This last year, with a guidebook to research and three energetic boys to keep entertained, I’ve been using my Family and Friends Railcard to roam the northeast and northwest of England on a budget. Unlikely as it may seem, one of our favourite spots has been Leeds, which, though fully deserving of its reputation as Yorkshire’s stag and hen capital, has a surprising amount to offer in terms of family breaks.
I lured my sons – who always want to know why we are going somewhere – to Leeds with the promise of plenty of swashbuckling and bloodthirsty goings-on at the Royal Armouries Museum. A fantastic place to bring boys in particular – it’s free to visit and full of space to run around in – the UK’s national museum of arms, armour and artillery counts among its dastardly delights some of Henry VIII’s armour, weapons from some of the world's biggest conflicts, and oddities including some Indian armour made from armadillo skin. My boys loved the under-10s play area, where they were able to shoot mini-crossbows and dress up as knights. They were also hugely impressed by the thrilling live display of Samurai swordmanship, one of a program of activities and events that it’s worth timing your visit to coincide with – other highlights include horse shows with jousting, stable tours, falconry displays and sword sessions for ages 10–16 (note that there are charges for some shows and activities).
The Royal Armouries Museum was worth the trip to Leeds alone, but we were making a mini-break of it so also spent a few hours checking out the Leeds City Museum (also free) with its four floors of interactive galleries on everything from local history to ancient civilisations. The boys were particularly taken by the giant map of the city that you can walk (or run around) on to discover its places of interest and different communities. It was particularly fun to locate and stand on Harewood House, an 18th-century residence just outside Leeds that we had visited the day before. Harewood’s Capability Brown gardens include lakeside and woodland walks, but its main appeal for kids is its famous Bird Garden and its fabulous adventure playground. Those and the sweet shop and the fish-and-chip shop, that is…
There are plenty of places to stay and eat with kids in Leeds. For a splurge, we recommend 42 The Calls, a great city-break boutique hotel within an 18th-century cornmill on a cobbled street. Families can avail themselves of either interconnecting rooms or a Director’s room (or the Penthouse Suite) with extra beds. The room-service pizzas for the boys and fishcakes for me went down well, and the boys enjoyed themselves sketching the busy life of the canal beyonds our window for their dad, who couldn’t be with us. But it was the breakfast that made their stay – the way to most kids’ hearts surely being to offer them a choice of 12 kinds of home-made sausage – while I felt spoiled by the complimentary glass of wine on arrival, the super-comfy beds and the deep claw-foot bath.
For those on a tighter budget, we also rate Roomzzz Leeds City, an apart-hotel including one- or two-bedroom suites for four, all with compact kitchens with dishwashers and washer-driers. Although the benefits of serviced apartments such as this obviously include the facility to eat in, room rates at Roomzzz include a Grab & Go breakfast of fruit, fruit juice, pastries, and tea/coffee, which you pick up in reception. Our Maxima Suite with its double bedroom and bunkbed room was perfect in every way bar that my room, at the front, suffered a lots of noise from the street throughout the night – Leeds is a rowdy party town and if you stay centrally you do need to take this into account when booking. On the plus side, the in-room Apple iMac provided some diversion for the boys and a bit of chill-out time for me.
Our other Leeds recommendation is Piazza by Anthony, an offshoot of the more famous and very cutting-edge Anthony’s Restaurant, which was set up by a chef who served time at Spain’s legendary El Bulli. Piazza is set within the old Corn Exchange building with its stunning domed ceiling, and incorporates a larger (and less expensive) all-day restaurant, an informal cantina, a champagne bar, a bakery and patisserie, a chocolaterie and a cheese and artisan-food shop. With bakery-fresh breads and a wide-ranging menu that runs from fish and chips to the likes of squid-ink pasta with roast squid and garlic oil, this is a great spot for parents who want to eat great food in inspiring surroundings without having to leave the kids at home.