Confetti blows between my feet as I climb the steps at Leeds Town Hall. A wedding has just taken place, and the newlyweds are posing for a few quick family snaps, all smiles and easy laughter. I allow myself to wallow in a little reflected joy; on a sunny day, it seems to me, there can’t be many better places to have gotten married.
A sudden gust of wind brings me back to reality. I crane my neck upward, squinting toward the building’s magnificent square-domed tower, shielding my eyes from the sun.
Where are they? They should be right there, slap-bang in the middle of this part-classical, part-baroque 1850s structure. But I’m damned if I can see them.
Then I spot what I’m looking for. They’re a long way up, on the city’s crest, hiding behind a flagpole: three dark stone owls, one smaller than the other two, all of them standing bolt upright, gazing out across the Headrow, Leeds’s central thoroughfare.
Owls? Yes, owls. Where less imaginative cities have lions or bears or other fearsome creatures, Leeds has owls. They’re all over the place. As I wander around the elegant, compact city center, built on textile wealth during the Industrial Revolution, I spot them everywhere. They’re on civic buildings, hotels, tapestries. There are golden owls, bridge owls, owls on plinths, owls in shopping malls.
Few of them, though, have as good a view as those three on Town Hall, and it’ll be even better July 5. That’s when the Tour de France begins. As a banner on Town Hall proudly announces, the 2014 edition of France’s world-famous cycle race will start here in Leeds, an English city in the heart of what may well be the most English county of them all: Yorkshire.
A proud day for Leeds. But for the moment, at least, I’m interested in owls more than bicycles. That’s why I have an already-dog-eared copy of the Leeds Owl Trail map in my hand, to help me seek out other examples of the bird. The trail, created by artists Clifford Stead and Antonia Stowe, was launched in 2009 and is intended to educate locals and visitors alike about the city’s rich heritage.
I start in City Square, a five-minute walk from Leeds Town Hall. It’s an impressive spot. Around me is a fascinating collection of British sculpture: There’s the horseback bronze Black Prince, all brooding intimidation; eight nymphs; and statues of local worthies, including Joseph Priestley, the Leeds native credited with discovering oxygen. There’s also the General Post Office, a handsome Victorian structure now occupied by apartments and bars. But I can’t see any owls — not at the moment, anyway.
I head off to Quebec Street, to my first stop, at a hotel called — understandably — Quebecs. Built in 1891, this used to be the Liberal Club, and there’s a gorgeous stained-glass window wrapped around the main staircase at the back.
At the heart of the window is a small white owl, again standing atop the city’s crest.
There’s an obvious question: How did the owl become such a symbol of Leeds? “It’s the Savile family coat of arms,” Stead tells me when I put it to him. The Saviles were Normans who were given vast tracts of Yorkshire, including Leeds, after William the Conqueror’s 1066 invasion of England. “Leeds adopted it. Why the Savile family had owls on their crest is not entirely clear.” It doesn’t seem to matter.
Not all the owls are Victorian. I wander up to Trinity Leeds, a shopping center that covers a large swath of the city core. Opened in 2013, this glass-roof consumerist palace houses two pieces of sculpture: “Equus Altus,” a 16-foot-tall, two-ton statue of a pack horse carrying wool, a nod to the city’s textile tradition, and, rather less prominently, an owl, perched high above the tumult, its golden wings spread as if ready to take flight.
At the Corn Exchange, a magnificent Victorian oval hall with a feel of the Roman Pantheon, the owls appear to hold up the domed roof. Two minutes away, at Kirkgate City Markets (where a cherished British department store, Marks & Spencer, was born; the company recently opened a new stall in the market to celebrate this fact), owls adorn the sturdy Corinthian columns.
Then there’s Leeds Bridge, where Frenchman Louis Le Prince shot the first moving images from a building overlooking the bridge. Le Prince later disappeared under suspicious circumstances, leaving behind those flickering images of horse-drawn traffic from 1888. On the building is a blue plaque, inevitably decorated with an owl, representing Leeds’s hugely influential Civic Trust, a nonprofit organization that works to protect the city’s architectural heritage. Its plaques can found on buildings all around town. There are also owls in the ironwork of the bridge, brown and white and altogether charming.
Many owls later, I’m standing in front of the Civic Hall, in Millennium Square, with perhaps the most impressive birds of the lot: four golden art deco owls (two on the hall, which was built in 1931-33, and two on plinths added in 2000). They’re a slightly amusing sight; were it another animal — an eagle, for example — they might seem sinister. But owls are not threatening beasts, unless you’re a mouse.
Owl hunting, it turns out, is hungry work, so I head for Whitelock’s Ale House, which claims to be the oldest pub in the city and squats in the shadow of Trinity Leeds and boasts another of those blue Civic Trust plaques. Inside, Whitelock’s is a feast for the senses, with its tiled bar, etched mirrors celebrating long-gone breweries, dark wood and gentle murmur of contentment.
It’s full, but not uncomfortably so, and I find a seat and a small table. Like all the best pubs, it offers plenty of human entertainment. With a pint of locally brewed, gently bitter Kirkstall Pale Ale and a steak pie in front of me, I watch an elderly gentleman — complete with tweed jacket and flamboyant moustache — make his way slowly toward the stairs that lead up to the toilets. He pauses when he reaches them to allow another, more sprightly, customer to go first. “Cheers, our kid!” this customer, approximately 50 years his junior, thanks him.
