Travel: Is this the North's new style capital?

Once the domain of the cloth cap, Tetley's and the Bronte sisters, these days it's Harvey Nicks, alco-pop and... the Bronte sisters. Welcome to Leeds. By Sarah Gracie

"The beastliest place, one of the nastiest I know," said Charles Dickens on a reading tour of the city in 1852. With an average life expectancy of around 30, children condemned to 16-hour days in the cotton mills, and successive waves of cholera epidemics, you needn't have looked far for a reason. Not so now, though. You only have to put your head outside the station to smell the boom-time.

Go up Briggate from the station, towards the Victoria quarter on your right and the Arcades on your left, and you will find a shopping area that rivals any in London for panache. The gorgeous cast-iron arcades, with their mahogany and glass shop fronts, are awash with designer labels and minimalist coffee bars. Vivienne Westwood is about to open an outlet; Harvey Nichols already caters for ladies who lunch.

"Art, Liberty, Commerce and Duty," proclaim dusty figures. And the visitor has to agree: the city seems to be in an all-out tumultuous drive to reinvent the old Victorian credo. A couple of minutes south from the Arcades, down Vicar Lane, the Corn Exchange is a case in point. A handsome circular building of the mid-19th century, with a planetarium-style fretwork roof, it now doubles up as a new-age shopping mall.

One Tuesday a month it performs its old function. Farmers and merchants throng the black-painted trestle tables, beady-eyed for any spot of discoloration, sifting the grain incessantly through their hands in the wide, vertical light. Aside from this, the tiered space is converted into a honeycomb of little boutiques and craft stores selling aromatic oils and Bonsai trees, healing crystals and pyramids; cafes are in the basement.

At the back of the Corn Exchange you have another unmissable institution of old Leeds: the Kirkgate Market. A full-on bustle of cut-price lingerie, ironmongery, fruit and veg stalls, buckets of whelks, haddie and herring fresh in from Grimsby, ear-piercing and fortune-telling, it has preserved its vigorous life across the generations.

"There is no change without betrayal," as John Updike said. And with the pressure of new designer stores and a gigantic out-of-town shopping mall due to open in March, it looks as if the days of the Kirkgate may be numbered.

In the words of Old Mary, who has operated a stall here for 30 years: "Nowt's the same here anymore. The council put down flagstones instead of the tarmac. But it just trips you over. They moved me round the back of the fish market because of the fire regulations - and I've been poorly ever since. And the rents go up and up. They're slowly squeezing us out."

As for the Waterfront (a five-minute walk south of the Kirkgate down Vicar Lane), you don't complain about change. Ten years ago, you did not come here. And certainly not after dusk. It was the badlands, quite literally the wrong side of the tracks. A wilderness of derelict warehouses, mills and breweries awaiting demolition. Now it has been transformed.

On one side of the water there is the Royal Armouries Museum, built to house exhibits from the Tower of London. The architectural design is as bold as the project itself; a fabric of granite and glass pitched right in the middle of the old quays, a light and airy space in which to contemplate the rise and fall of civilisations according to the ancient arts of war.

On the other side of the water are blocks of apartments, loft spaces, high-quality restaurants. The whole is criss-crossed by little bridges which allow you to study the dynamic skyline; a thoroughly Manhattanesque negotiation of industrial past and post-modernity.

An example of this type of juxtaposition is 42 The Culls, the finest hotel in town. Designed by developer Jonathan Wix, it is a conversion from an 18th-century grain warehouse. The original oak trusses and their cast-iron pegs have been retained and a modern interior scaffolded within and around them. Next door is Poole Court, one of the city's best restaurants. And just in case the wharfs ever get above themselves and forget the origin of all luxury is in labour, it is watched over by the reassuring ghost of Joshua Tetley, in the form of an enormous 24-hour red neon sign announcing "Tetley's Brewery", visible from every angle.

A shift of wind and you catch the dense, sweet smell of the roasted malt, much as it always was. A thousand trucks, bannered with brand-label beers, gather in the forecourt (a sight you feel old Joshua would have enjoyed). The electronic hum of gigantic coppers and rolling mills is never absent.

The Brewery is also close to the site of one of Leeds's most enjoyable museums. You'll get a history of beer-making from the Middle Ages, all given through historical re-enactments done with a lot of irrepressible energy and Frankie Howerd-style humour. (There are no out-of-work actors in Leeds: they're all out doing vaudeville in the museums).

If you want the real thing to round off with, just pop in for a quick pint at the Adelphi, on the doorstep of Tetley's - fairly typical of the early brew houses with its richly panelled interior, lines of men slumped along the counter and flurry of union notices - a relief, if you need it, from all the cyber-sane smoke-free cafes.

Further north, across the Headrow and just by the Town Hall (which hosts the famous triennial piano competition) is the City Art Museum. One of the best collections of 19th- and 20th-century French and British painting outside London can be covered in a couple of hours.

And if you have the energy, try to make it a mile out of town (Yorkshire Rider bus from the Corn Exchange) to the Armley Mills Museum. Set in an old mill which only ceased operation in 1969, and covering the history of the industrial revolution from the early stream-side mills to the satanic dehumanisations of the late 19th century, you see the process of cloth- making from the delivery of the raw wool to sizing.

Many of the looms are still operable. You can experience the din, study the infernal zones where six-year-old children ran in and out of moving machinery to gather the fluff which would otherwise make a "slub" or faulty thread. And study the philanthropists' dreams of improvement: model towns conceived as Utopic solutions to the problems of the poor, but having a strange and sinister tendency to dystopia, as their pub-free grids unravel, and you notice that all the streets are named after members of the benefactor's own family.

