I long remember name of the city of Leeds from a play in University in which I played a ridiculous Welsh director of a small Operatic Society, Dafydd Ap Llewelyn. I think it was my lead male auditionee who I continually interrupted, every time the piano played his introduction to start I just couldn’t help but to jump-in myself with a lovely little Welsh translation of “All Through the Night”. My auditionee was from Leeds, I read it out from his application with a strong sense of disapproval. The way I said “Leeeeeds” with my nose wrinkled and voice lowered always got a laugh. I don’t remember being directed to turn my nose up at Leeds but it seemed obvious by the writing that my character might consider it to be somewhere that was below his standards. The play was “A Chorus of Disapproval” by Alan Ayckbourn.
I never heard anything of Leeds reputation throughout the years. The week before my visit my Aunt Jenny told me on Facebook that she was born and spent her first years there. I didn’t know that about my Aunt who was married to my Dad’s late brother Harold all of my life until Uncle Harold was taken from us by a heart attack a few years ago. I knew her English mother too a bit as I was friends with Aunt Jenny’s niece, Joanna. Granny Franny lived in a grandmother’s suite in Jo’s family home. In fact, Joanna was in the above-mentioned play with me; it was put-on by the Drama Department of the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. I was a student of Business Administration, but I took my electives in English, Psychology, and Drama. This meant I had no major, but I did fine in business without a major anyway. A major would make one more employable though, the most lucrative choice after accounting at the time was the very new industry of IT. “No, I think I’ll take Drama and Creative Writing instead,” I remember telling my guidance counsellor that year. She didn’t think that the best choice, but I figured since I was studying business when I’d rather be studying arts at least I could have a little bit of arts and I still get the business degree even if devalued by having no major. (I ended-up just shy of having enough credits for a Bachelor of Business Administration with a minor in Drama, but I’m not sure they make those anyway.)
I arrived this afternoon in Leeds after spending the day in the beautiful spa townn of Harrogate. An unfortunate contrast, Harrogate attracts a formal senior crowd who enjoy the many tea rooms, promenades, and lovely English gardens. I may just be an old woman trapped in a 39-year-old man’s body so that was rather my scene. I am quite happy for the excitement in my day to be having room for dessert at Betty’s Tea Room, a locally-famous Yorkshire Chain that originated in Harrogate. Sadly I am not kidding, visiting the original Betty’s was high on my list of things to do when visiting the lovely spa town of Harrogate.
I arrive to my hotel in Leeds and park what to me seems like a small car but what in the UK is a very wide car. £14 ($20) per night my hotel charges for the privilege of using their car park and normal cars don’t even fit. The receptionist talks me closer and closer until my car is a hand-width from the car next to me. I don’t know how the last person who parks is going to get out of his car, nor how I will enter mine if there are cars parked on both sides when I need to get in. The hotel is in an industrial building but refurbished quite modern and to very nice effect.
I make my way to the tourist information centre where they are not at all helpful. This feels a contrast to the warm and friendly service I have come to expect in central England. In this city of nearly 4 times the population of York, they can not refer me to a bus tour or a walking tour or any kind of tour whatsoever that I can join tomorrow or anytime. Must sees? Well that depends what you’re interested in. There’s lots of shopping. This seems not to be a tourist destination. They don’t even know a direction where they should point a tourist to. I leave with some maps but no real idea of what there might be to do or see other than shopping.
My first impression on the streets is of being in a rougher place. I notice more guys, always guys, sat on the sidewalk asking for my spare change. They seem to think that they deserve my custom, when I ignore them they seem to think I have simply not heard their request for funds. I give to one fellow who then walks alongside me. I know he is bad news and I try to get away. He asks for £10 to buy a week bus pass. No, sorry. I just gave him £2 ($3), can’t he just thank me and let me go? He doesn’t want to relent. Finally I circumnavigate a bench where two girls are sitting, I am trying to get away from this guy. It ends poorly, me yelling at him to leave me alone, that he should be embarrassed to harass a visitor to his city and give such a poor impression. He walks away and the girls throw me dirty looks. I feel badly for being so harsh, but it was what I was thinking and how I was feeling. He and others have now soiled my first minutes walking around this city. My first impression makes me want to retreat to my nice hotel but I don’t.
