Leeds-List: The Best & Most Insightful Guide to Leeds

15 Secret Things You Never Even Knew Existed in Leeds

· Joseph Sheerin · Culture

Psst – we've found out Leeds' most incredible secrets...

The Bear Pit, Headingley

There’s more to Leeds than meets than eye, but what secrets is it hiding? We’ve uncovered some of the best…

Like any big city, Leeds has its fair share of secrets. From a mysterious underground world to forgotten cinemas or remnants of ancient history, not everything is as it seems. So find out what you’re missing, as we introduce you to fifteen things you never even knew existed.

1. The 50-foot organ in Leeds Town Hall

Leeds Town Hall

© Copyright Leeds-List 2018 by Ali Turner

When Leeds Town Hall opened in 1858, Queen Victoria entered to the sound of what was then the largest organ in Europe. It still sits in the same place to this day, although it no longer holds that record. It’s a staggering 50 feet=t high, 47 feet wide and 27 feet deep. This incredible instrument weighs 70 tons, so it can only be played by very accomplished organists. Want to see it in action? Head over to their lunchtime organ recitals.

2. The Scheduled Monument tucked away in Gipton Wood

Gipton Wood

Gipton Wood is an ancient replanted woodland, but you’ll find more than just nature here. In fact, the D shaped earthworks hidden in the woods are a Scheduled Monument, which means they’re both protected and of national significance. According to a 1984 survey by the West Yorkshire Archaeology Service, they’re ‘the remains of a prehistoric enclosure and the surviving part of another’ and thought to date back to between the Late Bronze Age and the Romano-British period. That’s a slice of Yorkshire history right there. You’ll find the earthworks on the north-east border of Gipton Wood, alongside Oakwood Boundary Road and Oakwood Nook, but it’s so well hidden, you may find yourself standing on it without even realising.

3. The gallery in a basement

Basement Arts Project

Credit: Bruce Davis

Leeds has plenty of high-profile art galleries, but it’s the one you probably don’t know about that’s the most innovative. Basement Arts Project is exactly what it sounds like, an art gallery in someone’s basement, and it puts on some seriously cool exhibitions. From Paul Digby’s landscapes to an artistic documentation of the people of Beeston by Ian Pepper, head out to the Beeston-based exhibition space where you’ll find work by up-and-coming artists from around Leeds and beyond.

4. The vineyard in the Leeds countryside

Leventhorpe Vineyard

Believe it or not, Leeds has its own vineyard. Leventhorpe Vineyard can be found on a low-altitude, south-facing site that’s surprisingly well-suited to grape growing. Their grapes are made into wine, with a selection of white, red and rosé, as well as bubbles. All of which can be bought at the vineyard itself, where they’ll be only to happy to help you find the perfect tipple.

5. The bear pit in a student hub

The Bear Pit, Headingley

Credit: Ali Turner

Once upon a time, Leeds had a Zoological and Botanical Garden. It opened in 1840, but didn’t last very long and it shut down within a few years after public interest dropped due to high entrance fees. One of its biggest attractions was the brown bears which were kept in a circular bear pit, with a spiral staircase leading up to the turrets at the top where people could look into the pit below. Although the animals and gardens are long gone, you can still see the bears’ home nestled just off Cardigan Road.

6. The lost cinema in a shopping centre

Back in the day, Leeds was awash with cinemas, big and small, including one at the Merrion Centre. Open from 1964 until 1977, it was a popular movie theatre, but since it shut down it has been left strangely empty, with much of the original theatre untouched. The former entrance is where you’ll now find the cash machines next to Home Bargains, but there’s a set of sealed double doors on the upper balcony that will take you into what remains of the old cinema.

7. The grave of the first black circus owner

Pablo Fanque's gravestone, St George's Field

Credit: Chemical Engineer licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.

Pablo Fanque lived an incredible life. He was born William Darby, and despite tragedy in his early years, he grew up to be the UK’s first black circus owner. He travelled the length and breadth of the country with his circus, which was considered to be one of the best of the early Victorian era. However, the large bulk of his shows took place in Leeds, and the city is also his final resting place – his grave can still be found in St George’s Fields by the University of Leeds.