As to nightlife, Leeds is set to overtake Newcastle as the clubbing capital of the North. Queues stretch round the block. And every third doorway bears the tell-tale signs: copper-sheet doorways, bouncers in DJs, shoals of girls in crotch-high skirts and naked midriffs, shivering in the wind.

If the queues are anything to go by, the Majestyk is the hop spot in town. Formerly a picture palace, then a bingo hall, its massive auditorium holds 3,500. The scene inside is truly Roman. Digital light displays imported from Germany, a Colosseum-style array of balconies and booths, and the longest bar in Europe.

If de rigueur alco-pop and anarchy isn't your scene, there are any number of fine restaurants to go to. One to note is Rascasse, named after the small red fish which forms the basis of the stock in bouillabaisse. The restaurant has earned itself a Michelin star and a red rosette for value in only a year. In the former terminus shed of the Aire and Calder Navigation Company, the open timber and stone spaces make a lovely place to spend an evening.

Try, too, to make the trip to Haworth. Whether you go by car (40 minutes from Leeds), by bus, or the little steam train that connects at Keighley and takes you the last leg of the journey, it will be the same.

There is something about this trip up the River Aire which is like nothing else. The dark mill chimneys multiply, and the majestic minor chords of the Industrial Revolution spread out. The building material is "Yorkshire grit", a type of stone that cleans up to noble gleam, but never shines.

At Haworth you see the fine 18th-century parsonage which Patrick Bronte bought after dragging himself up from a one-room labourer's shack in Northern Ireland (a degree from Cambridge and a change of name from Brunty to Bronte). The little stool where Emily sat outside on fine days and wrote Wuthering Heights. The couch where she died at 28, refusing to acknowledge until the last few hours that she was ill. Charlotte's tiny wedding bonnet (a fragile structure of white lace banded with green silk ribbons, "looking for all the world like a little snowdrop", as the villagers said), and the magnifying glass which Patrick Bronte used to read the Psalms in his last years after he had buried his wife and every one of his six children.

Close on 250,000 visitors tour Haworth each year, but the seething mass of teashops and Bronte memorabilia has still made remarkably little dent on the atmosphere of the place. A two-minute hike through the graveyard (whole families wiped out by tuberculosis) gets you out on the moors. And once out there, contemplating the unbroken vistas of ruddy furze and limestone outcrop, you do not ask why those "mad sad girls" wrote like that and died so young.

LEEDS FACTS

London/Leeds trains

Apex return (ie book seven days in advance): pounds 28. The journey takes under two-and-a-half hours and trains leave approximately one in each hour. You can book with a credit card on: 0345 225225/0345 991995.

London/Leeds bus

London/Leeds return costs pounds 17.50, the journey takes between three and four hours.

Leeds Tourist Office

Just to the left of the railway station as you come out. Tel: 0113 242 5242. Open Mon - Fri 9.30am-5pm, Sat 9.30am-12.30pm and 1.30pm-4pm.

Hotels

In the centre: 42 The Calls, at same address. (Tel: 0113 244 0099). Award- winning and deservedly popular: book ahead. Study room (takes two): pounds 65; standard double pounds 75.00 (two nights pounds 120.00; three nights pounds 170); The Metropole, King's Street (Tel: 0113 245 0841). Edwardian faded grandeur, complete with ballroom, at a reasonable rate. Single: pounds 55.00; Double: pounds 70.00. The Griffin, Boar Lane (Tel: 0113 242 2555). Single: pounds 45.00, double: pounds 55.00.

A mile northwest of the centre in the university area (bus 20 mins; cab pounds 3.50), there is a cluster of clean comfortable places with single rooms from pounds 20 and double rooms from pounds 36: Manxdene, 154 Woodsley Road (Tel:0113 243 2586); Avalon Guest House, 132 Woodsley Road (Tel: 0113 242 2545); Moorlea Hotel, 146 Woodsley Road (Tel: 0113 243 2653). Alternatively, take the bus to Cardigan Road for: Oak Villa Hotel: Tel: 01132 758439); The Aintree Hotel (Tel: 0113 275 8290); Manor Hotel (Tel: 0113 275 7991). Take a walk through the Headingley streets to see the back-to-backs, the parks and a vibrant mixture of mosques, cafes and old picture palaces.

Restaurants

Lots of great eating places; here are just a few:

Rascasse, Canal Wharf (Tel: 0113 244 3838); Pool Court 42 The Calls (Tel: 0113 244 4242); Bibis (for Italian), 1 Greek Street; Hereford Beefstouw, 40 The Calls; Sala Thai, 13/17 Shaw Lane Headingley: Durbar (Indian), 16 Kirkgate; Brells (fish and chips) Headingley.

Museums and galleries

Leeds City Art Gallery

(Tel: 0113 247 8248)

Entry free. Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; Sunday 1pm-5pm.

Tetley's Brewery Wharf

(Tel: 0113 242 0666)

Entry pounds 4.00. Open 10.30am-5.30pm every day except Monday.

Armley Mills Museum

(Tel: 0113 263 7861)

Open Tues-Sat 10am-5.30pm; Sunday 1pm-5pm. Entry pounds 1.20, Yorkshire Rider bus from Corn Exchange.

The Royal Armouries

(Tel: 0113 220 1999)

Open 10am-5pm every day, 10am-4pm in winter. Adult pounds 6.95, Child pounds 4.25, Family (5) pounds 20.95.

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