakefield" is Old English. It may derive from the Old English word wacu, meaning "a watch or wake", and feld, an open field, or from "Waca's field".[3][4] In the Domesday Book of 1086, it was written Wachefeld and also as Wachefelt.


Wakefield is 9 miles southeast of Leeds and 28 miles southwest of the county town, York. It stands on the eastern edge of the Pennines in the lower Calder Valley.

The city centre is sited on a low hill on the north bank of the River Calder close to a crossing place where it is spanned by a 14th-century, nine-arched, stone bridge and a reinforced concrete bridge built in 1929–1930.[5][6] It is at the junction of major north-south routes to Sheffield, Leeds and Doncaster and west-east routes to Huddersfield, Dewsbury and Pontefract.

Wakefield is within the area of the Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire & Yorkshire coalfield and lies on the middle coal measures and sandstones laid down in the Carboniferous period.[7]


Early history

Wakefield Cathedral

A Roman road from Pontefract passing Streethouse, Heath Common, Ossett Street Side and on to Manchester crossed the River Calder by a ford at Wakefield near the site of Wakefield Bridge.[8] Wakefield was probably settled by the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th or 6th century, who gave a name to the town. The town grew up near a crossing place on the River Calder around three roads, Westgate, Northgate and Kirkgate.[9] the "gate" suffix derives from Old Norse gata meaning road;[10] a frequent street name in towns where the Norse dwelt.

Before 1066 the manor of Wakefield belonged to the King and so it passed into the hands of William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings.[11] After the Conquest, Wakefield was a victim of the Harrying of the North in 1069 when William took revenge on the local population for resistance to Norman rule. The manor was recorded as Wachfeld in the Domesday Book of 1086, and much was described as "waste".[12] The manor was granted by the Crown to William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey whose descendants, the Earls Warenne, inherited it after his death in 1088.

The construction of Sandal Castle began early in the 12th century.[13] A second castle was built at Lawe Hill on the north side of the Calder but was abandoned.[14] Wakefield and its environs formed the head of an extensive baronial holding by the Warennes that extended to Cheshire and Lancashire. The Warennes, and their feudal sublords, held the area until the 14th century.

Duke of York Memorial, killed 1460

The Domesday Book recorded two churches, one in Wakefield and one in Sandal Magna.[15] The Saxon church in Wakefield was rebuilt in about 1100 in stone in the Norman style and was continually enlarged until 1315 when the central tower collapsed. By 1420 the church was again rebuilt and was extended between 1458 and 1475. In 1203 William de Warenne, 5th Earl of Surrey received a grant for a market in the town.[16] In 1204, King John granted the rights for a fair at the feast of All Saints, 1 November, and in 1258 Henry III granted the right for fair on the feast of St John the Baptist, 24 June. The market close to the Bull Ring and the church.[16] The townsfolk of Wakefield amused themselves in games and sports earning the title "Merrie Wakefield", the chief sport in the 14th century was archery and the butts in Wakefield were at the Ings, near the river.[17]

In 1460, during the Wars of the Roses, the Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York was killed on 30 December 1460 in the Battle of Wakefield near Sandal Castle.

Early modern period

In preparation for the threatened Spanish invasion, in April 1558, 400 men from the wapentake of Morley and Agbrigg were summoned to Bruntcliffe near Morley with their weapons. Men from Kirkgate, Westgate, Northgate and Sandal were amongst them and all returned by August,[18] the Spanish Armada shattered by cannon and storm on the high seas.