8. The ghost village in the middle of nowhere

Dating back to the 1880s, Eastmoor Reformatory is Leeds’ very own ghost village. It’s a huge complex, on the outskirts of Adel, and features everything from a swimming pool to a church – all of it, of course, is now derelict. At its height, it was home to up to 160 naughty boys, but that number is now zero, as it shut down in 1972. Its desertion means it’s now a popular spot for urban explorers, but we couldn’t possibly condone that kind of thing.

9. The air raid shelters underneath Woodhouse Moor

Woodhouse Moor Air Raid Shelter

Credit: Rick Carn licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.

With 27 hectares of tree-lined paths and swathes of grass, Woodhouse Moor is one of the most popular parks in Leeds. But it’s got a secret – underneath the ground near Hyde Park Road lies a network of subterranean tunnels that were once used as an air raid shelter for local residents during World War Two. It’s split into two sections, one for men, one for women and children, with a corridor in between, and many of the original signs and features still exist.

10. The anti-aircraft guns on an old farm

Carlton Anti Aircraft Battery

Credit: Tom Blackwell licensed for commercial use under Creative Commons.

You may not find guns here anymore, but you will find evidence that they were once here. Just west of the Avro Factory in Carlton is an old military site that was widely believed to be used for radar, but it was actually an anti-aircraft gun emplacement, home to four 3.7” guns and a central control bunker. Few of these sites exist today in such a complete form, which is what makes the Carlton Guns so impressive.

11. The hidden world beneath Leeds train station

Leeds Station

Credit: Tim Green licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.

The current Leeds Station was, in fact, built on top of another, earlier station. Leeds’ first proper city rail station was the temporary Wellington Station finished in 1848, (a permanent one, Leeds Central Station, was built in 1854). In 1869, Leeds New Station was built adjacent to Wellington, on arches across the River Aire, which was how it stayed until 1939 when the two were grouped together as Leeds City Station. It was rebuilt above and across the old stations, hiding away a network of corridors which feature old post rooms, clocking-in rooms and toilets with working plumbing which date back all the way to the original.

12. The jungle in someone’s back garden

The Jungle Garden, Leeds

Credit: The National Gardens Scheme

No, you didn’t read that wrong – Nick Wilson’s house in Roundhay shields an incredible secret. The Jungle Garden took two decades of work to finish, but after a lot of graft, Nick has created his own little slice of paradise. It’s a multi-level garden filled with jungle plants, which you can enjoy as you wander the boardwalks and bark paths. It’s so good, he’s opened his garden up to the public – just make an appointment with the National Gardens Scheme.

13. The mysterious cropmarks in a tiny village

Ledston Cropmarks

Credit: Historic England

Ledston is a sleepy West Yorkshire village, about half an hour away from the city centre. It does have a secret it’s hiding, however – a set of amazing cropmarks. Unlike many other examples, where marks are on isolated enclosures, Ledston’s is evidence of an Iron Age settlement, where excavations revealed trackways, field boundaries, closed-off ditches and large storage pits cut into the hard limestone beneath.

14. The windmill that’s also a hotel

Whinmoor Mill

Hotels don’t often come with an old windmill at their centre, which makes Seacroft’s Ramada Hotel stand out. The old tower is also known as Seacroft Mill – it was once part of an extensive farm and was used to grind corn for years before closing in the early 20th century. The housing boom saw the rest of the farm buildings knocked down and replaced with homes in the late 1960s. The adjoining buildings may seem a little out of place, but the windmill itself is still incredibly impressive.

15. The modern stone circle used by pagan groups

Thwaite Mills Stone Circle, Stourton, Knostrop

Credit: Leeds Fotografia/Shutterstock

When you think of stone circles, you probably think of Stonehenge, but you don’t have to go that far to see one. Thwaite Mills has a modern one, inspired by an idea the site’s caretaker Tony Douglas had, and created by artist Melanie Wilks in 1997. There are four stones to represent the four points of the compass, with four more to signify sunrise, midday, sunset and nighttime. They’re not just for show either, they’re used for rituals by local pagan groups.

Cover image credit: © Copyright Leeds-List 2018 by Ali Turner