Saturday, 6 August 2011

Home Tourist 2 - The Leeds Owl Trail

Yesterday my two daughters and I braved the rain and headed to Leeds in order to find some owls. When I posted a message on my twitter account that we were going on the Owl Trail, a friend who lives in London asked, "What, pray tell, is the Leeds Owl Trail?". When I explained that it wasn't, in fact, some huge aviary dedicated to owls but rather a semi guided walk through Leeds city centre, in the course of which you search for statues, carvings, pictures and other representations of owls, his reply was, "Genius!" And it is...

Finding activities suitable for a ten year old and a five year old to enjoy that caters for both ages, is interactive, outdoors and (best of all) free is not an easy task but I remembered seeing the leaflet for the Leeds Owl Trail in the tourist information centre at Leeds Station on a previous visit, and thought that we would give it a go. So, having more or less convinced the two monkeys that they would enjoy the day, we set out.

Minimonkey (5 going on 30) took some drawing paper, pencils and a word search book with her "in case I get bored and need a sit down" - these all made an appearance on the short train journey between Bingley and Leeds but were not seen again all afternoon. The word search book was, I soon realised, just a cunning ploy to get her little hands on the highlighter pen that I have in my bag and keep it for the day in order to mark on the map the locations of any owls we might discover on our quest. Midimonkey (10 going on 35) took the Harry Potter book that she is re-reading for the second time. I think she was secretly hoping that Hedwig might put in a suprise appearance during the day.

We picked up the leaflet in the tourist information shop and had a quick pre-expedition study of the terrain. The graphical representation of the city centre is colourful and engaging, with photographs of the owls you need to spot and a brief statement about each one placed around the edges. There is a good deal of information squeezed onto the leaflet and our recce soon revealed that there were several owls to find quite near to the station. So, takng a rather carefree approach, we fastened up our raincoats and headed off in search of owl number 17.

This is one of the strengths of the trail, it can be followed in a number of ways: start with owl number 1 and work your way through all twenty five of them, pick a random number and try to find it, take the i-Spy book approach and just tick them off as you go about your business (no points awarded for finding them, though, in this case!) We found the first owl and were away. It soon became clear that the trail combines social history, architecture, folk-lore and art in a way that encourages visitors to Leeds to take a closer look around them. I am sure that other cities have something in a similar vein but having the owl theme just gives this experience a little something extra.

By the time we had ticked off owls number 16, 14 and 15 the girls were hooked. "This is really good fun, Dad!" Mini exclaimed as she spotted the carved owl on Hepper House (no.13). "It's more fun than I thought it was going to be." Midi agreed. We stood just inside the entrance of the posh hotel that now houses the Quebec Owl, dripping quietly onto the expensive carpet whilst gazing up at the elaborate and beautiful stained glass window. Nobody seemed to mind the bedraggled trio who clearly were not guests. Perhaps they were used to 'owl tourists'? We made up our own 'Owl Detectives' theme tune and sang it as we went round. We even searched in the style of action heroes, making dramatic pointing gestures and running across Millenium Square in slow-motion. On reaching the large golden owls outside the Civic Hall, however, Midi had noticed that some people were staring and mumbled, "Okay Dad, that's enough, you're embarrassing me now!" Ah, lost innocence...

The Monkeygirls on the Owl Trail

In a calmer manner we carried on searching for the owls, learning along the way the different materials that were used for the buildings, the architects' names, the predominant style in which the buildings were built. Midi read the map and lead the way, Mini coloured in the finds with the highlighter, and I had a lovely afternoon with my daughters. The rain stopped and the sun came out, illuminating the stones of St Anne's Cathedral. Mini declared that she was tired and needed a chai tea in Starbucks (her mother's daughter, definitely) and so we called it a day. Over a warm drink we chatted about the day; both girls had enjoyed the experience. Midi had liked the historical aspect of the trail, finding out about the City itself. Mini had liked finding the different types of owls and drew a picture of several on the paper she had brought with her. We had found twelve of the twenty-five owls on the trail - although technically we had discovered thirteen as there is one above the door to the old post office in City Square that does not currently appear on the list - and will definitely come back to find the remainder.

On the whole, the Leeds Owl Trail is a winner for anyone, either with or without kids, who is interested in architecture, history and art, and wants a novel way to discover the heritage of Leeds City Centre. It is fairly easy walking with no great distances involved, Leeds Parish Church being the current furthest point from the train station. The roads around King Street, Quebec Street, East Parade, The Headrow, and Park Row are busy and care should be taken when crossing them, especially with an energetic five-year-old! Drivers seem to care little for pedestrians, owl-hunters or no, as evidenced by the taxi driver who took great pleasure in driving through a huge puddle, soaking some poor young chap in a suit who looked like he was on his way to a meeting. So, if you do decide to follow the recommendation of a flawed monkey and two of the monkeykids, we hope you enjoy spotting the Leeds owls. For more information log on to

Now, how do you get bright yellow ink off of monkey paws? Mini, come here...!

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