Good humor is part of daily life here. Later, I wander up to Leeds Museum, where the city’s story is told in impressive detail. There’s a mock-up of a back-to-back terraced house, railway paraphernalia and plenty of items celebrating the city’s textile heritage. My eye is drawn toward an exhibit entitled “What Makes You Proud of Leeds Today?” Responses have been scribbled in pencil and attached to the exhibit. The best reads: “I love Leeds’ bearded guys (great quality).” The meaning may be obscure (is it the beards or the guys that are great quality?), but the humor is obvious.
There are owls here, too, of course. The gift shop has a huge selection of stuffed toy owls, owl postcards, owl purses, even owl oven mitts. Then, in the city library, I find myself in a hallway containing a tapestry — the Leeds Tapestry, no less. Down the hall, a roomful of schoolchildren are listening to hip-hop as I seek out the Leeds Owl, resplendent on a panel entitled Pro Rege et Lege (“For King and the Law”), the motto on the city crest.
After this long day, I drop in for a few drinks at North Bar, one of the best for craft beers in Britain, before heading back to my hotel.
The next morning, I’m out of bed early for a stroll along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. It’s another sunny day, and there’s a regular stream of bicycles, even if the traffic on the canal itself — which reached Leeds in 1777 — is a bit on the thin side.
It’s 20 minutes before I arrive at the Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills. Once the world’s largest woolen mill, it’s full of dark, intricate machinery that looks designed to injure children. The museum is a salutary reminder of what life was like for most of the population in Britain’s supposed glory days: grim and short. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to be impressed by the story of Leeds’s rise to prominence as the British capital of ready-made clothing. I was impressed to learn that, at one time, this city produced nearly half of all suits worn by British men.
I chew on that nugget of information as I stroll back into town, clad largely in items produced outside the UK. The ready-to-wear market may not be what it once was, but Leeds appears to have absorbed the blow. There’s a quiet confidence here: The tourist office at the train station bears a sign reading “Leeds: Cultural Capital of the North.”
It reminds me of a line in one of the best recent books about Leeds. “Promised Land” weaves together the story of the city, its invariably in-crisis football club and its Jewish population. Author Anthony Clavane, a sportswriter at the British newspaper the Sunday Mirror, writes about a sign that hung in the city’s elegant railway station when he was growing up in the 1970s: “Leeds, the Promised Land delivered.”
But what of Leeds today? “At its best, Leeds is ambitious. Look at the Town Hall, which for me is the best building in Britain,” Clavane tells me. “There’s the architecture, the heritage, that sense of wanting to transcend its limitations, as in ‘Billy Liar’ ” — the 1959 novel by Leeds author Keith Waterhouse. “It’s as strong culturally as Manchester and London, in terms of tradition and history, but its belief hasn’t been as strong. Leeds needs to believe in itself more.”
It’s an interesting point: Leeds doesn’t get as much attention nationally as some of its northern rivals. Clavane believes that, for example, more should be made of the Leeds origins of the group of working-class writers like Waterhouse who emerged from the city in the 1950s.
I suspect that Leeds’s problem — if you can call it that — is the strength of the Yorkshire identity. It’s an extraordinarily proud county. Britons from elsewhere joke that Tykes, as Yorkshire folk are known for reasons unclear, believe that they’ve got the best of everything: the friendliest people, the best beer, the most successful cricket team, the tastiest fish and chips.
On that last point, actually, they may be right. During a wander around town the day before, I’d walked past a fish-and-chips shop outside the market: The distinctive smell of beef drippings — which is to say, cow fat, in which all self-respecting Yorkshire chippies cook their battered fish — wafted into the street, invoking a Proustian recollection of a previous trip to Leeds. As a student in the late 1990s, I’d come up with a group of friends to watch a cricket match. When it had started raining, we’d wandered along the road to a famous fish-and-chips restaurant in the well-to-do suburb of Headingley.
Many years later — and after a 20-minute taxi ride from town — I’m outside that same restaurant: Bryan’s, or, as it’s now known after a recent change of hands, the Fisherman’s Wife at Bryan’s. Inside, the decor has changed (the room is dominated by a tiled wall depicting a seaside scene, which I don’t remember from my previous visit), but the haddock, with its golden-brown, crispy coating and firm, fresh-tasting flesh, is as good as I recall.
My time in Leeds is running out, I realize as I finish my lunch, but there are still a few owls to spot. The map tells me that there’s one on the Met Hotel, on King Street. I can’t see it — this is becoming a theme — so I pop inside. The concierge helpfully gives me directions to the back of the building, where I find the owls above the employees’ entrance. Then, on Boar Lane, I step into the Bourse, where a man on a cigarette break points out an elegant owl carved into the building’s elaborate Victorian stone decoration.
Finally, I retrace my steps to City Square. Taking a last look at the post office, where the tables belonging to the ground-floor bar are beginning to fill up with after-work drinkers, I notice a pair of stone eyes inspecting me from above one of the main doors. It’s an owl, of course. You can’t escape them in Leeds, even if you wanted to.
Hawkes is a freelance journalist based in London.