The shopping here is incredible. Who is buying these luxury goods? Not the people I see around me late on a Monday afternoon certainly. These shoppers are heading straight to Poundland and McDonalds. Perhaps Leeds is a shopping destination for visitors. Very near to York, I bet people from York probably come here to shop. I was surprised to hear that the receptionist who helped me park has never taken the 20-minute train ride to visit York. I cannot even imagine. I took a much longer route going through Harrogate from York to Leeds, but it was still a very short journey. It’s so close that people might live in one and work in the other.
Perhaps the shoppers of these goods are weekend shoppers, that would make sense. Nine-to-fivers. Professionals and business people. I suppose I won’t seem them about during my brief two-night stay so I am destined to get a continued dim view of this former industrial town. I am much impressed by the architecture though, Leeds has lots of beautiful architecture stock in what is now a very large shopping district. A stately town hall. Gorgeous rows of buildings strewn everywhere.
I have dinner at GBK. “Have you eaten at GBK before?” My brain scans through memories, I know I have, where was that, I can see the empty pedestrian shopping street in the evening, wide and modern, it was another shopping district that seemed out of place for the locals. . . . .”I have, in Cardiff in January!” Well done, brain. Well done.
If someone parks in the last parking spot, which is on my other side, I don’t know how I’ll get in. “Can you get it a little closer?” No.
The Ellington Hotel seemed to be inside an old warehouse, but was modern and comfortable.
A patio with doors that fully open to the fresh air!
As in Birmingham, I enjoy the new and old contrasting each other.
In this and the following photos you can see some of the beautifully restored Victorian shopping arcades.
I don’t mean to be rude, but where are the shoppers for these high-end stores? I don’t see anyone who looks like they shop at these stores, including myself.
The Newest “Trinity” Shopping Centre
“The Light”, mostly cinema and restaurants.
Some shoppers enjoy a wee break.
Yummy, the Wellington, and angus burger with portobello mushroom and horseradish sauce. Burger restaurants that serve wine deserve awards, I think it’s harder to get liquor licenses in Canada because I do not remember this happiness at Hero or the like. I could be mistaken. I’m sure in Quebec you could though. Canada is very odd with different restrictions province-to-province.
Back at my hotel I am told that the shopping district in Leeds is second only to London and that yes, people do come here specifically for shopping trips from all over the UK. Much cheaper than visiting London, if you come here you can use most of your cash for the shopping. Makes sense. It’s not like in Yorkville, a shopping area in Toronto where the people are wandering about wearing the couture you see for sale alongside. No one here looks like they shop in any of these stores. There’s nothing wrong with that, I don’t either, it’s just incongruous.
Later I read, “Join footballer’s wives on shopping sprees in the high-end arcades of. . .” Ah, the notorious footballer’s wives. The British are crazy for football, the sport North Americans know as soccer. Like all sports that has fanatical fans, the players are ridiculously paid. Taking shopping trips to Leeds to try to burn-off some of that cash could be a full-time job, even when touting £3000 handbags and filling shopping bags with £200 t-shirts. And they could avoid all that annoying culture and sophistication of London. I can see the appeal, Leeds has all the shopping with none of the pretension.
I have a first-time experience here in Leeds. Walking through busy crowds, a grown man, seemingly able-bodied, looks to be on his way back to work. Near to 50, wearing a trench coat, appropriate for the on-again off-again rain. Here’s what happens. He coughs a great, chesty, wet cough right in to my face. I am covered by his spray. I am too shocked to react but I stop in my tracks. He bumps into me as he continues past.
I am absolutely disgusted. Maybe his arms don’t work? Perhaps he’s actually very mentally challenged but hides it well? I did meet someone at Castle Howard who was a regally-dressed woman and when she opened her mouth she sounded like a 5-year old. “I really like your shirt because yellow is my favourite colour,” she had run over to tell me. Very sweet. She had the posture of a cave-girl and had a handler with her who was of average appearance. Perhaps years of nobility in-breeding, I thought. The gene pool too narrowed. She had looked like she stepped out of a film set, so lovely was her sun dress, hair, and bag.
But today near the train station in Leeds, I cannot imagine what ignorance would cause someone to seemingly intentionally discharge directly into someone’s face. Square-on. At close proximity. I can remember when my own arms didn’t work, I wrote about this briefly in one of my Edinburgh postings because I was living there when it happened. I would have at minimum pulled out of the crowd to cough into nothing and if possible (ie. were I able to stop a moment in a moving crowd) I would have bent over to cough into my lap. He must be a sociopath. He’s sick and he wants to make others sick. I’m really going to hate this place if I get sick now.
