“You need only look up to see you’re rarely alone”: on the owls of Leeds

The owl on the front of Leeds Civil Hall. Image: Getty.

Change is nothing new when it comes to cities. I lived in Leeds for four years as a student, and in that time I saw a lot of architectural innovation. The Leeds First Direct Arena went up, as did Trinity, the huge, glassy shopping haven; the University itself has been in a near-permanent state of construction for the last few years.  The centre looks very different now compared to when I first moved there in 2012.

Through all of this modernisation and change, though, the plethora of decorative owls adorning the city’s buildings remained an ever-stable constant, taking the updates in their stride.

Owls have been part of Leeds’ heritage since their addition to the city’s coat of arms back in 1626. Three owls feature on the coat of arms, two flanking a golden fleece – a nod to wool textiles, Leeds’ most prominent industry at the time – and another perched at the top. The owls were originally depicted as silver in colour, and originated from Yorkshire MP Sir John Saville’s family coat of arms. They were added to the crest when he became first Alderman of Leeds – the titular head of the city council.

The Savilles came to Leeds from Anjou, in France, when William the Conqueror gifted them a large amount of land in Yorkshire in exchange for their support at the Battle of Hastings.


After their induction into the crest, the owls became both an accepted and expected part of Leeds’ civic persona. For over 400 years, it has been a tradition to integrate an owl or two into any new major building in the city.

In 2004, local artists Antonia Stowe and Clifford Stead set about investigating the history of the city’s owls and their inclusion on the Leeds coat of arms. They spent years on it, and their discoveries led to the opening of the Leeds Owl Trail in 2009.

In fact, there are two trails to follow: the Civic Owl Trail, consists of 10 sites mainly focused around the Civic Hall, while the Grand Owl Trail, takes in 25 spread all over the city centre. But those 25 owls are by no means an exhaustive list: owls lurk in every nook and cranny of the city, from tiny graffiti doodles on street corners to pins and badges decorating warm winter coats. 

The owls range dramatically in scale and design. The largest and most prominent owls are the four, nine-foot-tall birds that sit commandingly atop columns at the front and rear of the Civic Hall. They were created by the architect John Thorp, the last person to hold the title of Civic Architect in the UK, and were installed in 2000. It’s fitting that Thorp was the one to create these gargantuan guardians; he’s often cited as being the man who shaped modern Leeds.  

An interactive map of the owls.

Looking down over the city and its residents from their fixed perches, you might expect the owls to lend an oppressive, Big Brother-esque feeling to the streets. But, I find them rather comforting in their quiet immutability and stoicism. They’re there through every season, watching from many a building top or street corner – you need only look up to see you’re rarely alone in Leeds. It’s hard to imagine anyone who couldn’t find something to enjoy in the game of owl-spotting – except, perhaps, ornithophobes.

The owls have seen me at my best (coming out of my finals, ecstatic to be finished); and at my worst (most likely the early hours of the morning the day after those finals, one too many pints down). Every time I glimpse something adorned with owls, I think of Leeds; it never fails to make me smile.

Some cities have roaring lions, some have fire-breathing dragons, but Leeds will always have its beloved feathered patrons to watch over its residents, unblinking and omniscient.  

Hannah Tomes tweets as @_hannah_tomes.

 
 
 
 

A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.