When The Tour de France Excited Leeds, England

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Tour de France Bicycle Race in 2014 energized this hopping Northern city

By Marc Latham

Countdown until the race begins in June 2014

Leeds, the biggest city in Yorkshire, England, was chosen to host the Tour de France ‘Le Grand Depart’ for the first time ever in 2014.

A specially constructed media village housed over 2000 journalists who reported the start of the world’s biggest cycling road race and the third biggest sporting event in the world. It was broadcast to 190 countries, with an audience of three billion.

Traveling between Leeds and Skipton is usually easy, with regular bus and train services linking Leeds and a town the Sunday Times this year reported as the best place to own a home in Britain. A decade ago I did the journey by bus, which according to Google Maps is 26.2 miles; the same distance as standard marathons.

Victoria Quarter, Leeds beautiful indoor shopping plaza.
Victoria Quarter, Leeds beautiful indoor shopping plaza.

You may remember the name Skipton as it is mentioned often in the hit TV series, Downton Abbey. Leeds is home to Yorkshire’s cricket team, as well as two of the biggest soccer and rugby teams in England. It also has an American Football team. The city has become accustomed to big sporting events, but around 11 am on July 5th, 2014 something new and historic took place in the city.

It was a glorious sunny morning when I ran the other way from Skipton to Leeds. The fields shone bright emerald and the water of Chelker Reservoir deep azure. The towns of Ilkley and Otley provided welcome landmarks on the route.

Wharfedale Village

Beyond Skipton, it is like entering a fantasy world. Sleepy Wharfedale villages Buckden and Kettlewell are reminiscent of The Shire in Lord of the Rings, and when returning to them after long walks it can evoke memories of the hobbits’ homecoming. J.R.R. Tolkien lived in Leeds for several years and traveled extensively around Yorkshire.

City Square statues in downtown Leeds.
City Square statues in downtown Leeds.

After scaling Buttertubs Pass, I guess the cyclists enjoyed riding down through the natural amphitheater surrounding Reeth. Continuing through Wensleydale, famous for its cheese, the first stage ended after 190 kilometers (118 miles) at the historic spa town of Harrogate.

Perhaps the cyclists carbed for the second day at Betty’s Tearoom, full of Yorkshire tea and tempting cakes, or go the whole hog and had a Yorkshire Pudding meal.

Arriving in Leeds

Leeds-Bradford airport is about eight miles north of Leeds and three and a half from Otley. However, if you take the regular airport bus you won’t travel along the Stage 1 route to Leeds via Headingley; home of the Yorkshire cricket and Leeds rugby teams.

Instead, you will travel through west Leeds, passing the 12th century Kirkstall Abbey after green views across the Aire Valley to Bradford.

Kirkstall Abbey is well worth a visit. It still has a lot of its walls standing; within tree-filled fields alongside the River Aire. Swans and ducks often glide past the abbey grounds, and a solitary heron often visits. Other birds and squirrels fly and scamper around the abbey. There is a visitor center at the abbey and a museum across the road; the latter includes an impressive recreation of a Victorian cobbled street.

Grandma outside Harewood, a magnificent estate near Leeds.
Grandma outside Harewood, a magnificent estate near Leeds.f Britain.

Train Station to Town Hall

City Square welcomes visitors to Leeds outside the train station. A statue of the Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock, towers over statues of nymphs and historically important local people. The most important was probably Joseph Priestley, whose chemistry experiments helped discover oxygen and photosynthesis.

Heading north up Park Row you pass through the main financial district of Leeds, which is also home to several bars and restaurants. Behind a Jamie Oliver in Bond Court, there’s a quaint statue of a family watching an old man play boule.

Greenygrey canal
Greenygrey Canal

At the top of the street, the Town Hall towers over a wide plaza, the central library, and art gallery. The 2014 Tour de France started from here.

The 225-feet-high Town Hall is one of several designed in the Victorian era by Cuthbert Broderick. It was opened to much fanfare by Queen Victoria in 1858.

The Leonidas website describes how: ‘A huge crowd had assembled in front of the Town Hall – every available standing place was occupied, and people watched from windows and galleries.’ Le Grande Depart looks set to inspire similar scenes.

