The Explorer’s Road

A touring route through the cultural and historic heart of England.

For two thousand years the English have travelled a highway which connects north to south along a 500km route through the historic and cultural heart of the nation. Now curious travellers can get to know England and the English by exploring their traditions and eccentricities, enjoying their much-loved countryside, and revealing hidden attractions and landmarks known only to local people as you tour the Explorer’s Road.

The Explorer’s Road offers a huge variety of attractions and experiences. Each day you can choose from sightseeing at stately homes and castles, uncovering English history at fascinating and quirky museums, walking and cycling in stunning landscapes or exploring ancient market towns and historic cities. Each evening we invite you to take your pick from traditional coaching inns and cosy bed and breakfasts to pubs with rooms, country house hotels or up market city-based properties and enjoy good food in good company served up with a warm welcome.

As one of Yorkshire’s biggest and best-connected cities, welcoming, compact Leeds is perfectly situated in the heart of the UK. With a strong industrial past, you’ll find independent shops tucked in ornate Victorian arcades and dynamic cultural attractions befitting its rich heritage.

Leeds evolved from an Anglo-Saxon township that stretched along the River Aire, thriving as a centre for cloth and wool production and, later, as the industrial capital of Yorkshire. Its heritage is still celebrated and kept vividly alive. The Edwardian Kirkgate Market, on the aptly named Vicar Lane which leads to Leeds Cathedral, celebrates the city’s artisan makers; stalls and permanent shops are filled with hand-crafted jewellery, clothing, and art. Its food offering, with everything from chapatis to cockles and head-sized Yorkshire puddings, represents the region’s diversity in the most delicious way. The covered space hosts regular farmers’ markets, bazaars and festivals, and is becoming a popular place for a craft beer and a nibble in the evenings.

Nearby, the Leeds Corn Exchange shelters independent retailers under its enormous, intricately carved dome, which provided the perfect light for when corn was traded there in the late 1800s. Typical of the magnificent architecture in Leeds, The Corn Exchange is a wonderful example of how the city embraces its past and blends it with modern trends for independent shopping.

It’s the Victorian connections, though, that are most apparent as you wander along the pedestrianised, tree-lined streets. Potter around the Victorian Shopping Quarter to marvel at the seemingly effortless melding of old and new. The arcades, built by theatre architect Frank Matcham in 1900, are rich in ornate detail and texture. A sensitive restoration in the 1980s only increased their aesthetic appeal; the colour-dappled roof, designed by Brian Clarke, is Europe’s largest modern stained-glass roof. This is a shopping experience set in architectural splendour, for which Leeds is renowned.

Trinity Leeds shopping centre is a little more modern, yet somehow slots sensitively into the landscape. It was designed very much with the city’s heritage in mind, blending sleek design with nods to the Victorian streetscape. The roof, covering more than 120 shops, restaurants and bars, curves like a steel spiderweb and perfectly frames views of the Holy Trinity Church, after which the centre was named.

Indulge in further Victorian lavishness at Harewood House, a 25-minute drive from the city centre. This grand country pile played host to a young Princess Victoria in 1835, just prior to her coronation. The house itself is a labyrinth of antiques-filled rooms. Look out for fine examples of original Chippendale furniture in the State Rooms.

The crowning glory, however, is outside. The formal gardens were designed by renowned 18th-century landscape architect Capability Brown. There are four sq km to explore. Take a turn around the lake, call on Humboldt penguins, burrowing owls and Chilean flamingos in the Bird Garden, and inhale the mingled scents of lavender, kitchen herbs and hothouse blooms in the Walled Garden. On summer weekends, hop aboard onsite boat The Capability and sail on the lake.

At any time of year, Leeds is perfectly positioned for outdoor exploration. Roundhay Park has three sq km of parkland, lakes, and woodland groves with walking trails, just a few kilometres outside the city centre. Or stride around the six sq km of Temple Newsam House, a Tudor-Jacobean mansion. Its Home Farm, with rare breed cattle, sheep and goats, is especially delightful for children (and anyone who derives joy from observing animals).

The 11km Meanwood Valley Trail, meandering from Woodhouse Moor Car Park, minutes from the city centre, and ending at Golden Acre Park, takes you through nature reserves and down paths overhung by old-growth trees. Look to your right, about two-thirds into the route, to see the Seven Arches Aqueduct, part of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal – and another example of Victorian innovation. A portion of the Pennine Way National Trail, one of England’s most beloved walks, is right on the doorstep, too; join it at the Royal Armouries Museum to pass by nature parks and follow riverside paths.

If this abundant beauty, both natural and shaped by human hands, leaves you feeling inspired, you’re far from the first. Leeds’ literary sons and daughters are as diverse as playwright Alan Bennett and romance novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford. Delve deeper into the city’s literary scene at Thornton Arcade, another fine example of a Victorian glass-and-ironwork shopping centre, with several tucked-away bookshops.

Leeds’ cultural dynamism is one of its biggest draws for visitors and residents. The city has four universities – University of Leeds, Leeds Trinity, and Leeds Beckett University and the Leeds Arts University – and a suitably cerebral arts scene. Small, independent galleries and studios await down side streets and within those Victorian arcades. Leeds Art Gallery’s collection of 20th-century art is considered one of the best outside London. Henry Moore began carving out his sculpting career in Leeds. See a vast collection of his works, and pieces by other artists, at the Henry Moore Institute, right in the city centre.

Find further inspiration on the stage. The Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House – another elegant example of Victorian architecture, opened in 1878 – puts on West End musicals and is home to Opera North and Northern Ballet. City Varieties Music Hall was founded above a pub in 1865, and quickly rose from those humble beginnings; Charlie Chaplin and Harry Houdini are among the enduringly famous names to have performed there.

Today, you’re more likely to catch a famous band performance, spoken-word show, or National Theatre Live production. Just as in Victorian times, the theatre – and the city – knows how to put on a jolly good show.