The town had a regular cattle market for hundreds of years, reflecting its role as a centre of local farming. Following the Industrial Revolution it was a major producer of textiles, with silk working in particular coming to dominate the industrial landscape. However, this industry has now ceased.
The mills from the town's textile era remain and many have now been converted into housing.
Britannia, the former Building Society, has its headquarters in the town and was a large local employer.
Most of the town is at or above 600 feet (180 m) and is surrounded by the higher countryside of the Staffordshire Moorlands which is situated on the southern uplands of the Pennines.
Leek is built on the slope and crown of a hill which is situated just a few miles south of the Roaches; a gritstone escarpment which rises steeply to 1,657 feet (505 m).
Leek is situated at the foot of the Peak District National Park and is therefore often referred to as the Gateway to the Peak District, although the town is more often referred to as the Queen of the Moorlands.
Many Victorian period, and older, buildings still stand in the town, many built by the family architectural practice of the Sugdens. In 1849 William Sugden (b. 1821 in Keighley) came to Leek. He was an architect and his work on the design of the railway stations for the Churnet Valley Railway brought him to the area. In the following year William’s son, Larner Sugden, was born. After schooling in Yorkshire, Larner returned to Leek in 1866 to be apprenticed to his father as an architect, and thus was formed the famous Sugden & Son (Architects), whose influence on the town was to be profound. The firm had offices in Derby Street. The building still survives, the ground floor now being occupied by Boots the Chemist. Larner was a great supporter of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and so Leek’s development was in sympathetic hands.
The architectural output from Sugden & Son was both prolific and varied. Some of the buildings designed by the Sugdens are as follows: the Congregational Church with its 130’ spire, (now Trinity Church), built in the Victorian Gothic Revival style (1863), Myatt’s Mill in Earl Street (1864), Mill Street Methodist Chapel and Ragged School (1870), the Cottage Hospital, in memory of silk manufacturer James Allsop (1871), their own houses in Queen Street, complete with monograms for William, Larner and for Larner’s French wife (1877), West Street School (extended in 1881), the District Bank, which exhibits a strong Richard Norman Shaw influence (1882) and the Leonard Street Police Station in Scottish Baronial style (1891). This last was probably the last joint venture of the father-and-son team because William Sugden died in 1892.
The Sugden masterpiece was, perhaps, the Nicholson Institute, built in the Queen Anne style, in 1882. The fact that this building is tucked away behind the 17th century ‘Greystones’ is a further indication of Larner’s regard for old buildings. Larner would not countenance demolition of the old building, and so, as the Nicholsons owned the land to the rear, that is where the Institute was built. Larner cleverly incorporated the busts of Shakespeare, Newton, Reynolds and Tennyson into the building representing 400 years of artistic and scientific achievement from the 16th to the 19th century and embracing literature, science, art and poetry.
In 1899 came the Technical Schools and the Co-operative Society Hall. Although the original town centre cattle market was demolished and replaced with a bus station and shopping centre in the 1960s, the new cattle market was built on the edge of town adjacent to the railway station. Later, this was one of the stations closed following Dr. Beeching's recommendations, and a supermarket (Morrisons) now stands on the site.
The Nicholson War Memorial was dedicated in 1925.
Leek offers some contemporary architecture, most notably the alterations and refurbishment to Trinity Church on Derby Street (2011) and new teaching building on Horton Street for Leek College (2013).
Leek was the home of James Brindley, the 18th century canal engineer. He built a water-powered corn mill in 1752. This watermill is now preserved as Brindley Water Mill and Museum.
William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, lived and worked in Leek between 1875 and 1878. He studied dyeing with Thomas Wardle, owner of a dyeworks in the town, and it was Leek which provided his firm with silk. It was through the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which he founded in 1877, that he came into contact with Larner Sugden, the local architect, who went on to publish some of Morris' speeches and essays in a series called the Bijour of Leek.
Averil Cameron Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine History in the University of Oxford and former Warden of Keble College grew up in Leek.
Dave Hill, vocalist for English new wave of British heavy metal band Demon, lives and works in Leek.
James Ford, English musical composer, record producer and musician in the band Simian Mobile Disco was born in Stoke-on-Trent and grew up in Leek "playing bass and singing in bands by the age of ten."