At the time of the Civil War, Wakefield was a Royalist stronghold. An attack led by Sir Thomas Fairfax on 20 May 1643 captured the town for the Parliamentarians. Over 1,500 soldiers were taken prisoner along with the Royalist commander, Lieutenant-General Goring.[19]

Wakefield had become an inland port on the Calder and centre for the woollen and tanning trades even in the Middle Ages. In 1699 an Act of Parliament was passed creating the Aire and Calder Navigation which provided the town with access to the North Sea.[20]

The first Registry of Deeds in the country opened in 1704 and in 1765 Wakefield's cattle market was established and became the one of largest in the north of England. The town was a centre for cloth dealing with its own piece hall, the Tammy Hall, built in 1766.[2] In the late 1700s Georgian town houses and St John's Church were built to the north of the town centre.[20][21]

Industrial Revolution

Wakefield Westgate c. 1900

At the start of 19th century Wakefield was a wealthy market town and inland port trading in wool and corn.[22] The Aire and Calder and Calder and Hebble Navigations and the Barnsley Canal were instrumental in the development of Wakefield as an important market for corn from Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire supplying the fast growing population in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The Corn Exchange opened in Westgate in 1838.[23] The market developed in the streets around the Bull Ring and the cattle market between George Street and Ings Road grew to be one of the biggest in the country.[24] Road transport using turnpiked roads was important. Regular mail coaches departed to Leeds, London, Manchester, York and Sheffield and the 'Strafford Arms' was an important coaching inn.[25] The railways arrived in Wakefield in 1840 when Kirkgate Station was built on the Manchester to Leeds line.

When cloth dealing declined, wool spinning mills using steam power were built by the river. There was a glass works in Calder Vale Road, several breweries including Melbourne's and Beverley's Eagle Brewery, engineering works with strong links to the mining industry, soapworks and brickyards in Eastmoor giving the town a diverse economy.[26][27]

On the outskirts of the town, coal had been dug since the 15th century and 300 men were employed in the town's coal pits in 1831.[2] During the 19th century more mines were sunk so that there were 46 small mines in Wakefield and the surrounding area by 1869.[27][28] The National Coal Board eventually became Wakefield's largest employer with Manor Colliery on Cross Lane and Park Hill colliery at Eastmoor surviving until 1982.[29]

During the 19th century Wakefield became the administrative centre for the West Riding and much of what is familiar today in Wakefield was built at that time.[30] The court house was built in 1810, the first civic building in Wood Street.[31] The West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum was built at Stanley Royd, just outside the town on Aberford Road in 1816. During the nineteenth century, the Wakefield Asylum played a central role in the development of British psychiatry, with Henry Maudsley and James Crichton-Browne amongst its medical staff. Most of it is now demolished. The old House of Correction of 1595 was rebuilt as Wakefield Prison in 1847.[32] Wakefield Union workhouse[33]</ref> was built on Park Lodge Lane, Eastmoor in 1853 and Clayton Hospital was built in 1854 after a donation from Alderman Thomas Clayton.[30] Up to 1837 Wakefield relied on wells and springs for its water supply, supply from the River Calder was polluted, and various schemes were unsuccessful until reservoirs on the Rishworth Moors and a service reservoir at Ardsley were built providing clean water from 1888.[34] On 2 June 1906, Andrew Carnegie opened the library on Drury Lane which had been built with a grant of £8,000 from the Carnegie Trust.[35]

There are seven ex-council estates in Wakefield which the council started to build after First World War, the oldest, Portobello, the largest, Lupset, Flanshaw, Plumpton, Peacock, Eastmoor and Kettlethorpe. The estates were transferred to a registered social landlord, Wakefield and District Housing (WDH) in 2005.[36] The outlying villages of Sandal Magna, Belle Vue and Agbrigg have become suburbs of Wakefield.

The glass and textile industries closed in the 1970s and 1980s. During the contraction of the coal industry, six pits within a two-mile radius of the city centre were closed between 1979 and 1983. At the time of the 1984 miners' strike there were 15 pits in the district and demonstrations of support took place in the city.

Civic government

Wakefield County Hall

Wakefield is in the wapentake of Agbrigg and Morley in the West Riding of Yorkshire. It became a parliamentary borough with one Member of Parliament after the Reform Act 1832. In 1836 the Wakefield Poor Law Union was formed following the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 with an elected Board of Guardians.[37] The town was incorporated as a municipal borough]] with elected councillors in 1848 under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835.[38] Wakefield was the seat of the justices of the West Riding and the council of the same name for two centuries, for which reason the town’s grandest building ids the West Riding County Hall, still used by the City Council today, built by the Arbroath architect James Gibson, who later borrowed his own plans to build the Middlesex Guildhall.


