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Leeds firmly established as a shop-till-you-drop destination

By Roger St Pierre

Compact and heart-warmingly friendly enough to be a town but boasting the sophistication and amenities of a major city, Leeds is a powerhouse of England’s resurgent north country.

Though its manufacturing and industrial sectors have been of key importance – and currently employ close to 400,000 people across some 1,800 registered companies – it is trade and commerce, both retail and wholesale, that have long been the pulsing lifeblood of the place.

Locals proudly claim that their eternally bustling Kirkgate is Europe’s oldest covered market, while it was a market stall in this Yorkshire powerhouse that laid the foundations of the iconic Marks & Spencer empire.

Recent massive redevelopments have seen Leeds firmly established as a shop-till-you-drop destination to match Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Dublin and Belfast. It even pushes London’s West End hard when it comes to convenience and choice.

It’s eminently walkable, so it makes sense to dump the car as soon as possible – the one-way system is such a bewildering maze it took us an hour and a half from entering the suburbs to finding our city centre accommodation at the plush, contemporary Park Plaza Hotel.

If you do want to drive, sat/nav isn’t just advisable, it’s de rigeur. For our part we loaned a motorised disability scooter through the highly pro-active Leeds Hotel Association.

It’s worth mentioning in passing that while Leeds matches other major UK centres in terms of accessibility, many of the lifts in even the brand new state-of-art shopping centres are barely big enough to take a double baby buggy, let alone a scooter.

From a distance they might look like traffic wardens but the friendly Yorkshire lasses of the Leeds Welcome Ambassador organisation are there to make visitor’s lives easier not harder, leading pre-bookable walks and matching their encyclopaedic knowledge and love of their home town and its attractions, big and small, with a wealth of quirky information and amusing stories.

It’s a service that now serves more than 150,000 visitors a year. Meanwhile, the City Rangers help keep the place spick and span, annually removing 400,000 pieces of chewing gum from Briggate.

Tourism is an increasingly important sector. Having successfully hosted the 2014 Grand Depart of the Tour de France – the world’s largest annual sporting event, with 190 riders, more than a million roadside spectators and a 3.5-billiom global TV audience – Leeds now has its own Tour de Yorkshire as a high point of a crammed year-round calendar of major sporting, arts and cultural events.

Christmas, for example, featured the 10th annual staging of the Christmas market in Millennium Square, the Magical Light Festival in the 700-acre Roundhay Park and the inception of the city’s intriguing arts trail.

Proclaiming itself ‘A City Less Grey’, Leeds offers such diversions as the Royal Armouries’ northern outpost, the Crucible-West Yorkshire Theatre, the long-running Palace of Varieties old-fashioned music hall (in business since 1865), the romantic riverside ruins of Kirkstall Abbey, the Tudor/Jacobean stately home at Temple Newsham, the Thackray Medical Museum, the music and arts events at Leeds Town Hall and the wondrous Leeds Art Gallery, while the Yorkshire Dales are but a few miles distant.

The upscale shopping experience now includes the Trinity Leeds and Victoria Gate shopping malls, a massive new John Lewis branch, and a Harvey Nichols store, as well as delightful Victorian shopping malls and the long-established Corn Exchange, home to a cornucopia of independent shops.

Visitors are also spoilt for choice when it comes to eating out at every level, from the fast-food to go Trinity Kitchen and all the key chains to the majestic former banking hall on East Parade, which now houses the expensive but well worth it Iberica, with its religiously authentic Spanish take on haute cuisine, accompanied by a wondrous selection of fine wines.

Following the chef’s selection, we kicked off in these exquisite surroundings with a selection of Spanish hams and charcuterie, followed by a selection of beautifully presented líght tapas dishes that included squid, octopus, mackerel, hake and pork loin, finishing with a delicious caramelised Spanish rice pudding.

Ham was also star of the show at the appropriately named Friends of Ham on New Station Street – a bodega casual dining concept that deserves to be rolled out nationwide. There’s already a sister establishment in nearby Ilkley.

Platters of artisan charcuterie and nine excellent and unusual cheeses are matched with craft beers from around the world and a good selection of wines and spirits, served in bright and cheery, laid-back, student-friendly bijou surroundings. And there’s a well-stocked shop so you can take home some newly acquired tastes, such as smoked Bath chaps ox cheeks, Spanish torta Canãrejal dipping cheese and slivers of finnochiona fennel seed salami.

Tucked away down a little alleyway off The Headrow, Ox Club presents a sensibly concise menu – a choice of six starters, six mains and five desserts – that focuses on fresh local produce prepared in a modern British manner.

Our starters of scallops with smoked pineapple, pancetta and pink peppercorns and pork belly with burnt pear and pickled radicchio were followed by Guinea fowl with smoked potato, bacon jam and redcurrant jus and flat iron steak with béarnaise sauce, salsa verde and watercress. Simply delicious – the only criticism concerned was the ridiculously small typeface that, allied to the dimly lit room, rendered the menu nie on impossible to read.

For something truly different, the funky casual café style Bundobust, on Mill Hill, offers inventive Asian vegetarian food in tapas style, pared with a wide selection of unusual beers, well-matched wines and some 16 different cocktails, four of them non-alcoholic.

Combo set menu meals for groups of two, four or six proffer a panoply of exotic flavours for an inexpensive but satisfying, with service running through the day and evening.

Back at the Park Plaza, the in-house Chino Latino spotlights modern Pan-Asian cuisine presented with flair in a relaxing environment.

Perfect for an active short break ­– Leeds Bradford Airport welcomes a selection of direct flights from Belfast City Airport.

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