21st-century upgrade for Victorian powerhouse

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Leeds is one of those easy to reach short break destinations. Britain’s big cities are transforming themselves into exciting destinations, dumping their grimy industrial past to vie with Europe’s best. The writer took the train to swanky, new-look Leeds, replete with sharp shopping and hip restaurants. Named the best British city for restaurants and a lively night life, it is where groups like the Kaiser Chiefs rather than the traditional brass band who force the musical pace. Photo - Leeds Town Hall, by the writer

Shopping seventh heaven

Leeds basks in accolades. Recent polls cite the birthplace of M&S as one of the UK’s top shopping destinations, the Knightsbridge of the North. Much of the shopping is cozily indoors. The city’s 1900s arcades are among the glories of British shopping, now featuring such stylish stores as Harvey Nichols. Cuthbert Broderick’s original Corn Exchange, styled on Paris’s version (he also designed Leeds’ noble Town Hall) is fresh from a make-over. Inside it’s ringed with boutiques under a domed glass roof that
lets the light flood in. Nearby Kirkgate Market is a lively bustle. Here a certain Mr Marks launched a shopping revolution on a trestle table. Don’t ask the price, Madam: everything’s is a penny [ 1/2p]. Heart of the Leeds retail revival is Briggate. Once clogged with traffic, it’s now a
pedestrianised Grand Canyon.

The first picture show

This is the real deal. Before TV, people went to see the whole world flicker forth from screens (the flicks) such as this. One by one they Were turned into bingo halls and tyre centres. But the Hyde Park, built in 1914 and one of the oldest UK cinemas, held out, its original gas lighting and a decorative Edwardian balcony intact. It was a thrill to find this genuine Edwardian picture palace in Brudenell Road much as it was in my student days. They screen art house and foreign movies, along with classics such as Brief Encounter. And so honest. We are not the most comfortable place, but every pin and every needle in your rear is worth it to experience cinema as it should be. 0113 2752045.

A pub from the past.

Down one of the ginnels (narrow alleyways) that runs off Briggate is a national treasure of a pub. Whitelocks is a tight fit of smoke-pickled wood,engraved glass partitions, faded mirrors and brass tabletops. A time traveling Victorian alderman would feel quite at home. There was outrage when the previous management hinted at an image change. But new owners Chennell and Armstrong took over, and completed a sympathetic mini refurbishment last summer (2007), based mainly on cleaning and polishing, leaving its spirit intact. The menu is just as John Betjeman and Len Hutton would have known it in the 1930s, with roast beef and jam roly-poly back among the homemade specials, after a culinary wobble by the last owners. They serve eight real ales, including four guest ales.

This city’s made for walking.

There are more wide open spaces where you are free to stroll close to the centre of Leeds, than there is in the cordoned-off countryside of many a shire county. Woodhouse Moor is the closest in, next to the University, with the imperious statue of Queen Victoria. Still well inside the city boundaries is Kirkstall Abbey, one of Britain’s best preserved monastic sites. Best of the easy outings on the outskirts is Harewood House, St Petersburg palace on a Yorkshire ridge, home to the Queen’s cousin, Earl Harewood, Robert Adam did the interior design; Thomas Chippendale handled the furniture, to complement works by El Greco, Titian, Tintoretto and Gainsborough. Nearby is Temple Newsam House, with Capability Brown gardens, and a big rare breed farm.

Grand Night at the Opera.

They reopened The Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House, refurbished and resplendent in 2006.This famous old house was built in 1878, in a cultural backlash against the music hall, considered by ‘polite society’ to be lowering the tone. (The illustrious City Varieties, its saucy excesses long ago forgiven, is just down the road.). The stars treading the boards at the Grand included Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, Julie Andrews, Felicity Kendal, Morecambe and Wise and Laurence Olivier. 0870 121 4901
Meanwhile the Leeds City Varieties , the UK’s longest continuously running music hall, is to be restored it to its former glory, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Gujerati gourmet.

Hansa’s (72 North Street, a five-minute walk from the city centre) is a family run vegetarian restaurant to seduce the most unswerving carnivore. Ugandan born chef and owner Mrs Hansa Dabhi was voted Yorkshire curry chef of the Year, against formidable competition, blends Gujerati home-cooking, with touches of East Africa. It’s worth checking the website for the menu. Our choice on our memorable visit included a starter of tropical colocasia leaves pasted with curried batter, stir-fried with onions and mustard seeds. Then cassava and sweet corn, laced with a lightly spiced coconut sauce, garnished with chopped onions and peanuts; and Hansa’s Chaat - chickpeas, puffed rice and potato, garnished with crunchy sev, chopped onions, tamarind sauce and yoghurt. There is life beyond meat, notes Hansa, unnecessarily. 0113 2444408

The writer stayed at the Radisson Hotel: 0118 983 1348. and travelled by train.

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