26 July 2017


Following up some Leeds.....

Chris, the landlord of The Head of Steam in Leeds City Centre, is enthusiastic about Leeds.  Originally from Belfast, and lately from Newcastle, he says there is no comparison - Leeds is a great place, and he should know.

If you believe what you read in Wikipedia, too, Leeds has class, notwithstanding local boy Peter O’Toole’s famous quip, I’m not working class: I come from the criminal classes…. [though, for the record, he also said, I did quite enjoy the days when one went for a beer at one’s local in Paris and woke up in Corsica; which is to say one should always take famous quotes with a packet of salted crisps.]

According to Wikipedia Leeds has the most diverse economy of all the UK's main employment centres and has seen the fastest rate of private-sector jobs growth of any UK city and has the highest ratio of public to private sector jobs of all the UK's Core Cities. Leeds has the third-largest jobs total by local authority area with 480,000 in employment and self-employment at the beginning of 2015. Leeds is also ranked as a gamma world city by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network; and is considered the cultural, financial and commercial heart of the West Yorkshire Urban Area.


However, according to Mahmood, the charming taxi driver who delivers us to the station on the way home, there is a lot of unemployment in Leeds, and the economy is largely driven by the 200,000 or so students who throng the city centre on Thursday (?) Friday and Saturday nights, spending loads of money (where do they get it from?).  We pass a cluster of men and women near the Corn Exchange breakfasting on cans of strong lager, and people with grubby sleeping bags in doorways, holding out paper cups for change.

Mahmood has been a taxi driver for ten years.  Before that he worked in an ice cream factory (closed); a textile company (closed); and a metal works (closed).  Now in the summer recess, he says the place is very quiet and there is little work.

Mahmood points to colossal new buildings, saying that the City Council are just creating new apartments everywhere, but doing nothing about the traffic…..

We are passing through. Some fifty years ago I stayed in Armley with my brother, who lived there awhile.  We revisit the house, which, apart from a new front door and a loft conversion, is much the same.  

The Golden Lion, however, at the foot of the hill, has seen better days.

We visit the Leeds Industrial Museum, in the sprawling complex of Armley Mills.

There are eight people here, and three of them are staff.  One of the last operational spinning mules (Platt Brothers & Co. Ltd. of Oldham, 1904) 

is being demonstrated, with a commentary that includes notes on the origin of words and phrases we take for granted, such as knocking on and knocking off (terms for starting up and shutting down the machine) and doffing (as in doffing your cap – coming from the term for removing bobbins).  Among the exhibits within this heroic museum is a complete 1920’s cinema showing clips from Louis Le Prince’s moving pictures, some of the earliest ever shot, on the bridge in Leeds.  But no one is watching.

We walk back into the city centre along the Leeds-Liverpool canal, 

once a vital artery for the wool trade that made Leeds, and Yorkshire, prosperous.  The tow path is now much more active than the water, with cyclists and walkers vying for space, while weeds enjoy the undisturbed shallows of the canal.  

It’s a far cry from John Dyer’s verbal pictures in The Fleece (1757):

And ruddy roofs and chimney-tops appear,
Of busy Leeds, up-wafting to the clouds
The incense of thanksgiving: all is joy;
And trade and business guide the living scene,
Roll the full cars, adown the winding Aire
Load the slow-sailing barges, pile the pack
On the long tinkling train of slow paced steeds…..
Thus all is here in motion, all is life…..