The closest experience this reminds me of happened in Harbin, a city of about 3 million in Northern China, about a decade ago. I was walking down the street on my way to work when a huge ball of garlicky phlegm splat on my face. It was an enormous, warm goober. It was so big that after hitting my face it trailed all the way down my clothes before settling on my shoe. I am gagging now as I write about it. But this was possibly far more innocent. Completely thoughtless and careless, but less intentional than this face-to-face assault. Someone had spit out their window over the busy sidewalk. It may have been in malice too, but at that time people were spitting all the time in Harbin. Even inside trains and buses, shopping arcades, public buildings. It certainly was not limited to the outdoors.
How can people spit so much? I wondered that because I never spit myself, except at the dentist when he tells me to, or at the end of brushing my teeth. But that’s mostly water and dental stuff, not great gobs of secreted slime. I never have occasion to spit, it’s not as though I use my willpower to stop myself from spitting, the thought doesn’t pass through my head, “Wouldn’t it be nice to spit now.” Additionally, it seemed to be a (mostly) male condition. So I looked for causes of this behaviour. For one, around the world women tend to be more polite and conscientious than men anyway, so that explains the high male to female ratio of spitters adequately for me. Women tend to have stronger empathy, they can see themselves more as the other than can an average man. I think that is why we so often use that low “stupid voice” when quoting men. Even men sometimes use the “stupid voice” when quoting other men.
One main cause for the great amount of spitting was the chewing of tobacco, but that kind of spit is apparent. It’s brownish. This also supports the sex ratio, since I have only on occasion seen women chewing tobacco. Those who do also have the look of having generally given-up on life and any possibility of having a feminine demeanour. But brownish spit seems to account for well-less than half of all spit I encounter in Harbin.
I found my second answer in a type of pickle-relish that the Northern Chinese eat with many meals. It also explains the garlic stink-slime that covered my face that unforgettable morning. I made the discovery when I forced myself to eat this harsh-tasting pickle (chutney-like concoction) with my breakfast. I was being polite, my host was saying, “Try it, it’s so delicious! No, take more!”. Perhaps deep-down he was punishing me. Anyway, when I ate this pickle-relish it made me barely able to swallow. It gummed-up my saliva for an hour or more and I was constantly clearing my throat and feeling the need to spit. I nearly felt like I was choking on my own thick, disgusting saliva. I never accepted eating that pickle again, I would just poke at it and pretend to have some.
I know that Chinese government tightened it’s reins on spitting before hosting the Beijing Olympics. It must be lovely to stroll down the streets today, not a care in the world with no fear of being slimed anonymously from above. I should go back again.
There were education campaigns and spitting police giving fines to violators as they tried to stamp-out this bad habit. It could have been fun making the slogans. “See that rubbish that you just dropped in the street? Now, don’t also spit on the street.” One thing at a time. I was always shocked when doing things with well-educated Chinese when they’d have a chocolate bar and just drop the wrapper wherever they were. Or have a bottled drink and truly just toss the bottle to the side as they continued walking. The same happened a lot in India. Walking down the street with University students I met I am carrying an empty bottle to put into a bin should I ever encounter one. “Just drop it, that’s what everyone does.” “I know they do, but I just can’t” Then the same people blame the government for there being rubbish all over the streets. It’s probably a bit difficult to pick-up after more than a billion people, true for both India and China.
It’s unfortunate, I will probably always remember Leeds as the city where a professional-looking man hacked right into my face and left me stood there in shock. In 2013, I might add. NOT 1713 before germs were invented.*
The handsome Post Office building stands off a square near the Train Station in Leeds.
There is no shortage of handsome listed buildings in Leeds. I read that the number of listed buildings is 2nd only to London. I also read this “fact” in Birmingham so I’m not sure. Let’s just say that they both have lots of fantastic architecture.
I go through a list in the “This is Leeds” book provided in my hotel room. “Ten Reasons to Love this City.” It seems like they had a hard time coming up with the ten things, but here is my abbreviated interpretation.
