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Leeds Town Hall

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Fortunately Garry doesn’t require contributions to Yorksview to be objective and disinterested. If he did, I wouldn’t be able to help. I can’t write about Leeds in an impartial way. I love the place. Having lived away from Leeds for fifteen years I never want to leave it again. I could happily even spend my holidays here if my family would let me. All I can do is give you some impression of why I am so fond of this city.

I enjoy simply walking around Leeds. It has a wonderful cityscape. I regularly walk through Park Square, a Georgian square of elegant town houses built for rich merchants and now the home of professional offices. It has a magnificent and unique Moorish building on its south side. I gaze at the architectural extravagance of the Victorian Town Hall. I wander through the arcades of Leeds, full of fashionable shops, and stare at the craftsmanship of the ornate ceilings. I go into the Art Gallery and look again at the moonlit scenes of Leeds painted by Atkinson Grimshaw. (How about that for a name which evokes images of Victorian Yorkshire?).

In the middle of Leeds, among other buildings, is a church, Holy Trinity, built in the 1720s and modelled on a Roman basilica, and industrial chimneys (originally) which replicate Italian campaniles, and a mill building which looks like an Egyptian temple and which once had a flat turfed roof on which sheep grazed until too many fell off. There is the Parish Church, constructed in the nineteenth century in an eighteenth century Romantic style, the Corn Exchange modelled on a Roman coliseum and dominated by a vast elliptical dome, and Kirkgate Market, an elaborate Victorian covered market which has recently been faithfully restored. There are dozens and dozens of fascinating old civic and commercial buildings. The station has a spaghetti art deco concourse above the Dark Arches which straddle the river. Nothing would stand in the way of the Victorians’ development of the city centre; the station was built over the river. It’s almost as if they’d said ‘what is the most difficult way possible in which we can do this?’.

Park Square.jpg (32383 bytes)      Park Square

Leeds, Loidis, began as an agricultural community centred on Leeds Bridge, the site, incidentally, of the first moving pictures made with a single lens camera in 1888. Today one of the main thoroughfares of Leeds is Briggate, so-called because it ran from the gate on Leeds Bridge. (Another such is the Headrow which owes its name to the fact that the heads of executed criminals were placed here in a row). Leeds was already a sizeable town when the Industrial Revolution accelerated its development. Soon its wool trade was supplemented by flax, cotton, silk, off-the-peg clothing, engineering, locomotives, carpets, brewing and tanks. Today Leeds is a regional centre which has adapted itself to a new role in the post-industrial age of services and information.

The city has developed, really without being planned as such, into a number of distinct areas. To the west of Park Row is the business sector; Leeds has recently experienced a great deal of growth as a financial centre and banks, solicitors, accountants, business advisers and other professional offices have expanded and multiplied. In the centre is the shopping area which only really lacks a good John Lewis department store. To the east is the arty and leisure part of town; at night Leeds buzzes with scores of bars, bistros, restaurants and nightclubs. Try the revolving dance floor at Planet Earth or 70's night at Town & Country. (That’s 1970's, not over-70's). It’s very rarely I go to these places and when I do I’m afraid I raise the average age! To the north are the public buildings and universities. What to the south of the city centre was until twenty years ago a run-down, post-industrial mess has now been redeveloped to accommodate offices, housing, and leisure attractions like the Royal Armouries, relocated from the Tower of London, and Tetley’s Brewery.

Corn Exchange.jpg (48393 bytes)   The Corn Exchange  (Click)

In the 1980s and 1990s for the first time since the Second World War some interesting and aesthetically pleasing buildings have gone up. Many older ones have been restored or adapted for new roles well. Some of the horrors of the 1960s and 1970s have been pulled down though I still have a shortlist of about ten buildings which should, in a controlled way, meet the fate of Manchester’s Arndale Centre.

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Kirkstall Abbey

Of course Leeds is not just its city centre; three quarters of a million people live in the metropolitan area. There are the leafy suburbs like Roundhay and Headingley. I lived in Headingley, home of Yorkshire cricket and Leeds rugby league, when I was in my 20's. It teems with students and other young people enjoying Tetley’s bitter before rolling down Woodhouse Lane to the fleshpots of town. There are cosmopolitan inner city areas like Harehills and Chapeltown. There are old villages, now desirable residential areas, such as Bramhope and Bardsey, which claims to have the oldest inn in England. There are parks like that at Roundhay and Kirkstall Abbey, a monastery until Henry VIII knocked it about a bit. There are grand houses at Harewood and Temple Newsam.

Bramhope.jpg (36005 bytes)     Photo's of Bramhope (Click)   Bramhope-.jpg (38372 bytes) 

But what really makes a place is its people. I like Leeds people. The English can be very reserved. In the modern world we tend to be more guarded and measured. Too often today people are discourteous and rude. I’m not suggesting that that isn’t true of Leeds. However, despite occasional lapses, despite their bluntness, it is very apparent when one has lived elsewhere that Leeds people are warm, helpful, in many ways generous and it is true that there is nothing like Yorkshire humour. We laugh a lot. We don’t suffer fools gladly. We are not easily impressed by superficialities. But of course we are rather special; every Yorkshire man and woman knows that. Not that we brag.

The best book I have read about growing up in Leeds is City Lights by Keith Waterhouse. Read it if you can. If you ever get the chance to see some of the short programmes Alan Bennett has made for the BBC about Leeds, don’t miss them. If you want to know what a Yorkshire pub is like don’t watch An American Werewolf in London. If you are studying urban traffic congestion join me on the A65 into Leeds at eight in the morning. But if you want a dispassionate and unbiased view of Leeds, I’m sorry but I can’t help you.

David Brearley