The canal joins the Aire just by the busy central station, with the river channelled under the railway arches, 

and sliding past apartments, hotels, office blocks and bars that rise fitfully towards the sky.  Bridgewater Place, known affectionately (?) as The Dalek, stands proud above Water Lane, subject to much discussion since it transpired that the wrong sealant was used to fix its glass, leading to deaths and injuries in the artificial wind tunnel effect it creates at times.  The reconstituted warehouses of the Calls, the Centenary Bridge (commemorating the centenary of the city’s city status – despite the city’s lack of an Anglican Cathedral; the Diocese of Leeds has three cathedrals: Ripon, Bradford and Wakefield), Brewery Wharf, Clarence Dock (The historic Clarence Dock, also known as Leeds Dock, in the centre of Leeds has undergone redevelopment with retail, leisure and office buildings surrounding the docks as well as the Royal Armouries Museum. The River Aire and the Aire & Calder navigation are seperated [sic] by an island that is accessible by bridge. Other highlights include Leeds Lock with it's [sic] lock keepers [sic] hut, the Leeds Dam weir and water taxis in Clarence Dock) and The Royal Armouries Museum (home to the £42.5 million purpose built national collection of arms and armour that opened in 1996 to relieve pressure on the Tower of London) – are all very fine.

And this speaks of a city that is doing well, though little bears witness to the fact that in 1770 Leeds handled one sixth of the UK’s export trade, and that it was expanding throughout the Victorian era.  Since the terminal decline of manufacturing, the contemporary economy has been shaped by Leeds City Council's vision of building a 24-hour European city and capital of the north. The city has developed to become a telephone banking centre (thirty national and international banks have offices here) connected to the electronic infrastructure of the modern global economy (I hate to say it, but will Brexit change this?) and there has been growth in the corporate (the city is an important centre for equity, venture and risk finance) and legal sectors (there are 150 law firms here, employing nearly 7,000 people). All this increased local affluence has led to an expanding retail sector, with the largest John Lewis store outside London, and numerous shopping malls and arcades which draw delirious shoppers from all over Yorkshire and the north…..

We were in Leeds for around 24 hrs, so I looked at the visitleeds.co.uk website for suggestions.  This is what I found:

Morning: Visitors can soak up the incredible diverse shopping in Leeds, exploring Trinity Leeds, the city’s newest and largest retail destination and home to over 120 high street favourites. Victoria Quarter, housed in beautiful arcades, is the perfect next stop for high-end designers, including Mulberry and Louis Vuitton, where lunch can also be grabbed in the stylish Harvey Nichols CafĂ©.

Afternoon: Grab some culture, heading to the Cultural Quarter, home to a number of museums and galleries just metres from one another. Be sure to visit the Henry Moore Institute, part of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle and home to the largest collection of sculpture in Europe.

Evening: Taking destination dining in Leeds to new heights, Crafthouse is the perfect choice for a special restaurant experience overlooking the skyline of the city. With an incredible menu and its own rooftop garden it’s tough to beat – for post-dinner drinks, simply head upstairs to the glamourous [sic] bar, Angelica for a sophisticated evening of cocktails and conversation.

But I don’t want to shop. (Even the Church of England Diocese of Leeds website includes this statement: Famous for... Leeds Art Gallery, Henry Moore Institute…. and arguably the best shopping outside of London.)

And I don’t want to Grab.

And the Leeds Art Gallery is CLOSED UNTIL LATE 2017.

(And the Henry Moore Institute doesn’t have any works by Henry Moore…..  And I sincerely doubt that it can be the largest collection of sculpture in Europe….  Rather depends on what you mean by large.  How about the Henry Moore Studios & Gardens at Perry Green?)

So we prowl around the city centre, admiring the very fine Corn Exchange 

(designed by Cuthbert Brodrick and erected 1861 – 63 with 59 offices and 170 stands on the trading floor) as well as Graeme Wilson’s nearby mural (Cornucopia),

winner of the Leeds Award for Architecture and the Environment), and Kirkgate Market (voted Britain’s Favourite Market at the ‘Great British Market Awards’ on Thursday 26 January 2017).  Leeds City Council is/are proud of this particular asset.  Their website proclaims Welcome to Leeds Kirkgate Market, one of the largest indoor markets in Europe, Kirkgate is a shopper’s paradise from fresh food, drink and fashion to jewellery, flowers, hardware and haberdashery.

At the heart of the Leeds retail scene since 1857, Leeds Kirkgate Market is home to some of the most characterful traders in the city, with businesses spanning generations and representing a wide range of nationalities including a Polish delicatessen and a Chinese supermarket….. 

