A week in Leeds!
The 44 people who had signed up for my 1994 Kangaroo rugby league supporters’ tour were horrified, when I first raised the prospect.
‘Leeds? It’s an ugly city, in industrial heartland’, they cried.
I convinced them they would enjoy the week, and that it would be a pleasant change, to stay in one place for so long, in contrast to tours like those conducted by Trafalgar, where you must have suitcases out the door each morning, for the next leg of the journey.
I had stayed in Leeds, once a thriving wool centre, for long stretches, when covering the 1982 and ’86 Kangaroo tours, and also had visited the city a number of times during trips to the UK in 1978 and 1989.
Well, by the time we arrived there, it would be into the fourth week of our 37 day European adventure, which was to start in Rome, arriving in London two weeks later, in time for the First Test between Australia and Great Britain at Wembley Stadium.
I thought a week in a quality hotel – the Marriott – in a big city, like Leeds, would be the ideal respite for our weary crew.
Leeds is known as the ‘London of the North’, with plenty of pubs, restaurants and places of entertainment, and many other attractions such as the City market, an Edwardian precinct.
And, afterall, it is rugby league heartland, boasting the Headingley based Leeds outfit, as well as Hunslet at South Leeds.
On leaving London, two days after the Test (which Australia lost) we undertook a cruise on the Grand Union Canal in Northamptonshire, through the 3.5km Blisworth Tunnel, to the hillside village Stoke Bruerne, where we had a fish and chips at ‘The Boat Inn’, which had been in the hands of the same family since 1877.
On that first night in Leeds we had finger food at the ‘Family and Commercial Victoria Hotel’, served by delightful Irish barmaid, Bridget, (in the bar named after her, and still called Bridget’s Bar, to this day) and joined by British Rugby League luminary, Harry Jepson; noted father and son photographers, John Varley and Andrew Varley, and the Leeds Town Crier.
So far so good. There were smiles all round from my group members.
The next day we embarked on a tour of the Yorkshire Dales, after a leg stretch at Bolton Abbey, which is featured in the award winning rugby league movie, ‘This Sporting Life’, starring Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts.
On Wednesday, October 26 the touring Kangaroos played Sheffield Eagles at Don Valley Stadium, Sheffield.
On the way we stopped in Huddersfield, to genuflect at The George Hotel, where the Northern union (forerunner of rugby league) was formed in 1895. While we were there, former Great Britain rugby league skipper, Tommy Bishop’s tour group (from Australia) also pulled up, not just to pay homage, but also to book into the hotel, because that’s where they would be staying.
From Huddersfield, we drove across the Pennines, through country made ‘famous’ (at least, I thought so) by the television comedy ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. It turned out, that my wife and I were the only ones who had heard of the series, and my wife thought it was boring.
Oh well. We also intended to visit Chatswood House in Derbyshire, but that idea went out the window when our coach was caught behind a wide load.
Instead we ‘killed time’ at the High Peak village of Castleton, which boasts four ‘show caves’.
The match against Sheffield was a real fizzer, with Australia winning 80-2, with Andrew Ettingshausen scoring three tries. One had to feel sorry for Sheffield (captained by Welshman, Anthony Farrell and coached by Gary Hetherington), given the Kangaroos were still smarting from their shock loss to Great Britain at Wembley five days earlier.
The following day our intrepid Welsh driver, Johnny, guided our coach north from Leeds to Knaresborough, and then south again to the beautiful village of Ledsham, where we had lunch at the Chequers Inn, where publican Chris Wraith made us feel welcome.
The pub, noted for its small and cosy rooms, low beamed ceilings and open fires, also features a number of photographs of Castleford Rugby League players in action, including two of my favorites, Mal Reilly and Alan Hardisty.
The Chequers – famous for its Theakston Best Bitter – also was the spot where our group photograph was taken by Andrew Varley, who was born in the village, and whose parents still lived there. Ledsham was also the home village of Mal Reilly, who worked at one of the breweries at nearby Tadcaster.
On Friday, October 28 our group enjoyed the North Yorkshire Moors Rail trip from Pickering, on a bright, sunny day. The coastal town of Whitby was our next stop, and most people tucked into fish and chips.
That night, our group rocked up at ‘The Grand’ Music Hall, back in Leeds, for the play, ‘Hot Stuff’, featuring the music of the likes of Gloria Gaynor, Sex Pistols, Donna Summer, Marc Bolan and Gary Glitter. Most of the group enjoyed it, although some of the older members couldn’t wait for it to end.
Saturday, October 29 was a free day, and my father, Jon and I accompanied Yorkshire Post chief league writer, Ray Fletcher on a walk along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, as far as Bingley.
Sunday, October 30 was another free day, and many of our group attended the Leeds v Wakefield match at Headingley, mingling with local fans in the crowd of 12,000. (Ellery Hanley scored three tries in Leeds’ 38-10 win).
Others enjoyed the quiet surrounds of the Marriott, because the following day we were heading north to Scotland.
Back on the road again.
And, may I say, every member of our group gave the thumbs up to my choice of Leeds as our base for an entire week.
More at a later date.
1 Stoke Bruerne
2 Bridget at Family and Commercial Victoria Hotel in Leeds
3 Don Munro (left) and Doug Cory at ‘The George Hotel’, Huddersfield
4 Steve Ricketts Kangaroos’ rugby league supporters’ group outside Chequers Inn, Ledsham.