Mick is the eldest of my three nephews. We didn’t know each other when we were younger, which is a shame as we are a similar age and I think we would have made great drinking buddies. We certainly have a lot in common now: Mick is a runner and like me, he started running to help him give up smoking. However, he’s done five marathons so far compared to my two and his PB is almost an hour better than mine. We are both fond of football, music, beer and a good meal, so today’s lunch always looked promising. When I arrived and found Mick’s daughter Faye would be joining us, things could only get better. She has recently graduated with a maths degree which makes her, as far as I am concerned, properly clever, and I love clever people.
Being an ignorant Welshie, I had no idea how big Leeds is and I was delighted on the train over from Manchester to see how beautiful the area is. The Pennines are heart stoppingly gorgeous, majestic and wild. I love mountains and was really pleased that this wonder of nature is on my nephew’s family’s doorstep. They don’t have to go hill walking every weekend, just a glance is enough to give the heart a little boost and if you do need a Heathcliff moment, it’s always there for you. We talked briefly about the difference between Yorkshire and Lancashire, and between England and Wales. I was really pleased to hear Faye assert her identity as a proud Yorkshire-woman. I’d be proud too if I were her and that sense of identity and place is really important.
The city itself is carelessly and casually beautiful. It’s full of grandiose Victorian structures but also has its fair share of beautiful Art Deco buildings and interiors. As I had never been to Leeds before, Mick and Faye took me to a number of different pubs, coffee shops and historic buildings. Things started in confusion when we agreed to meet in the ‘pub opposite the station’. Turns out the station is huge and there are at least three pubs opposite it, two of which have very similar names. A few texts and calls later though and we were installed near a nice coal fire in a friendly pub with good beer and a good looking barman – in other words, all I could ever ask.
Lunch was excellent. We went to a Keralan restaurant near the station and had a delicious selection of dishes for a fiver each. The waiters were really friendly and gave me my first proper Yorkshire comedy moment. I asked about a huge and elaborate lamp which decorated the restaurant. The waiter told me it came from a temple and pointed out half a dozen others hanging from the ceiling, also originally from temples. I assumed some kind of Zoroastrian connection with fire worshipping and asked if this was their purpose. He burst out laughing and said “no, it’s just dark in there”.
After lunch Faye and Mick showed me around Leeds city centre. I had already seen the magnificent central library and town hall but being taken around by a local (Faye did her degree there and now works there) meant that I got to see some real gems. They showed me the Corn Exchange and the Victoria Quarter, which is full of interesting little shops and beautiful architecture. It also has its fair share of great coffee shops. Stopping for a rest in one of them, I had possibly the best piece of cake I’ve ever eaten, served by the friendliest and most delightfully handsome young man.
It was really great to spend some time with Mick and Faye. They were so hospitable and kind, it obviously mattered to them that I enjoyed myself and were clearly pleased when I did. Leeds is great, but even better was getting to spend time with these lovely people.
One thing I would never have seen if left to explore Leeds with just a guide book to help me, but which I wouldn’t have missed for the world, was our walk around the Dark Arches. It sounds and looks like something out of Harry Potter; it is both scary and magnificent. The turbulent, fast flowing river Aire runs through central Leeds and would have been right in the way of the railway line. The Victorians didn’t let a few million gallons of freezing Pennine run-off stop them, they just built a network of tunnels, bridges and pontoons to allow the river to flow underneath the station and railway lines. The result is a subterranean world of thundering water, beautiful brick work and a complex system of tunnels which are equally terrifying and fascinating.
By the time we had finished our tour and had decided on one final drink in a pub called the Whitelock Arms, I was not at all surprised to find really excellent beer, friendly locals and a drop dead gorgeous barman. Seriously, who knew that Yorkshire-men are all so handsome? Just as well Leeds is so far away, I don’t think my blood pressure could take much more.
5th March 2015
Tharavadu, The Head of Steam, Victoria Quarter and The Whitelock Arms, Leeds City Centre