“The owls are not what they seem.” Indeed, they are not just a decorative landmark to be largely ignored as we skip past on our merry way around Leeds city centre, they are a symbol of the city’s heritage and a monument to the people and events that built it. And if you are seeking a fun, free and physical activity to pass a couple of hours, you could do much worse than follow the enlightening Leeds Owl Trail.
Born from an idea by two local artists in 2004, the trail was officially launched in 2009, and originally featured ten locations dotted around the civic quarter of Leeds. Within months a further 15 locations had been spotted by the public, as if mimicking the ever-alert, 360 degrees, rotating-headed wonder of our hoot-happy feathered friends.
Now the trail consists of 25 locations over roughly a couple of miles and is split into two separate walks, which done together will take approximately two hours, depending on how long you spend finding them and how side-tracked you get by other visible wonderments along the way.
The ‘Civic Owl Trail’ has ten locations and starts at Millennium Square, where the 1933-built owls were joined by two bold new ones in 2000, and then the walk extends to take in the Town Hall and Central Library amongst other landmarks. This was the original Owl Trail from 2009 but in 2010 the ‘Grand Owl Trail’ was added, which has 15 locations from South Parade down to the Leeds Minster at Kirkgate, with plentiful zig-zagging of the metropolis in between.
Be aware that not all of the owls are exactly staring you in the face, and not all are dazzling and golden like the newest one added in the Trinity Centre. Some of the owls are crumbling stone carvings, some are tarnished by industrial weathering, some are etched in glass and some are even woven into tapestry. But each owl tells a story, literally, as a brief explanation is given as to why the owl is in each location and what it has seen in its lifetime. As the Owl Trail's official website says, the trail is a 'voyage across history' and aims to 'inform and inspire people about Leeds' rich heritage.'
The owl, of course, is significant because of the appearance of three of them on the Leeds city coat-of-arms, created in 1626 when Charles l made Leeds an official borough. This historical symbol of Leeds also depicts a fleece, representing the city’s textile industry.
Learning that alone is a good start in understanding more about the city, but the self-guided walking tour is in itself an education in civic pride, opening up a treasure trove of anecdotes and historical nuggets that enhance your appreciation of the city and breathing life into the incidental things we walk past every day.
Taking in the easy and accessible walk – liberally sprinkled with places to stop and have a drink, a rest and a bite to eat – is a great way to embrace the history around us and link it with the relevance of today. So pop in to the Leeds City Museum to pick up the location map and off you trot – just don't forget to look up.