diamond geezer

 Monday, January 09, 2017

Day out: Leeds
Leeds is Yorkshire's largest city, a historic wool town on the River Aire kickstarted by the Industrial Revolution into becoming a thriving metropolis. Half a million people live in the city itself, and nearly three quarters in the wider area, making this the second most populous administrative district in the country (after Birmingham). Leeds is a regional focus for commerce, culture and communication, plus the shops are damned good too. And even if you visit in January, there's still plenty to see. [Visit Leeds]

My Leeds gallery
There are 32 photos altogether [slideshow]

Royal Armouries Museum
Let's move most of the Tower of London's collection of weapons to Sheffield, they said, then changed their mind and moved it to Leeds. A patch of brownfield land by the Clarence Dock was selected, downstream from the main city centre, and a large five storey box constructed to display the National Collection of Arms and Armour. The Queen opened it in 1996, entrance is free, and over a million people come to visit each year.

The wow element is provided by the Hall of Steel, a cylindrical space the height of the building whose walls are covered with swords, breastplates and other offensive malarkey, surrounded by a spiral staircase with portholes so you can peer through and admire. Elsewhere the main galleries branch off a central longitudinal void, the largest of these on even-numbered floors, with with the odd-numbered floors acting as smaller mezzanines.

The 'War' section is exactly what you'd expect it to be, a long-term history of man-to-man combat focusing on the medieval, Tudor and Stuart years, plus an awful lot of suits of armour. There's quite a lot to read, plenty to see and just enough to fiddle with to keep restless younger visitors occupied. Across the way in 'Tournament' the focus is Henry VIII's Field Of The Cloth Of Gold, with costumed staff re-enacting some of the fighting in a central fenced-off paddock once a day. There used to be more of this kind of performance stuff until, you know, cuts.

Less anticipated is the large gallery given over to 'Hunting', looking back at all the ways humans have shot animals for sport over the years, including peculiar methods like puntgunning. More gung-ho parents show all this stuff to their offspring with some glee, while others have to keep explaining "No, Tommy, killing rabbits is bad, most people never do this". There is a small 'Peace' gallery at the back of one of the floors, as a necessary moral jolt, but because there are no weapons here a lot of visitors walk straight through.

The other major gallery is 'Oriental', with a very broad collection of armour and weapons from Japan, China and other parts of Asia - ideal if samurai's your thing. Perhaps more intriguing is the dark gallery devoted to 'Self Defence', where smaller more modern civilian weapons are to be found. This is where all the guns are, from flintlocks to James Bond sharpshooters, as well as numerous nasty stabby little knives. The museum does much outreach work with school parties and youth groups on knife crime, focusing on legal and social outcomes rather than how lovely and shiny the blades are.

All in all the RAM has an interesting and thought-provoking collection, spreading its net more widely than the regal armour on display in the Tower of London, and which might take a couple of hours to look round properly. I was less than enamoured with the surrounding Leeds Dock development, however, a Docklands-style attempt at post-industrial rebirth that's mostly apartment blocks, its anticipated commercial heart having fallen flat. All the designer stores that once moved in have moved out, leaving a Tesco Express and some underused waterside boulevards. Good try, but all Leeds' better retail centres are elsewhere.

The Arcades
Leeds might just have the best shopping opportunities outside London, indeed better than London if you like everything fairly tightly focused. At least three large retail malls are scattered immediately around the pedestrianised city centre, with the recent Trinity centre cleverly mixing outdoor with indoor on several levels. The Corn Exchange boasts several designer stores within a historic ring, and then of course there's Kirkgate Market, mentioned yesterday, whose 800 stalls provide the perfect budget alternative.

But the most elegant purchasing experience is to be found in the Arcades, half a dozen distinct covered walkways leading off the top end of Briggate, Leeds' main shopping street. Built sequentially in the Victorian era, these high vaulting corridors boast ornate ceilings and flamboyant decor, and provide an ideal location for the city's more boutique-y designer shops. Harvey Nicks' first out-of-London outpost runs off the back of Cross Arcade, close to Vivienne Westwood (on County Arcade) and Louis Vuitton (opposite Thornton's Arcade), with some posh mid-channel seating areas (in Queen Victoria Street) serving coffee and/or prosecco. Even if you only prefer window shopping, this is the place to be seen.