1. Lots of shopping.
2. Some nice restaurants.
3. Some good bars.
4. A concert that took place here performed by The Who in 1970 was made into an album. (Really? This is a reason to love Leeds today? Sounds more like a piece of trivia than anything.)
5. Yorkshire Dales are not too far. (Yes they are lovely, but they are not in Leeds, so that’s a bit of a stretch.)
6. A good Art Gallery
7. Leeds Carnival in August. (Doesn’t help me in June.)
8. Leeds International Concert Season, September-May. (See comment for number 7.)
9. The Carling Festival is near Leeds in August. (That’s lovely, but it’s not in Leeds and also – See comment for number 7, which now also applies to 8 & 9)
10. One of UK’s largest rep theatres.
Basically, when you come here to shop, you will be able to enjoy a good meal and possibly find some entertainment. Unless you come in June.
Sadly, I think the converse might also be true. I imagine my visit to the information centre from the point-of-view of the workers. “There’s lots of great shops,” they had informed me when I first inquired what one should see in Leeds. “I don’t really want to do any more shopping, ” I had replied.
If the tourist worker had cared, I could see this playing-out like a skit on Little Britain. I imagine the tourist worker calling head office with this conundrum. “I have a gentleman here from Canada who says that he doesn’t want to shop. What should I tell him?”
“Yes, he seems to know that he has come to Leeds. Yes, intentionally. No, I don’t think he’s lost, I think he came specifically here to look around the city. He seems surprised that there are no tours whatsoever that he can join, not a bus tour, not a walking tour, nothing. Yes. Yes. I know. Right, there is that occasional walking tour so I gave him the number for that guy rather than call myself to have that information here. I doubt he’d be doing anything on a weekday anyway, he didn’t before. Yeah, I only have the information for up to last week. I can’t be bothered really, I mean if people come here not to shop I don’t know what they expect. No, he doesn’t seem mentally unwell, not that I can tell. Hmmm? Right. No, I haven’t asked him if he’s a football fan yet. He’s shaking his head, he doesn’t want to see our (soccer) stadium. He’s not interested in the art museum either, he wants to see some local flavour rather than a world collection of works, apparently he travels a lot and has seen a few museums already. Yes, I have told him that this is an excellent centre for the performance arts between September and May. Since there’s nothing on this month he’s not that interested. Yup. He is, definitely. One of those American-types who expects us to help them plan their time in Leeds, as if I have nothing better to do than to hand out maps and give out sight-seeing advice. Yeah, yeah, I know that’s my job description, I’m just sayin’. I know, I know, well I would suggest maybe he’s come to the wrong place but he only just arrived today. There must be something we can suggest because he just won’t give-up already. No, I don’t think he’s fat enough to try out one of the private medical facilities advertising in our tourist information book by having lipo. Well, now that I take a better look. . . . just a second, I’ll just ask him . . . . he’s shaking his head no, oh he’s leaving now. Excellent, thanks for your help! Bye-bye!”
If I had visited Leeds directly from Canada I would have been impressed with the architecture and found the local culture an interesting change from what I’m used to. As it is however, arriving after 8 weeks of visiting towns, cities, and villages throughout the UK I am more comparing this apple to other apples and it really does come-up short. If you love shopping, this may be the best place in Great Britain for that, much cheaper than London but with many of it’s stores. Apart from that, I would not plan to return myself.
It’s not a bad place, it’s just not for me. I don’t know how many times I was asked for change and stopped by people with clip boards. Mostly I ignored them or tried to, but sometimes they saw an easy target in my slow wander as I tried to take in the sights. Also being alone makes an even easier target, and perhaps here I look well heeled. But when you spend most of the day wandering about zig-zagging through all the streets, you encounter a lot of this here. Far too much, in fact. The last one asked me a dozen questions about travelling between English cities before it was all voided with the question, “How long have you lived in Leeds?” “Well why didn’t you say so! This is a local survey!” I didn’t know why she had charged across the pedestrian street to block my way and interrupt me with a survey, probably for a budget airline or coach service, but I didn’t find out. And anyway, did I really look and sound like a local? Were there no hints, possible indicators in my manner of speech that might have given her pause to ask before unnecessarily detaining me?
*Yes, I know germs were discovered and not invented. I was being silly.
**UPDATE: Three days later and I am sick. My throat is killing me and I can hardly swallow. I hope it doesn’t last too long.