About 275 km northeast of London, Leeds has transformed from a textile and wool manufacturing centre to a major educational hub for the British and others. The principal city in Yorkshire has managed to preserve its heritage and culture even through this radical evolution.
As the Virgin Rail’s express train from London Kings Cross pulls into the Leeds railway station, your cultural tour of the city begins almost instantaneously. The station itself is a unique mix of architectures of the 19th, 20th and 21st century. The first railway station in Leeds opened in 1846, on top of the arches over the River Aire. To meet the rapidly growing traffic needs, the station was expanded barely 20 years later when the New Station was added to the Wellington station, built at a higher level and covering more arches over the river in order to allow a bigger train handling capacity. The bottom of the station was almost immediately put to use by local businessmen to run small shops and also as a storage area.
In 1939, again to meet the demand, a concourse was added in the art deco style and with square skylights and stylish lighting pendants and finally in 2002, the station completed its latest refurbishment with the old structures restored to their former glory, which can be seen even today.
Just step outside the station and you realise that Leeds is a bustling and busy city, full of trendy boutique shops and bars. Perhaps the best way to discover the city and its charms, as in many other compact cities in the world, is on foot. Though the city centre presents a unique mix of medieval, Victorian as well as art-deco heritage, the history of Leeds predates the medieval times when it was a small village referred to as Loidis.
Right from the 13th century, Leeds began emerging as a spinning and weaving centre for the English textile industry. It had already become renowned for its wool making centres and soon diversified into cloth making as well. By 1560, the city had built up a firm reputation as the leading textile centre in the country. Soon, it also developed its own annual fairs for buying and selling various goods, including the textiles and woolen products, especially as these industries experienced rapid growth in the period.
In the English civil war of 1642, Leeds sided with the Royals, but the town changed hands frequently between the Royals and the Parliamentarians for the nine years of the war. Even though the town suffered from a severe outbreak of Black Death or plague in 1645, but the city recovered soon and had returned to being an affluent town. Travel writers of the era have described Leeds as a large and wealthy town, saying that Leeds had many broad, well-paved and clean streets and the houses were built of stone and were often of substantial size.
In 1714, the Queens Court, a landmark of Leeds, then as much as now, was built for a very wealthy textile merchant. Its arch and double frontage provide an excellent example of a large house for the wealthy of that time. Now, Queens Court has become famous for its shops and bars.
In the late 18th century, Leeds began diversifying from wool and textile to pottery and brick making, along with several other traditional crafts like clock makers and jewellers. Towards the end of the century, work began on the canal linking Leeds to Liverpool and when it was completed in 1816, it brought increased prosperity to Leeds due to improved trade links.
An Architectural Marvel
The Town Hall of Leeds, another major landmark building, was built in 1858 and occupied the pride of place in the chic Park Lane quarter of the city. Though it underwent several design changes at the time of construction and had become rather controversial, finally the rich and famous of Leeds decided not to spare any expense to make it the centre of attraction not just of Leeds but also of the entire region. It was meant to be a statement of civic pride, a reminder of the importance of Leeds as a centre of trade and commerce, and an indication of the wealth of at least some of its citizens. An excellent example of Victorian architecture, the Leeds Town Hall’s final cost far exceeded the original estimate and Queen Victoria herself agreed to perform the opening ceremony, marking perhaps the most important celebration in the history of the city.
Soon afterwards, in 1863, another milestone in Leeds architecture, the Corn Exchange, was built for buying and selling grain. The Corn Exchange is remarkable for its circular form with a glazed, domed roof and expansive trading floor, which occupied most of the ground floor. With its lovely mix of restaurants, specialist retail outlets and also designer labels, the Corn Exchange remains at the hub of the business district of Leeds even today. Last year, the building celebrated its 150th anniversary and it is also used as place for organising key business, social and cultural events.
Soon after the Corn Exchange, Leeds saw a rapid development of its shopping district as in 1884, British retailer Marks & Spencer opened their first penny arcade in Leeds, which was soon followed by several new shopping arcades, including the Thorntons Arcade which was built in 1878. It was followed by Queens Arcade in 1889 and Grand Arcade and Victoria Arcade in 1898.
In 1904, one of the principal centres of activity today and a major centre of attraction, the Leeds University was founded. Incidentally, the same year saw the construction of St Annes RC Cathedral and the Leeds City Market was also built in 1904. These landmarks continue to exist and flourish even today. In fact, today Leeds is definitely a major centre of education in the United Kingdom and attracts thousands of students from all over the world, including many Indians, to its prestigious centres of learning.