Henry Moore Institute
Although the Leeds Art Gallery is temporarily closed, its neighbouring sculptural outpost is in full effect. Opened in 1982, much serious research goes on within its upper floors while exhibitions are held throughout the year in the three galleries downstairs. The latest exhibition is right up my street, a retrospective of the City Sculpture Project which for six months in 1972 placed large abstract artworks in prominent positions in eight British towns and cities. Leeds wasn't one of those, but is now more than happy to display models and designs from the various installations, plus the somewhat bewildered reactions of a public as yet unused to such structural figuralism. I could happily have looked round considerably more stuff, but space is tight... which is why the key exhibit has been placed outside - Birmingham's five metre-tall statue of King Kong - now greatly adored by all passers-by with cameras.

Millennium Square
When Leeds got some money for the millennium, they decided to spruce up the area outside Leeds Civic Hall to create an extensive piazza and potential entertainment space. Normally there's an ice rink here in the winter, but not this year, and the Christmas Market has long been cleared away. Instead a BBC screen plays out films nobody really wants to watch (Greg Wallace getting excitable over regional food experiences, anyone?), and the fountains in Nelson Mandela Gardens (yes, he came to open them) gush unheard. Look out for the golden owl on a high plinth beside the Civic Hall, part of the 25-strong Leeds Owl Trail, celebrating the noble bird on the city's coat of arms.

Leeds City Museum
Looking out across the east end of Millennium Square, in the former Mechanics' Institute, is the city's municipal historical display. Although the original collection's almost 200 years old, the museum nearly faded into obsolescence after the war and was only rescued by an injection of lottery cash in 2004. From my look around I'd have guessed it was a lot older than that, which I suspect is more a reflection of the constraints of the old building than its contents. A central auditorium takes up a lot of the interior space, with only a floor-sized map of Leeds of curatorial interest. Immediately underneath in the basement is the Life on Earth gallery, filled with stuffed animals including a mangy yak and a much-loved tiger.

Further galleries are squeezed in upstairs, including the Leeds Story (which tells exactly the history you'd expect) and another celebrating residents' Asian heritage. At the back of Ancient Worlds is a darkened room containing Nesyamun, the Leeds Mummy, whose blackened part-wrapped remains visitors are expressly forbidden from taking photos of. When I looked in, two exasperated parents were trying desperately to get toddler Thomas to behave respectfully in front of his first dead body, instead of running around willy-nilly. I have to say I have never seen a museum more popular with throngs of small children, although not necessarily for purely educational reasons.

Leeds Industrial Museum

For a more locally-relevant and interesting heritage proposition, head a couple of miles out of town up the Leeds Liverpool Canal. I enjoyed my walk along the towpath from Granary Square, passing rapidly from modern anodyne development to lone industrial chimneys, undisturbed waterside and repurposed mills. Several joggers and cyclists were out too, this being an ideal pathway though the inner city for them to do what they do, while a couple of Canal and River Trust volunteers lurked at Oddy Locks attempting to prise donations from passers-by.

Leeds Industrial Museum is located at Armley Mills, seemingly isolated if you arrive by towpath, but frighteningly close to a Pizza Hut, bowling alley and leisure park on the opposite side. The four storey building was the world's largest woollen mill when it opened in 1805, ideally located at a drop in the River Aire, and with canalside access for transportation of goods. A restored spinning mule on the top floor reflects later days when rudimentary mechanisation first took hold, while a fascinating exhibition on the floor below focuses on the city's tailoring history. Hepworths and Burtons grew their retail empires based on thousands of workers toiling in Leeds, and it's thanks to them that suits became the must-have wardrobe item for men of all classes between the wars.

The world's first motion pictures were recorded in Leeds - brief shots of Roundhay Park and crossing Leeds Bridge - so early cinematography is well covered. The museum even has its own plush cinema lit by flickering lamps, with children's films screened every Saturday afternoon (alas, to barely an audience). A temporary exhibition looks back at the Leeds Flood of Boxing Day 2015, a local catastrophe which inundated the ground floor of the museum to neck height, and means the Locomotives collection is still out of bounds. Never mind, there are still several other engines and mechanical bits to see inside and out, plus a cafe, and all for just £3.80.

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