Amongst sports people associated with the town, the best known person is former five-time world professional darts champion Eric Bristow who lives in the town. Anna Watkins, born in Leek, won a gold medal for rowing in the 2012 Olympics. Footballer Arthur Hulme (1877–1916) was born in Leek.
Nearby Rudyard Lake is a popular tourist attraction and home to the Rudyard Lake Steam Railway, running along its eastern shores. Other nearby local attractions are the local football club Leek Town F.C., Alton Towers, the cultural and leisure facilities of the city of Stoke-on-Trent, and the Peak District National Park. The Churnet Valley Railway at Cheddleton also attracts several thousand passengers a year, and they are currently working in partnership with Moorlands & City Railways to extend the CVR the 1 mile from its current northern terminus at Leekbrook back into Leek itself along the former North Staffordshire Line. Longer term plans include the development of a North Staffordshire museum alongside the new railway station, and a new canal marina.
Leek's "Double Sunset" on and around the summer solstice also attracts many tourists. This event, first recorded by Robert Plot, occurs when the sun sets behind the Cloud, subsequently partially reappearing in the hollow of the hill's steep northern side, before setting again. Plot's detailed account can be found in his book The Natural History of Staffordshire. Traditionally, the best location for seeing the double sunset was in the grounds of the parish church, but it is no longer visible from there. Currently, the best locations to witness the spectacle are from Lowe Hill, on the outskirts of the town, and from the private road to Pickwood Hall, off Milltown Way. The phenomenon and its possible observation points are described in detail in Jeff Kent's book, The Mysterious Double Sunset.
In May of every year, Leek Arts Festival takes place, celebrating the cultural heritage of the town. According to the festival's website, it began as a weekly event but soon expanded to last a whole month.
The surrounding countryside of the Staffordshire Moorlands and the Peak District makes the area a popular tourist destination. Just outside the town is Blackbrook Zoological Park, which is renowned for its large collection of birds. Also nearby is Coombes Valley RSPB reserve, an RSPB reserve since 1963, with walks and trails through a wooded valley.
Leek came second in the Telegraph's "High Street of the Year 2013" losing out to Deal in Kent
The town of Leek is served by First with a regular number 18 bus service (or 16 on an alternative route via Cellarhead). There are also bus services to the nearby towns of Buxton and Macclesfield.
Leek was served by Leek railway station, which was opened by the North Staffordshire Railway on 13 July 1849 but was finally closed in 1965. (The Stoke-Leek line lost its passenger service in 1956, whilst the Northern section of the Churnet Valley Line to Macclesfield was closed in 1960 before the Southern section to Uttoxeter closed in 1965). Leek railway station was completely demolished in 1973.
Plans are afoot to build a new station roughly half a mile south of the original, as part of bigger plans to develop the Barnfield area of Leek as a tourist attraction. The re-introduction of a railway service is being directed under the "Reconnect Leek" banner, and forms part of proposals to reopen the Stoke - Leek line which survived as a goods only line to serve the former sand quarry at Oakamoor.
Leek has two football clubs. Leek Town F.C., founded in 1946, are based at Harrison Park and currently play in the Northern Premier League Division One South. They were founder members of the North West Counties Football League in 1982 and in 1997 they were Northern Premier League champions and gained promotion to the Football Conference. Leek CSOB, founded in 1945, groundshare with Leek Town at Harrison Park and play in the North West Counties Football League Division One. They were founder members of the Staffordshire County League in 1984, and were league champions in 1996. In 2016, Staffordshire Moorlands FC were set up in the town and began their first season in the league pyramid.
Leek Hockey Club is based on Macclesfield Road at the edge of the town where they have a club house and four grass pitches, although all League matches are played on their own astroturf pitch at Leek High School as well as using synthetic pitches at Holden Lane School. Leek Archery Club use the Macclesfield Road site for outdoor shooting, but have shot indoor at Biddulph High School since 2011.
Leek & District Gun Club host monthly Clay Pigeon shoots at Westwood Farm, west of Leek.
Leek Rugby Union FC bears the name of the town but is based in nearby Cheddleton. Este, Italy.
All Saints' Church of England First School
Leek High School
Leek School of Art, part of Buxton & Leek College