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03 September 2013

Grand Ambitions for Leeds

Times, they are a changin’ in the Grand Arcade as an appeal’s launched to restore a shamefully neglected Leeds icon. In this article, originally commissioned for the Leeds Culture Vulture website, I share some memories of the Grand Arcade Clock and look forward to its restoration.

From the magnificant Trevi Fountain in Rome to the risible Manneken Pis in Brussels (such a lot of fuss over such a little thing) cities know the pulling power of a public spectacle. 

Its potential wasn’t lost on the Victorian retailers of Leeds, either, and when William Potts and Sons installed the Grand Arcade Clock in 1898 it was a wonder designed to draw a well-heeled clientele from rivals such as Thornton’s Arcade with its (by comparison) second-rate timepiece a bit lower down Briggate.

It clicked and whirred for almost a century until it stopped – short – maybe never to go again at some point in the 1990s, by which time the elegant shops had long gone and a distinctly less elegant club scene had taken over. Leeds didn’t seem to care very much either way; but then Leeds was also the city that turned down Anthony Gormley. It’s hardly surprising that it completely ignored a treasure which other places would have featured in brochures and promoted worldwide as a serious tourist attraction.

When your correspondent was a very small boy in the mid sixties no visit to Leeds was complete without dad taking me into the Grand Arcade to watch the clock. I would be hopping from foot to foot with excitement at the prospect of watching the figures parade. The last two minutes before the top of the hour seemed to drag for an eternity.

Then it happened. Ding dong! The knights at each side of the dial would strike their bells with their pollaxes. Four times, for the four quarters. Then a bigger bell somewhere would chime the hour. After a pause for effect the left-hand door would open, and a procession of jerky, stiff figures would emerge. 

A guardsman in red uniform with a busby. A Scot in full highland dress. 
A ‘top o’ the mornin’ Paddy’s Day parade caricature of an Irishman. 
A bloke in something like a bowler hat I could never quite identify – logic suggests he may have been Welsh. 

Finally, in an echo of Empire probably better glossed over, an Indian figure in turban and dhoti.

Each character took centre stage for a moment to perform some action – a salute, a twirl, a bow – before heading back through the right-hand door to wait his turn for another hour. I’m told there’s also a cock that crows and flaps its wings, but I can’t remember that so perhaps it had stopped working by the time I saw the timepiece in action. Disney animatronic sophistication it wasn’t. These were simpler times. Beneath the tableau the motto “Time and Tide Wait for No Man” gave me a first chilling awareness of mortality.

Now, after two decades of neglect, the Grand Arcade is coming back to life – most notably through the efforts of Anthony Blackburn and his team at Handpicked Hall, a sort of department store of arty, crafty and foody independents located in a light, airy white space that was until recently both literally and metaphorically Purgatory; the mid-level of the swingin’ hotspot known as “Heaven & Hell”. 

Anthony’s clearly on the side of the angels, and although Handpicked Hall can (after its June opening) still sometimes boast more stallholders than customers at any one time I’ll bet by Christmas it’ll be heaving with punters looking for something a bit more distinctive than the chains of Trinity can offer.

So the Handpicked traders and their longer-established neighbours have launched a campaign to “Save the Grand Arcade Clock“. To me, ‘Save’ sounds a bit negative. ‘Restore’ or ‘Celebrate’ would be nearer the mark, but ‘Save’ it is. The target is £25,000 and as of Saturday’s launch they’d raised £15-32. But that was the contents of one youngster’s piggy bank. I hope the landlords are chipping in a few bob after that gesture. 

My trainees from the Postgraduate Journalism Course at Leeds Trinity University were there to capture the launch of the appeal in this video report for Leeds Today

The objective is to get the cash together by Christmas so that the clock can be restored in the new year and herald the revival of the Grand Arcade as a lusty sibling to thrive alongside snooty big sister Victoria, indy-loving brother Thornton and the plainer but popular charms of The Queens.

 I, for one, hope they succeed.

“Leeds Today” is a twenty minute local TV news programme broadcast at 4.30pm every weekday afternoon from now until 13 September from studios at Leeds Trinity University.

All still photos courtesy of Mike Othick (m.othick@leedstrinity.ac.uk)

Video by Daniel Lynch.

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