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.