The village of Otley.
The village of Otley.

Adjacent to the square is the Leeds City Museum, housed in the old Mechanics’ Institute building, which was also designed by Broderick. It is free to enter. The Light below the museum has the biggest cinema complex in the city center, as well as many shops and restaurants.

Overlooking Millenium Square The Cuthbert Broderick pub has the best ‘beer garden’ in the city center: a balcony so well positioned for the afternoon sun it could have been designed by Broderick himself.

Pen-y-Ghent from Bracken Bottom.
Pen-y-Ghent from Bracken Bottom.

Either side of the Town Hall are two pubs housed in historic buildings. At the front, Mr. Foley’s provides plush seating; while at the back The Victoria Hotel has Victorian-style partitioned seating and a long brass bar.

Leeds Centre Trinity Transformed

Turning right from the City Square, or down from The Light, you are soon in the heart of the Leeds retail center. That is even more so now the 1,000,000 square feet Trinity complex has transformed the Leeds high street.

Bucking the trend of shopping malls being built outside the city, Trinity covers the city center under a 100 feet high, 1902 glass-panes dome.

Hebden Bridge in the Pennines.
Hebden Bridge in the Pennines.

From the train station, you can enter Trinity from its western entrance behind the Mill Hill Chapel, adjacent to City Square, or along Boar Lane.

Open for just over a year, Trinity has already raised Leeds from seventh to fourth in the U.K. retail rankings.

Although Trinity is the biggest retail attraction in Leeds now, the city’s many historic arcades should not be forgotten. Exiting Trinity to the east it is a short walk north between luxurious designer stores like Debenhams and Harvey Nicholls, and historic ale houses such as Whitelock’s and The Angel, to narrow inter-linked arcades featuring shops and cafes oozing style and quality.

Walking under the Victoria Quarter’s brightly colored 2450-feet stained glass roof is particularly special.

Exiting the arcades to the east, Leeds City Market is visible across the road to the south. Dating from 1857, it is said to be the largest indoor market in Europe.

Below the market is the oval Corn Exchange; another spectacular Broderick-designed building with another glass roof. It now houses shops and cafes, and rivals the arcades for shopping and eating in historical splendor.

Continuing southeast from the city center, there is an amazing collection of weapons and military paraphernalia in the Royal Armouries, which is also free to enter. The purposely built complex on the River Aire houses five stories of history; most of it moved from the Tower of London in 1996. The Armouries was pivotal in water-front restoration either side of Leeds Bridge, which dates from 1730.

Leeds Parks and Stately Homes

Ribblehead viaduct in the Yorkshire Dales.
Ribblehead viaduct in the Yorkshire Dales.

As the Tour route heads north from Leeds it passed two of Leeds’s six prestigious Green Flag Award parks: Golden Acre Park and Otley Chevin. Two of the others, the aforementioned Kirkstall Abbey and Pudsey Park, are in west Leeds; while Roundhay Park and Temple Newsam are in east Leeds.

The Temple Newsam Estate houses an impressive stately home now open to the public; providing access to fine collections of art and evocative rooms. It also has a tea-room, small farm, and gardens. Tropical World is a popular visitor attraction adjacent to Roundhay Park.

Harewood is a little farther north on the Stage 1 route, and Harewood House provides a similar visitor experience to Temple Newsam. It also has a small zoo, and the stately home’s downstairs kitchens are well-preserved, providing a good insight into life for the servants. The view out the back includes a nod to ancient Greece, three columns built just for the view, without any other purpose.

Mixing city and nature; history and modernity; industry and innovation, Leeds and Yorkshire will provide an enjoyable and enthralling location for the thrilling start of the 101st Tour de France.

Further Information
Tourist information in the train station
Harewood House
Royal Armouries
Victoria Hotel

The 757 airport bus is run by Yorkshire Tiger. Most buses in Leeds are run by First. If you are undertaking more than one bus trip it is usually cheaper to get a First Bus day-rider for £3.90:
There is no hostel/backpacker in Leeds, but some hotels have cheap rooms. Travelodge is usually the best value.

marc latham 1Marc Latham is a freelance writer working out of the Greenygrey website. He has travel memoir, poetry and fiction books.