The changing face of Leeds

IT was a weird coincidence that in the weeks leading up to my visit to Leeds I was engrossed in David Pease’s Red Riding Quartet. But the city it so intricately detailed, the fusion of “Victorian Leeds, concrete Leeds” of the 1970s, playground of the Yorkshire Ripper and hotbed of police corruption, couldn’t be further away from the modern metropolis which exists today.

A fusion of the old and new, 21st century Leeds is vibrant, buzzing and alive with culture. From the redeveloped wharfs of the old industrial canals to the bustling contemporary shopping district, this is a city proud of its heritage yet comfortably looking forward into its future.

Relaxing in the luxurious surroundings of The City Inn Hotel was a godsend after a horrendous journey up the A1 from St Albans, a necessary evil due to roadworks on the more-direct M1, but as we soaked in the spectacular view over the city from our window the stresses of the past few hours drained away. Unfortunately the poor weather and heavy traffic had added substantially to our journey time, so we just had time to change clothes before heading off for our dinner reservation.

This was at Kendell’s Bistro, nestled in the thriving arts district of the city centre and close to both the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the BBC’s new building, and kudos to the team there for honouring our reservation an hour later than we should have arrived.

The relaxing, informal atmosphere of this lively venue was perfect and we couldn’t have asked for more. The waiters were helpful yet not intrusive, intimate candles kept the lighting just right, and there was an extensive choice of food on the blackboard menus which adorned one of the walls.

If you’re looking for an unpretentious restaurant where good food takes precedence above everything else, somewhere you could enjoy a first date or a big party, then look no further than Kendell’s, which offered an excellent start to our weekend break.

Although we were tempted by a visit to the City Inn’s panoramic SkyLounge bar on our return to the hotel, we decided to save this pleasure for the following evening, and crashed out in our room for a reasonably early night.

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Breakfast the next morning was in the brightly lit surroundings of the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, with inspirational vistas of the canal network lit up in the golden sunshine of a crisp autumn’s day, today a fusion of the industrial and the modern following the extensive rejuvenation of the area.

The short walk into the city centre brought us right into the middle of Leeds’ cosmopolitan shopping district, a pedestrianised mix of shopping centres and Victorian arcades maintaining the theme of old and new living in perfect harmony.

After a few hours mooching around the shops, we headed for the West Yorkshire Playhouse to catch a performance of As You Like It.

Using 17 25ft tall pine trees transported from a sustainable source in south Wales for the backdrop was a remarkable achievement, and did complete justice to Shakespeare’s acclaimed comedy, allowing for innovative lighting and mood shifts.

A highly accomplished production, and one which truly showcased the strengths of the Quarry Theatre at the Playhouse, which offers theatre in the round in a very Elizabethan style.

Having missed lunch in the wake of our impressive breakfast, we opted for an early evening meal at the nearby Aagrar Indian restaurant, which came highly recommended for its award-winning menus and contemporary surroundings, and certainly didn’t disappoint in terms of service or food.

The cosmopolitan selection of dining venues in Leeds is quite simply staggering, catering for every palate, occasion and price range. You can spend hours choosing between different eateries though, so it’s worth having some possible destinations in mind rather than wandering the streets in search of somewhere suitable.

After dinner we grabbed some drinks in The Wardrobe, a lively bar which specialises in live jazz, but was also offering burlesque shows in the basement! Alas time prevented us from staying to savour those particular delights as we then headed back to our hotel for a few drinks in the remarkable SkyLounge, which offers spectacular views of the city from the stylish comfort of the bar. In better weather you can brave the terrace, but we were happy sipping cocktails in the warm thank you very much!

An early start the next morning to make an evening appointment meant we couldn’t take advantage of some of the other attractions Leeds has to offer, many of which are free of charge, including Leeds Art Gallery, The Henry Moore Institute, Project Space Leeds and the Royal Armouries Museum.

The evolution of Leeds in the years since I first visited the city - when I was a trainee reporter on secondment to the Yorkshire Post – is simply remarkable, and there is something of a longing in this ardent southerner for somewhere closer to home which succeeds in capturing the fusion of old and new in such a successful fashion.

Alive with self-confidence and passion, Leeds is determined to look forward as well as back, and I will certainly be heading back up the M1 to savour its delights in the future.