Leeds Town Hall. © Roland Hancock.
This trail begins at Kirkstall Abbey, three miles from Leeds city centre on the A65, Kirkstall Road. It can be done on foot, by bicycle, or even by barge.
Close your eyes and think of Leeds. What do you see? Satanic Mills? Smoggy, cramped, terraced streets? Stooping miners? All of the above? Leeds was born in 1800, ugly child of the industrial revolution, right? About as much history as Slough, right?
Wrong. Leeds dates back to the 7th Century, it has 12th Century ruins a couple of miles from the city centre, and some of the grandest high Victorian architecture in the country. Everything stands testament to the men and women who built this city from a hamlet to a prosperous industrial city and beyond.
I want to show you Leeds not just in its industrial boom, but the people who lived and died here before, and those who live and work here today.
Leeds' best kept secret - the monumental ruin of Kirkstall Abbey. © Roland Hancock.
So, to begin at the beginning, and Leeds’ best kept, oldest and free secret – Kirkstall Abbey. This massive monastic ruin, just off the Kirkstall road three miles from Leeds’ centre, is one of the country’s best preserved and most haunting Cistercian Abbeys.
Monks from Fountains Abbey came here via the inhospitable Pennine moors to settle in the relatively sheltered Kirkstall valley in 1152. The infant Norman administration gave them leave to build here in the guise of local Baron William of Poitou, vassel of William de Lacy. Work began on May 19.
It stayed continuously in use until 1539 when Henry VIII’s commissioners knocked at the door and all but ripped it apart in the name of the Dissolution. It fell derelict for hundreds of years, plundered for its impenetrable Bramley Fall gritstone and used as a convenient cowshed and chicken coup, until what must be one of the world’s first restoration efforts in 1783.
As early as 1896 Illustrated London News documented its grand reopening as a tourist attraction and it has remained so ever since. It was cared for, first by the families living in nearby Abbey House and latterly the local council.
Kirkstall Abbey. © Roland Hancock.
The 100ft central spire still stands, the tallest thing around, after 850 years.
The best thing about this abbey today - no ticket desk and no attendants. Leeds City Council has taken the unusual step of trusting visitors not to tear the place apart, anyone is free to wander at their leisure and marvel at Leeds most impressive ruin.
Across the road is the Abbey House Museum, formerly gatehouse to the Abbey, latterly a guesthouse, pub and family home, and now home to a museum of Victorian life in Leeds.
Abbey House Museum was once the gatehouse to the Abbey. © Roland Hancock.
After the Dissolution the Abbot of Kirkstall defiantly lived on here until his death in 1569, after which it passed into many of Leeds’ leading industrial families, including J.O. Butler, owner of Kirkstall forge.
It was added to year after year, a status symbol for each family to extend, until Leeds Council trumped them all by building a Victorian museum around the back.
This is an interesting little house, additional rooms through the years make for a pleasingly patchy architectural journey. The Victorian museum has an ‘almost authentic’ street scene and it’s well geared to children, an antidote to plodding around the old abbey with their parents.
Turning left outside Abbey House, walk towards the city centre, turning right at the crossroads, past the Bridge End pub (partly built out of stone from Kirkstall Abbey) and take the left fork onto the Leeds Liverpool Canal.
The canal was once the M1 of the industrial age. © Leodis.
The Canal may not look much more than a pleasant walk today, but it was the M62 of its day, built to carry goods from Leeds’ industrial mills to the new markets in the colonies of America and Africa in 1816.
It was first conceived in the mid 1700’s, but years of recession and stalling by warring businessmen either side of the Pennines pushed the completion back further and further. Interestingly, Lancashire seems to have won its preferred route for the canal, via Wigan, a fact which no guidebook this side of the Pennines will admit.
The view from Armley House © Roland Hancock.
Come off the canal at the next bridge (Wyther Canal Bridge at Amen Corner) and follow the road up and around Gott’s park, turning left at the main entrance to the golf course, and Armley House.
Benjamin Gott, industrial founding father, mill owner, and Lord Mayor in 1799, lived here and developed these lands with the profits from the three mills he owned in Kirstall valley. The grounds were landscaped in 1803, a wood being planted to shelter the house from the biting moors winds.
The house itself was built in 1718 by a local merchant, but redesigned in 1822 by Sir Robert Smirke, architect of the British Museum. Looking at it today it seems slightly incongruous, a Greek Revival Villa in the heart of suburbia.
Armley House - an incongruous sight near the heart of Leeds. © Roland Hancock.
Imagine it as it was, surrounded by a smattering of millers' cottages, not 15 miles as the crow flies from the village of Haworth, where Emily Brönte was busy imagining Wuthering Heights. And who said the Victorians didn’t have a sense of humour?
Turning away from the house, the grounds (now inevitably a golf course) hold some of the best views of the Kirkstall valley, from the Abbey and beyond to the north, to the city centre to the south. It’s only from vantage points like this that you can see how much of the valley floor is actually untouched green land, sitting on the banks of the seldom glimpsed river Aire.
Soon the entire valley floor will be completely redeveloped as a protected nature reserve, replete with children’s play areas, nature walks and a decent path by the river. And hopefully no more golf courses.
From the portico of Armley House, follow the path to the left of the lawn by the edge of the woods. Go down the steps to the canal. Cross and rejoin the towpath. Cross the canal again at the second bridge for Armley Mills Museum.
These Mills were some of the biggest and most profitable in Leeds for one reason – power. This is the best site in the valley for harnessing the energy of the Aire, as it curves around Dunkirk Hill.
