Leeds: Coffee, Books, Abbey Ruins, and a Steam Train

To celebrate my 50th birthday in May, my husband David and I joined up with our friend Tillie to visit London, Leeds, and Haworth, the home of the Brontë family. Our itinerary included mostly bookish places—bookstores, libraries, and the pièce de résistance, a private tour at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. I have so many photos, I’ve had to break our adventures up into four parts.

Welcome to part two: in which our heroes drink coffee in Leeds, explore the Kirkstall Abbey ruins, and travel via steam train through the British countryside. (You can read part one here.)

Once Upon a Time…

We went to Leeds for a little quiet time on our way to Haworth from London. Dave and Tillie are working on a project together, so we spent a few days in Leeds to work (them) and relax (me). I love to find a home base when I’m traveling and just a short walk from our accommodations we discovered the Union Coffee House.

It’s a super sweet little café that serves luscious coffee, cakes (gluten free, too!), and freshly made breakfast and lunch, including a full English breakfast and—our breakfast treat on our last day—a bacon sarnie: thick-cut bacon on a ciabatta roll with butter and HP Sauce. As you can see in the photo above, they have a kickass used bookstore underneath the counter; note that one of my all-time favorite books The Historian is on display.

The café is decorated with cute second-hand furniture, mismatched plates and cups, and vintage knick-knacks—and everything is for sale. It’s a café-vintage store-bookshop hybrid, and I am so here for that. All of the books are sold for the exorbitant rate of 1 British pound each.

This piano won my heart, especially the note labels for newbies.

The first day, I enjoyed gothic fiction with my decaf, almond-milk latte…

… and the second day, I lost myself in The History of Love.

For a few days, Dave and Tillie worked, and I went for walks and lazed about our AirBnB, reading. One afternoon, we went on an outing to the Leeds Kirkgate Market. It’s the largest covered market in Europe—800 stalls!—and is a combo of household goods, restaurants, food stands, and clothing. It started as an open market in the early 1800s, survived several fires, has been roofed and renovated, and was the founding location of the modern-day department store Marks & Spencer.

This was my favorite stand because it offered Turkish delight, candied almonds, and marinated olives—plus an array of Middle Eastern pastries, and a very friendly vendor.

I cannot resist the colors and texture of Turkish delight.

Another day, we visited Kirkstall Abbey. Established around 1152 (!), the abbey is a ruined Cistercian monastery on the banks of the River Aire. To get to the abbey, we rode a bus called the Flying Tiger).

Fun fact: Patrick Brontë proposed to his soon-to-be-wife Maria there around 1812—and by 1820, they had five children, including Charlotte, Emily, and Anne.

Fun fact #2: The abbey was captured on canvas by J.M.W. Turner in 1824; see Kirkstall Abbey, on the River Aire.

The Cistercian monks at the monastery were divided into choir monks—who wore white robes and prayed seven times per day—and lay brothers, who wore brown robes, performed manual labor, and prayed three times per day. They all generally woke up at 1:00 a.m. to pray, and ate only one time each day in the winter, twice per day in the summer. I would not make a good monk.

In the 1500s, the wall underneath the large window in the photo below was knocked down to make a road through the abbey. That was the main road to Leeds.

We wandered and gawked, and I read out loud from the guide book I bought at the gift shop. It was tremendous. If you’re curious about the abbey, you can see a floor plan and more details here.

The next day, we packed our bags, hopped on the train, and stopped for a bit in Bradford—to go to a bookstore. It’s the spiky building below, and it’s now a Waterstones bookshop. Built between 1864-1867, the gothic revival building was the home of the wool exchange: deals were made on the trading floor and were verbally binding. A restaurant in the semi-basement was called the Spink’s Resturant and had an Egyptian sphinx stamped on the cutlery.

Today, the inside looks like this:

So many good books on this display! (The Little Paris Bookshop repeatedly made me ugly cry (in a good way), and The Night Circus is another all-time favorite. My TBR includes The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, A Man Called Ove, and Never Let Me Go.)

I believe I could definitely be a monk in this book church where the rules would be that we must go to sleep while reading a book and will stay in bed until at least 9:00 a.m. with a good book when we will rise and drink tea (in the summer) and hot cocoa (in the winter). The day would be spent reading to children, dogs, and cats—literary service is very important—and then we would eat recipes made from the cookbook section for dinner.

After lunch in a pub, we got back on the regular train for a short ride to Keighley, where we enjoyed the delightfully retro station and transferred to the steam train to Haworth.

Tillie, Mel, and Dave: The Noir Version.

From my journal:

At the station, we watched the coal being shoveled into the engine and chatted with the gray-haired but sprightly train men. On the train, I waved to the people standing in the impossibly green fields to watch the train go by, drank some wine, stuck my head out the window, and imagined Charlotte and Anne on their madcap trip to London.

We enjoyed the train so much, we stayed on until the end of the line, and road a few extra legs. Then we arrived in Haworth… home of the Brontës.

From my journal:

In Haworth, we dragged our suitcases up the hill I’d be warned about. It *is* very steep cobbled. It climbs past a lovely parked of velvety grass and flowering trees: pink, purple, white. At the top, it merges into the high street of the Brontë’s village. There’s the famous view looking down the stone hill to the emerald fields beyond, and the Old Apothecary Shop where Branwell Brontë bought his laudanum. The Black Bull Pub where they still have his chair; the bleak cemetery and the Parsonage. It feels unreal.

The end… for now.

Look for part three soon—Haworth: The Brontë Parsonage and Top Withens.

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  • Dana says:

    OK I gotta ask.. was it a bit of a relief to be able to speak English? When I lived in Germany, I always took a long sigh of relief when we went to an English-speaking place!

    • I really love not understanding everything that’s going on around me, and I’m enjoying practicing my Czech, so SPEAKING English didn’t feel that different in the UK. But THE BOOK STORES! Being able to pick up ANY BOOK? That was really fun.

  • Faye Daly says:

    It’s really fun to see the UK through a tourist’s eyes! Possibly not on your itinerary, but if you’re up north for a while, Whitby is amazing, it’s about an hour and a half from Leeds by car. A must for fans of gothic literature!

  • Jena Sturgis says:

    Oh one of the books in the picture is Shantaram – and you HAVE to add it to your list! It’s one of my all time favorites, and a great book about travel and love. (Also – happy birthday!)

  • Anna S says:

    OMG I was walking at Kirkstall Abbey today with my dog! We live nearby and, you’re right, it’s amazing! And Union is one of my favorite coffee spots in town for sure. Glad you enjoyed my town!