The university has come a long way in the last 110 years and has developed into a major centre of learning in Europe, with several branches and streams of studies spread all around the campus, which once again is a mix of the Victorian and modern constructions. A brisk walk to the university from the railway station takes barely 15 minutes and passes through or close to several landmarks of Leeds of yesterday and today.
Even though the earliest church in Leeds may have existed before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons and during the Normans’ period, the oldest church that stands here today is the St Johns in Briggate, which was built in 1634.
Leeds For the Foodies
Leeds offers numerous opportunities for walks, which allow tourists to discover the city and its culture, besides its culinary expertise at leisure. As the city progressed, a number of restaurants, bistros and the iconic English pubs opened up for business, sprinkled all over the city and now Leeds is definitely the best place in the United Kingdom, north of London, for a foodie.
In the compact city, be sure that you are never too far from a fantastic restaurant, cafe or pub, ideal for a break from shopping and sightseeing. The landmark Tiled Hall Café is as much a feast for your eyes as it is for your stomach, with beautiful mosaic tiles to marvel at whilst enjoying your Yorkshire cream tea. The oldest pub in Leeds, dating back to 1715, Whitelocks is full of character and a great place to stop for a refreshing ale and a hearty meal. If you know and love your coffee, order an espresso from the real Milan Cafe experience La Bottega Milanese in the Light – you won’t be disappointed.
From 7 May until 7 June 2015 Leeds went culinary crazy, celebrating the food and drink scene in the city. The month was split into two fabulous foodie festivals; Leeds Indie Food Festival and Leeds Food and Drink Festival. The Leeds Indie Food Festival (7th – 24th May) showcased the exciting independent food and drink scene within the city and featured events by venues such as Bundobust, Belgrave Music Hall and North Bar. This was followed by a two-week long Leeds Food and Drink Festival.
While like any other British city, Leeds has its share of good quality Indian eateries, there are also numerous European and of course restaurants offering English and Yorkshire fare for the curious. Friends of Ham in the city centre brings quality meats and cheese platters, while Fazenda has a rich offer of skewered beef, ribs and chicken served in traditional Brazilian style. There are also some very authentic Italian restauarants, notably Zucco. Completing the offer are Middle Eastern, Japanese and Chinese restaurants, sprinkled across the city.
For those looking for a quick drink, Leeds also has a wide variety of pubs and bars, notably Angelica, Smokestack, the Maven and Epernay. The sheer variety and quality of nightlife on offer in Leeds is testament to the fact that this is a city that likes to party. With everything from old fashioned drinking dens to laid back bars and late-night clubs, you won’t have to walk far to find something that suits your taste.
To experience the nightlife at its best, head to the bars on Call Lane, with their great party atmosphere. Here, Oporto, recently named Best Night Out in the UK, is especially popular with local musicians, students and visitors alike. The DJs at Norman and Jake’s Bar ensure they are always busy, both serving great food too. For a laid back evening North Bar is your place. It’s Leeds’ coolest haunt for lovers of great beer, music and art.
If you are looking for something more sophisticated, make your way to Oracle, – a stylish bar with an outdoor Moet terrace overlooking the river.
Live music is the heart and soul of Leeds nightlife, and we’ve got plenty of large scale and intimate venues to catch the latest bands in. Some of the joints include The Wardrobe and the The Cockpit, which regularly attract a variety of big names.
Being a very compact city and even with its fairly large variety of options, shopping is not a tiring affair in Leeds. In the city centre, there’s just a short walk between designer stores, high street brands, market stalls and independent boutiques, many of which are housed within breath-taking Victorian and Edwardian buildings. The architectural splendour of these buildings enhance tremendously the shopping experience and one of the major such centre is the Victoria Quarter’s various arcades, which are home to 75 of the world’s leading lifestyle brands.
Amongst these, the Grand Arcade is one of the oldest and well worth a visit for its collection of independent retailers. The stunning and refurbished Leeds Corn Exchange is another very pleasant experience. Spread across a tapestry of arcades covering three of the busiest shopping streets in Leeds, and with over a million square feet, spread over three levels makes Trinity Leeds a retail beacon in the city.
How to reach
The six international airports in London are wellconnected to the cities around the world. Following options could be availed to reach Leeds from London:
Coaches: From London Victoria Coach Station to Maidenhead. From Maidenhead station local taxis are available. The journey lasts on average 4 hours.
Trains: Available from London Kings Cross. Travel time on average is 2 hours 30 minutes.
Car: Travel journey by car from London to Leeds Castle lasts approximately 2 hours 30 minutes.
Where to stay
There are no budget options in the city centre, and the midrange choices here are chain hotels. For economic options you’ll be forced to head for the suburbs, where there are plenty of decent B&Bs and small hotels.