I meet one of the characterful traders, a fishmonger with 35 years of experience here.  He notices me taking a photograph of empty boxes and containers stacked against a wall bearing one of many signs which clearly states that This area must be kept clear of boxes, refuse, stock & containers….  Enforcement action will be taken for non compliance…..

Apparently action is lacking.

The oldest part of the market building is a grand example of cast ironwork and glass, and at its heart is the original market stall set up by one Michael Marks, a Russian-born Polish refugee in partnership with Yorkshireman Tom Spencer.  They [sic] are still there, though, despite the claim that this is the largest covered market in Europe with 800 stalls and over 100,000 visitors a week, it don’t beat the Great Market Hall in Budapest (or maybe that isn’t Europe?)

On the outskirts of Leeds the stark remains of Kirkstall Abbey stand in a park by the river.  Constructed in the mid to late twelfth century by Cistercian monks on land acquired by Henry de Lacy, this was one of the finest buildings in the country.  Closed in 1539 as part of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the place fell into ruin. Over the centuries, stone was removed for other building.  In the late nineteenth century the then owner, Colonel North, a renowned dealer in gunpowder, donated the ruins to Leeds Corporation. 

Nearly fifty years ago, returning to Armley from a trip to Ilkley with my brother, we paused here.  And I took a photograph.

In the early seventies, on a school trip with some of my pupils from Manchester, we paused here.  And I took a photograph.

Time stands still, for a moment.  The blackened stones tell the story of the industrial revolution.  Abbey Mills, Burley Mills, Armley Mills – their chimneys filling the air with soot that snowed down on the people and their homes. 

On a rainy morning last week, I passed by again.  And took a photograph.  Some things don’t change.

Nearly fifty years ago I recall visiting a shebeen in Leeds, by the name of the Shaheen Club.  Upstairs in a crumbling red brick building we knocked at a shabby wooden door.  A small port opened and a dark face cleared our credentials.  Inside we drank bottled beer accompanied by curling cucumber sandwiches.  Rocksteady music issued from somewhere in the dark, and after a while my memories fade.

About the same time a youthful Tony Harrison was chiselling his name on the gravestones of literature, after dalliances with fellow Leeds University students Wole Soyinka and Barry Cryer…..

In Leeds it was never Who or When but Where.
The bridges of the slimy River Aire,
Where Jabez Tunnicliffe, for love of God,
Founded the Band of Hope in eighteen odd,
The cold canal that ran to Liverpool,
Made hot trickles in the knickers cool
As soon as flow.

Tony Harrison – Allotments

I’m not an advocate for the Temperance movement (Jabez Tunnicliffe’s Band of Hope was formed in Leeds in 1847 to promote temperance among young people).  Nor was Tony Harrison when I last saw him…..  In fact my favoured haunts in Leeds today are the remnants of the town’s drinking past.  Places such as The Grove Inn 

or Whitelock’s Ale House 

give me hope that the past is not just a foreign country….  Though it’s also true that some more recent drinking (and eating) hostelries, such as The Reliance and The Head of Steam, are keeping worthy traditions alive.

And long may it last.

My brief return to Leeds may not have done the place justice.  Of course tastes differ, and if shopping is your thing, then so be it.  I may be alone in worrying that an economy based on a combination of 200,000 students partying for three nights a week and some 500,000 souls who work in retail or office employ could lack something in the way of future proofing.  But then there would have been those who thought that the wool trade would last for ever……

The one thing I was impressed by, however, was Chris’s optimism and enthusiasm.  If I do go back, my first call will be at The Head of Steam.

As a footnote, I mentioned Barry Cryer earlier in connection with Tony Harrison.  Barry was born in Leeds, educated at Leeds Grammar School and at Leeds University, where, after one year, he gained a B. A. Eng. Lit. (Failed).  In his own words, this was due to the outbreak of World War II, which, although it had happened sixteen years before, had upset him very deeply.


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