Leeds is full of surprise discoveries that you’d never expect to find here, and many of them are unique to Britain, Europe and even the world.
Would you be surprised to know that Leeds is home to the oldest working railway in the world, the compass of the first British prisoner of war escapee and the biggest modern stained glass roof in Britain? They’re just a few of the many surprises that await here, so if you’re looking for a city break like no other, come to Leeds.
One of the biggest city parks in Europe
It might surprise you to learn that Leeds is home to one of the biggest city parks in Europe. Roundhay Park covers a massive 700 acres – to put that into perspective for you, it’s double the size of London’s Hyde Park. The space is full of interesting finds, with plenty of open parkland for picnics, landscaped gardens for exploring and two lakes perfect for scenic walks, even on bracing winter mornings. But that’s not all, you’ll also find a couple of adventure playgrounds here, as well as a skate park, tennis courts, bowling greens and sports pitches. This is also where local legends the Brownlee brothers started their campaign to become champions of the World Triathlon Series.
Roundhay Park, Princes Avenue, Roundhay Park, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS8 2ER.
The last surviving mummy of the 19th Dynasty
The 19th dynasty of Ancient Egypt saw the likes of Ramesses the Great rule the empire, and Leeds has its very own relic from that period. In fact, you can see the famous Egyptian mummy at Leeds City Museum, Nesyamun, the only surviving mummy from the dynasty, which resides in a stunning ornate coffin for over 3,000 years. Having arrived in Leeds in 1823, the high-ranking priest went on to become the only mummy to survive the raids that hit the city during the intense bombing of World War Two.
Leeds City Museum, Millennium Square, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS2 8BH.
The largest covered market in Europe
Leeds Kirkgate Market is impressive in so many ways. For a start, it’s the largest covered market in Europe, covering a massive 75,000 square foot, with hundreds of stalls within. You’ll find traditional greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers inside, as well as haberdasheries, hardware stores and tech stalls – and they’ve recently opened a new events and dining space where you’ll find pop-up markets, entertainment and street food. This is the birth place of Marks & Spencer which opened here in 1884.
Leeds Kirkgate Market, 28-34 George Street, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS2 7HY.
The oldest working railway in the world
The UK has a long association with the railways, but Leeds has the oldest working railway in the entire world. Middleton Railway runs both diesel and steam trains from Moor Lane to Park Halt. It takes 25 minutes for a round trip, but you can get off at the latter to have a wander around the picturesque Middleton Park before jumping on a later service back to the start where you can delve into the railway’s captivating history at the Engine House Museum.
Middleton Railway, Moor Road, Hunslet, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS10 2JQ.
One of the last remaining Victorian music halls in the UK
It might be easy to miss, but Leeds City Varieties is well worth seeking out. It opened over 150 years ago and is now one of the last remaining Victorian Music Halls in the UK. Over the years, it’s played host to a series of living legends, including illusionist Harry Houdini and famed funny man Charlie Chaplin. But while the acts on stage have changed, the theatre itself hasn’t. It’s been beautifully preserved and restored, so you can see everything from gigs and stand-up to musicals and pantomime, all in this historic space.
Leeds City Varieties, Swan Street, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS1 6LW.
One of the finest remaining medieval Cistercian abbeys in Britain
Kirkstall Abbey is fabulous find. Built in 1152, it was one of the most important Cistercian abbeys in England, until King Henry VIII decided to abolish all religious houses. Abbot John Ripley signed the deed of surrender on 22 November 1539, essentially sealing the abbey’s fate. It fell into ruin, like many of its kind, but it’s still one of the most complete examples of a medieval Cistercian abbey in Britain today. It’s open to the public and free to visit, so you can see for yourself – be sure to bring a picnic to enjoy the park that surrounds it.
Kirkstall Abbey, Abbey Road, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS5 3EH.
The compass of the first British prisoner of war escapee
Leeds’ newest museum, The Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery, is home to many fine artefacts but one of the most intriguing is a compass. It’s not just any compass, however – this one was used by the first ever British prisoner of war to escape Germany in 1917, when Bernie Ratcliffe made his way out of Ingolstadt Castle and onto a train at the Dutch border, eventually reaching London. It was smuggled to him in a tin of Harrogate Toffee – now who said sweets weren’t good for you?
The Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery, Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS2 9JT.
Two of the oldest working cinemas in the UK
Leeds has not one, but two of the oldest working cinemas in England. The first is Cottage Road Cinema, which opened in 1912 and has been showing films continuously ever since. The 450 seat cinema boasts traditional styling, and Pullman seats, but it now has state of the art digital projection and Dolby Digital 7.1 surround sound. Although it came later, opening in 1914, Hyde Park Picture House is arguably even more famous than Cottage Road. It’s the world’s only surviving gas-lit cinema, and they’ve maintained many of the original features within, creating an extraordinary cinema experience that you can still enjoy today.
The biggest stained glass roof in Britain
The Victoria Quarter isn’t just an amazing shopping destination filled with designer boutiques – it also boasts the biggest modern stained glass roof in Britain. Designed by prestigious artist Brian Clarke and installed in 1989, it stretches 400 feet from one end of the arcade to the other, covering a massive 8,000 square foot. The geometric pattern of green, blue, orange and yellow glass creates a colourful canopy, protecting shoppers from the elements with a work of art that’s not soon forgotten.
Victoria Quarter, Briggate, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS1 6AZ.
The largest animal armour in the world
Before modern warfare, war elephants were one of the most important tools used by Indian forces, and to keep them safe from attacks, they were often provided with their own set of armour. The Royal Armouries have what is believed to be the only near-complete surviving example anywhere. It’s so big, the Guinness Book of Records have named it the largest in the world. Made of 8540 iron plates, weighing 142 kilograms, it’s mighty impressive on the eye.
Royal Armouries, Armouries Drive, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS10 1LT.
One of the last remaining examples in Britain of a water-powered mill
Thwaite Mills is a fully restored working watermill, and you’ll find it nestled on an island, surrounded by lovely scenery. For hundreds of years, it was a bustling industrial site where the massive waterwheel was used to produce rapeseed oil, crushed wood, whiting and putty. You can learn all about its past life in the engineer’s workshop, which is filled with the tools they once used to repair the machinery, and in the Grade II listed Thwaite House, which was once the mill manager’s home but now tells the story of how the workers lived. Outside, you’ll now find a mix of water, woodland, scrub and gardens, all filled with wildlife.
Thwaite Mills, Thwaite Lane, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS10 1RP.
Cover image copyright Daria Wszolek.