The economy of Wakefield declined in the last quarter of the 20th century as the coal mines and traditional manufacturing industries closed contributing to high rates of unemployment. In terms of deprivation, Wakefield, as a whole, is ranked 54th out of 354 Local Authority Districts (1 being the worst). Employment grew by 12% between 1998 and 2003 as the economy recovered and enjoyed growth as the economic base of the district was diversified. Growth has been supported by money coming from European and United Kingdom government funding which has impacted on the regeneration of the area. Manufacturing remains an important employment sector although the decline is projected to continue whilst distribution and the service industries are now among the main employers.[39]


The Hepworth Wakefield and the River Calder

Regeneration projects in Wakefield included the Trinity Walk retail development to the north east of the city centre, including department stores, a supermarket and shop units.[40] Work began in autumn 2007 but was halted in 2009, restarted in 2010 and opened in 2011.[41] The central square at the Bull Ring has been redesigned with a water feature and the Ridings Shopping Mall refurbished.[42] Wakefield Westgate Station goods yard and land on Westgate and Balne Lane have been developed to create retail, residential and commercial space including new offices, a multi-storey carpark serving the station and an hotel.[43] Developments by the river and canal, the "Wakefield Waterfront", include the refurbishment of the Grade II listed Navigation Warehouse and office, retail, restaurant and cafe units. The development includes The Hepworth Wakefield named in honour of local sculptor, Barbara Hepworth which opened in May 2011. The gallery has ten internal spaces, exhibiting many examples of Hepworth's work. It is hoped the gallery will add about £3m to the local economy and attract 150,000 visitors in its first year.[44] Flats and offices were built at Chantry Waters, on an island between the river and canal.


Wakefield Cathedral

Wakefield's oldest church is All Saints, now Wakefield Cathedral, a 14th-century parish church built on the site of earlier Saxon and Norman churches, restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the 19th century and raised to cathedral status in 1888. The first bishop of Wakefield was William Walsham How.

In 1356 the Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin on Wakefield bridge was built originally in wood, and later in stone. This chapel is one of four chantry chapels built around Wakefield and the oldest and most ornate of the four surviving in England.[16][45] The chantries were suppressed at the Reformation but the chapel remains of interest.

Wakefield is also known for the Wakefield Cycle, a collection of 32 mystery plays, dating from the 14th century, which were performed as part of the summertime religious festival of Corpus Christi and revived in recent times.[46]

St John's Church was built in 1795 in the Georgian style. Three new Anglican Commissioners' churches, partly financed by the "Million Fund" were built as chapels of ease in the surrounding districts and were St Peter at Stanley in 1824, St Paul at Alverthorpe in 1825 and St James at Thornes in 1831.[47][48] Holy Trinity in George Street was built in 1838-9.[49] St Andrew's Church opened on Peterson Road in 1846 and St Mary's Church on Charles Street was consecrated in 1864. St Michael's was consecrated in 1861.[50] In the nineteenth century Wesleyan, Primitive and Independent Methodist chapels were opened and the Baptists opened a chapel in George Street in 1844.[51][52]

Sights of the city

Chantry Bridge

The most prominent landmark in Wakefield is Wakefield Cathedral, which at 247 feet has the tallest spire in Yorkshire.[53][54]

Other grand buildings include the Civic Quarter on Wood Street which includes the Neoclassical Wakefield Crown Court of 1810, the Town Hall built in 1880 and the Gibson's majestic "Queen Anne-Gothic" County Hall of 1898. St John's Church and Square, St John's North and South Parade are part of residential development dating from the Georgian period.

