Leeds cultural quarter grows on city fringe

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Fringe Events: It’s not just Leeds First Direct Arena attracting the punters. Neil Hudson talks to those who are helping turn the city limits into a new cultural playground

TWO years ago if you found yourself walking at night across the area at the top side of the Merrion Centre, you would probably have got a move on in order to get somewhere a little but more, shall we say, populated.

Today, however, even after the sun has long gone, the area is full of people milling about, often into the small hours and there’s no sense of danger, even though this is still technically the edge of the city centre.

The reason for this abrupt change in demographics is, of course, largely down to the Leeds First Direct Arena but there’s something else going on too, because it’s not just the arena which is drawing the crowds.

Certain people may have reeled from the shock closure of the Cockpit last month but in true Shakespearean style, a new king has risen up in the form of The Key Club, which is run by the same people, Futuresound.

Ben Ray has worked for them for the last decade and now runs SlamDunk, a separate side of the business which began as a club night but is now a business in its own right.

“It’s a new arena era,” began the former events co-ordinator who first came to Leeds as a student in 2001.

“It’s sad the Cockpit closed, I was upset about it, because I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life in the place, not just in terms of the business but socially as well. It was sad to see it go.”

The decision to abandon the long-standing Leeds night spot, which came to epitomise the spit-and-sawdust indie rock scene, shoehorned as it was into one of the railway arches of Leeds Railway Station, was not taken lightly.

Indeed, it was its industrial location which was its undoing. Long-standing problems with a leaking roof and other maintenance issues meant the place, which is still owned by Network Rail, needed a complete overhaul.

While the Cockpit will rightly live on in people’s memories as one of the stand-out music venues of the north - the popular venue has played host to some of the biggest names in the industry during its two-decade run, including The White Stripes, Amy Winehouse, Arctic Monkeys, Queens of the Stoneage, Flaming Lips and The Libertines - things have moved on.

“It’s a new fresh start,” continued Ben. “There were limitations with the Cockpit, not just in terms of its condition but also its location and what was around it, although,” he adds. “It did have good transport links, in terms of the train station being right next door.”

While the Cockpit’s successor The Key Club, which is located in the Merrion Centre, might not have its own railway station, what it does have is a regular flow of tens of thousands of people past its doors.

“One of the advantages of being where we are now is there’s so much more going on around us in terms of bars and other places to visit. It’s also in a really great position for students, because there are now a lot more halls of residence being built in the city and that’s good for us.

“Leeds now has a great selection of small venues and while I understand people might be sad about some places closing, this is just what happens: venues close over time and others open to take their place.”

Ash Kollakowski co-owns the Belgrave Music Hall, which has just celebrated its first birthday and he says there’s a real buzz about the new emerging ‘arena quarter’.

The 39-year-old, who also c0-owns one of Leeds’s oldest drinking dens, Whitelocks, in the city centre and skateboard shop in the Thornton Arcade, said: “The top end of town is a lot better these days. There’s the arena, the O2 Academy, the Key Club, ourselves - there’s a definite feel about it, it’s suddenly become a lot more cultural. I like the term ‘cultural quarter’.

Since opening, the Belgrave Music Hall has gone from strength to strength. It comprises a beer hall capable of taking 300 people but also has roof-top terraces, not to mention two kitchens downstairs, which they let for free to various ‘pop up’ vendors, meaning the place can be serving Vietnamese noodles one day and Brazilian beef burgers the next. In addition to that, the venue is also a place to go and see music and other performers.

One of the cornerstones of Ash’s philosophy is that his venue has an open-door policy to families - as he puts it: “Kids and dogs are always welcome.”

He adds: “That was a conscious decision. I’m of an age now where a lot of people around me are having kids and there’s a difficulty sometimes in terms of where do families go, so we’ve embraced that. We have a children’s corner with things for them to do - like watching a movie - and then things for the adults to do, like having a drink and reading the paper, while the kids are playing.

“I think people’s views have changed in that when they have children, they don’t want to just stay inside for the next 20 years and likewise, we don’t want people to feel like the odd one out just because they’ve come out with their kids. Overall, it makes it feel a bit more welcoming.”

The son of a Leeds Market stallholder - his father ran a fruit and veg stall - Ash is originally from Ilkley but came to Leeds 20 years ago in search of work. After a number of jobs, including stints at Sous le Nez and the Box Tree, he and some friends managed to save enough to buy Whitelocks, which dates back to the 18th Century and is reputed to have been the first pub in Leeds with a licence.

When the chance came to acquire the Belgrave Music Hall, he and his partners jumped at it.

“I remember a couple of months beforehand, we went to the Bruce Springsteen concert at the arena and when we came out we were bowled over by the number of people here. It’s basically 13,500 people per gig and that’s massive and it’s great for any business.”

So, while he’s a fan of the emerging cultural fringe, does he have any suggestions?

“Yes,” he enthuses. “Parking needs to be sorted out. Parking for free only after 10pm suits no-one. I think the council ought to make it so people can park in the city for free on a Sunday.”

Helen Green, associate director of Estates for Town Centre Securities, which owns the Merrion Centre, said: “The Arena Quarter is becoming a real hive of activity and a sought after destination day and night. We’re delighted to be hosting another club venue.”