Armley Mills - once one of the biggest and most profitable mills in Leeds. © Roland Hancock.
The first mill was built here shortly after the Dissolution and the site remained in constant use until 1969. It became home to Leeds’ finest industrial museum, Armley Mills Museum, in 1982.
The building the museum occupies was built in 1805 by Benjamin Gott after the original mill burned down in 1804, months after Gott had bought it. Naturally he used the most advanced methods of fireproofing in his redesign.
It's a vast holding, as it would have to be to document Leeds’ part in the industrial revolution. The main body of the mill houses some of the lethal machinery that claimed so many lives, as well as telling the stories of some of the men, women and children who worked the mill. Self contained pockets of history like the 19th century Jewish factory workers and the first unions illustrate industrial Leeds to good effect.
Better still is the collection of early industrial engines used to iron out far-flung corners of the empire. It fires the imagination to see hulking locomotives made in Hunslet down the road, photographed in Belize at the turn of the century, then put out to pasture here in Armley.
Rejoin the canal and carry on toward the city centre.
Just past the Leeds and Thirsk Viaduct (the next bridge) across the canal lies the now derelict Leeds Forge. Founded by Samson Fox in 1874 this vast iron works churned out locomotives and warships for the Royal Navy. The works have been derelict since shutting in 1936.
The River Aire as viewed from the Royal Armouries. Picture © Roland Hancock.
Carry on along the canal, toward the fast approaching city centre.
The canal runs straight into the centre of town, widening to allow a marina (originally cut to allow a greater capacity of boats to pass). Just past here, through an improbably dank looking hole in the wall are the ominously named Dark Arches, one of the best pop-horror monuments to Leeds’ past.
The Arches are a network of underground passages and vaults, built to provide a platform over the river Aire for Leeds Railway Station. These vast dank vaults were used for storage until fire ravaged them in 1893.
Now the Arches have been renovated, providing space for a host of craft shops and, thankfully for tired legs, cafes.
A pop horror monument to Leed's industrial past? The Dark Arches. Ä Roland Hancock.
Go to the end of the Dark Arches to the road, turn left to the city square (never actually a square but a triangle) and on in the same direction up Greek Street to Leeds Town Hall.
Town Hall indeed, as when it was begun in 1853 Leeds was still a thriving town on the cusp of being given city status. It may not have been built at all were it not for the burghers of Bradford building the similar St George’s hall in 1851. From then on Leeds simply had to have a larger, grander and more impressive monument to their own success.
The hall was designed by Cuthbert Broderick, and officially opened in 1858 by Queen Victoria. Typically belligerent Leeds’ civic fathers fought one another over the design to the bitter end as nobody could agree if the ambitious clock tower would look unsightly atop the squat colonnades.
Leeds Town Hall. © Roland Hancock.
Even today not many can decide whether the building is an ugly duckling or an elegant swan. Probably a bit of both, like the town that built it.
Nobody denies, however, that this landmark is impressive, rising from what was then still just a thriving town. The very boldness of the design, and its imposing presence imparts something of the pride and ambition of the age.
Nobody should visit the town hall without at least a brief shuffle through the City Art Gallery and Henry Moore Institute next door, not technically particularly old buildings, but impressive nonetheless, and a contemporary antidote to the high Victorian cityscape.
Facing the art galleries turn right along the Headrow (the original street around which the whole of Leeds grew), carry on past bars and boutiques, without letting your head be turned by the pretty things, and turn right onto Vicarage Lane.
Leeds town Hall during the early 1900s. © Leodis.
On the left hand side, a few blocks down, are the Leeds’ twin commercial centres, the City Markets and Corn Exchange.
The City Markets celebrated its centenary this year, and retains the bawdy atmosphere of turn-of-the-century street commerce. In these halls Messrs Marks & Spencer first set up shop, sewing the seeds of today’s £10 billion empire.
Leeds Corn Exhange. © Roland Hancock.
Next door is an oddity of Leeds architecture, the rotund Corn Exchange, reputedly based on the Coliseum in Rome. This is another Broderick design, built in 1863 and featuring a 75 ft glass dome to protect the corn traders who hussled daily to make a profit.
Inside, decorative features like the ornate staircases and ironwork detail were restored to their former glory when this building was sympathetically converted into a boutique shopping centre in 1990.
The Corn Exchange. © Leodis.
Décor aside, the atmosphere of this place is the same as it always was. A small time entrepreneur, selling corn in 1904 or clothes in 2004, is essentially the same brash beast. And their assistants are just as surly.
Outside the Corn Exchange, take the right hand cobbled road toward the Calls, once there turn right, then take the path to the left across the river Aire. Walk left along the river bank to our final destination – the Royal Armouries.
Alright, this is not a bona fide historic building, but it does have a lot to do with Leeds’ current cultural heritage, and it’s a damn fine museum to boot.
Purpose built in 1996 as part of Leeds’ cultural regeneration, this colossus, known locally as ‘four floors of wars’, houses one of Europe’s largest collections of weapons and armour, from medieval maces to an exhibition on future wars. It even comes complete with its own armoury workshop and jousting tiltyard for the enjoyment of younger cultural tourists.
Royal Armouries. © Roland Hancock.
And so we have it, Leeds yesterday and today, a heritage built not only on the long forgotten mills and forges, but on almost 1000 years of human endeavour. The feeling I got wasn’t one of faded glory, but of ambition. Ambition to build the biggest, highest and best around, to push back the boundaries of what was possible, to see what could be done.