The old Wakefield Bridge with its Chantry Chapel, Sandal Castle and Lawe Hill in Clarence Park are ancient Monuments.[55]

Another prominent structure is the 95-arch railway viaduct, constructed of 800,000,000 bricks in the 1860s on the Doncaster to Leeds railway line. At its northern end is a bridge with an 80-foot span over Westgate and at its southern end a 163-foot iron bridge crossing the River Calder.[56]


The ruins of Sandal Castle

The ruins of Sandal Castle, with its visitor centre, are open to the public. The Theatre Royal Wakefield on Westgate, designed by architect Frank Matcham opened in 1894 and currently presents a programme of entertainment including musicals, drama, live music, stand up comedy and dance.[57]

Wakefield Museum is in the city centre. In May 2011 The Hepworth Wakefield art gallery opened on the south bank of the River Calder near Wakefield Bridge and the chantry chapel, with works by local artists Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore and other British and international artists. The gallery designed by architect David Chipperfield is thought to be the largest purpose-built gallery to open in the United Kingdom since 1968.[44]

Wakefield Library in Balne Lane manages a regional collection of over 500,000 items of music and 90,000 copies of plays for Yorkshire Libraries & Information (YLI).[58] In October 2011 the collection was threatened with closure, to take effect in April 2012.[59] West Riding Registry of Deeds on Newstead Road is the headquarters of the West Yorkshire Archive Service housing records from the former West Riding and West Yorkshire councils as well as being the record office for the Wakefield Metropolitan District.[60]

Wakefield's three contiguous parks have a history dating back to 1893 when Clarence Park opened on land near Lawe Hill, the adjacent Holmefield Estate was acquired in 1919 followed by Thornes House in 1924 making a large park to the south west of the city.[61] A Music Festival for local bands is held annually in Clarence Park.

Wakefield is known as the capital of the Rhubarb Triangle, an area notable for growing early forced rhubarb. In July 2005 a statue was erected to celebrate this facet of Wakefield which also hosts an annual Rhubarb Festival.[62][63][64]

The National Coal Mining Museum for England (an Anchor Point of ERIH, The European Route of Industrial Heritage), the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Nostell Priory[65] are within the metropolitan area as is Walton Hall, a Georgian mansion set in what was the world's first nature reserve, created by the explorer Charles Waterton, now a hotel.


Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Wakefield)


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  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Old Wakefield, oldtowns.co.uk, http://www.oldtowns.co.uk/Yorkshire/wakefield.htm, retrieved 2009-11-21 
  3. Reaney 1964, p. 161
  4. Mills 1998, p. 361
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  6. Wakefield New Bridge, engineering-timelines.com, http://www.engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=495, retrieved 2009-11-18 
  7. (PDF) Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire & Yorkshire Coalfield Character Area 38, Natural England, http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/Images/jca38_tcm6-5073.pdf, retrieved 7 November 2011 
  8. Walker 1966, p. 24
  9. EarlyHistory, wakefield.gov.uk, http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/CultureAndLeisure/HistoricWakefield/History/default.htm, retrieved 2009-11-16 
  10. Mills 1998, p. 403
  11. Walker 1966, p. 43
  12. Manor, midgleywebpages.com, http://midgleywebpages.com/index-3.html, retrieved 2009-11-16 
  13. Butler 1991, p. 1
  14. Creighton 2004, p. 32
  15. Lupton 1864, p. 10
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 1066–1600, wakefield.gov.uk, http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/CultureAndLeisure/HistoricWakefield/History/1066-1600.htm, retrieved 2009-11-17 
  17. Walker 1966, p. 114
  18. Walker 1966, p. 414
  19. Civil War Yorkshire, british-civil-wars.co.uk, http://www.british-civil-wars.co.uk/military/1643-yorkshire.htm, retrieved 2009-11-17 
  20. 20.0 20.1 1600-1800, wakefield.gov.uk, http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/CultureAndLeisure/HistoricWakefield/History/1600-1800.htm, retrieved 2009-11-18 
  21. St Johns Church, St John's Church, http://www.wakefield-stjohns.org.uk/stjohns/St_Johns_Church_History.html, retrieved 2009-11-20 
  22. Taylor 2008, p. 7
  23. Saunders 1848, p. 102
  24. Taylor 2008, p. 89
  25. Taylor 2008, p. 73
  26. Taylor 2008, p. 92
  27. 27.0 27.1 1800-1900, wakefield.gov.uk, http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/CultureAndLeisure/HistoricWakefield/History/1800-1900.htm, retrieved 2009-11-20 
  28. Galloway 1971, p. 76
  29. Taylor 2008, pp. 80,81
  30. 30.0 30.1 Taylor 2008, p. 43
  31. Taylor 2008, p. 10
  32. Prison, http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/CultureAndLeisure/HistoricWakefield/Buildings/WakefieldPrison/History/default.htm, retrieved 2009-11-25 
  33. The Workhouse in Wakefield, Yorkshire, W. Riding, http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Wakefield/, retrieved 7 November 2011 
  34. Taylor 2008, p. 60
  35. Carnegie Library, http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/CultureAndLeisure/Libraries/Services/LocalStudies/CarnegieLibraries/DruryLaneLibrary/1904_1949.htm, retrieved 2009-11-23 
  36. WDH, wdh.co.uk, http://www.wdh.co.uk/QUICKLINKS/AboutUs/Pages/Default.aspx, retrieved 2009-11-21 
  37. Taylor 2008, p. 23
  38. Taylor 2008, p. 25
  39. Hunter, Phillip (2005) (PDF), Wakefield in Depth 2005, Learning and Skills Council West Yorkshire, p. 12, http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/AF5093EE-1B21-44F4-AE8E-889C2BBC5236/0/WakefieldInDepth2005.pdf, retrieved 2009-11-17 
  40. "Work begins on major city centre development", Wakefield Express City (Johnston Press), 2007-09-07, http://www.wakefieldexpress.co.uk/news/Work-begins-on-major-city.3182918.jp, retrieved 2009-11-17 
  41. Marsh Way Area (Trinity Walk), wakefield.gov.uk, http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/Planning/Regeneration/Wakefield/TrinityWalk.htm, retrieved 2009-11-17 
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  44. Edward Green, Bridge Chapels, buildingconservation.com, http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/bridgechapels/bridgechapels.htm, retrieved 2009-11-18 
  45. MysteryPlays, wakefield.gov.uk, http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/CultureAndLeisure/HistoricWakefield/MysteryPlays/default.htm, retrieved 2009-11-21 
  46. Taylor 2008, p. 103
  47. MillionAct, genuki.org.uk, http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/YKS/Misc/CBW/YPRsMillionAct.html, retrieved 2009-11-25 
  48. Taylor 2008, p. 106
  49. Taylor 2008, p. 109
  50. Taylor 2008, pp. 99–103
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  54. WakefieldMDC 2008, p. 7
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  58. Press Release on YLI collection 20 October 2011
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  62. Rhubarb, Wakefield Council, http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/cgi-bin/MsmGo.exe?grab_id=0&page_id=12377&query=rhubarb&SCOPE=www.wakefield.gov.uk&hiword=RHUBARBS%20rhubarb%20, retrieved 2011-11-07 
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  64. Nostell Priory, nationaltrust.org, http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-nostellpriory, retrieved 2009-11-18 


  • Bell, Richard (2009). Walks in the Rhubarb Triangle. Willow Island Editions. ISBN 978 1 902467 18 4. 
  • Butler, Lawrence (1991). Sandal Castle Wakefield. Wakefield Historical Publications. ISBN 0 901869 31 7. 
  • Creighton, O. H. (2004). Castles and landscapes. Equinox Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1904768679. 
  • Galloway, Robert L. (1971). Annals of Coal Mining and the Coal Trade Vol. 1,1898. David & Charles. ISBN 0 7153 4980 5. 
  • Holt, J.C. (1997). Colonial England, 1066-1215. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 1852851406. 
  • Mills, A. D. (1998). Dictionary of English Place-Names. Oxford. ISBN 0-19-280074-4. 
  • Reaney, P.H. (1964). The origin of English place-names (corrected 3rd pr.). Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN 0-19-280074-4. 
  • Taylor, Kate (2008). The Making of Wakefield 1801-1900. Wharncliffe. ISBN 978 1 845630 78 2. 
  • Walker, J.W. (1966). Wakefield its History and People Vol.1&2 3rd Edn. S.R. Publishers. 
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