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Meet the people preparing Leeds for Christmas

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 November 2016 | UPDATED: 10:04 11 November 2016

Leeds Corn Exchange Photo: Simon Dewhurst

Leeds Corn Exchange Photo: Simon Dewhurst

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Meet the people spreading festive cheer in Leeds as the city prepares for Christmas. Martin Pilkington reports

When you hear someone whinge about how hard it is preparing for Christmas, spare a thought for Leeds. As the unofficial capital of Yorkshire and, in retail terms, of the entire north, every year the city has to try to better the previous festive period.

That means a lot of hard work and planning. ‘The council’s preparations for Christmas start almost immediately after Christmas the year before,’ says council leader Judith Blake. ‘So, for example, for the annual German Market, which opens on November 11th this year, we sit down with the organisers and discuss how it went and how we can work together to make it better.’

Attracting people into the centre is vital for the city’s retail economy. ‘It feels as though it’s started when we turn the Christmas lights on, this year on November 10th,’ she adds. ‘Last year about 20,000 people came into the city centre to watch the show. The next day the German Market opens on Millennium Square – last year we estimate it had around 840,000 visitors.’

Leeds has become a true shopping destination, never more so than in the run-up to Christmas and, again, that success is built on effort. ‘It takes about six months preparation to be ready for Christmas. Everybody in Leeds expects us to do something that stands out in the city,’ says Adam Warner of the Corn Exchange.

Spectacular lights at the Trinity centreSpectacular lights at the Trinity centre

The iconic circular shopping arcade was transformed overnight on November 2 into a winter wonderland, complete with five Christmas trees and, as befits a heritage building, masses of traditional decorations. This year a new element, planned in collaboration with the BID team, was the illumination of the building to a spectacular design created by a specially commissioned artist.

Inevitably, this year a great deal of attention will be directed towards the new £165 million Victoria Gate retail development which launched on October 20. General manager James Bailey said: ‘The compelling thing about this scheme is that normally when retail centres open it’s about relocating existing brands from the high street to the centre, but we are bringing 20 new-to-Leeds brands. For some it’s the first time outside London. The philosophy is about adding to the Leeds retail offer.

‘We have loads of activities on in the arcade and, to get people in the Christmas mood, the decorations and lights are all lined up ready to go in early November.’

For the many entertainment venues in the city the Christmas period is equally important. The council plays a part there too, with its own theatre, the Carriageworks, this year presenting Cinderella from December 2nd to January 7th, though it has plenty of rivals. And in this sector too preparation begins early. ‘It has taken nine months or more of planning,’ says Amy Crumpton, publicist for Snow White and the Seven dwarfs at the Tetley.

Shoppers enjoy the celebration atmposhereShoppers enjoy the celebration atmposhere

‘We booked the first stars in April, though we only confirmed Scotty T from Geordie Shore as the Prince in June. Rehearsals start in October, and the show opens in a pop-up theatre, a massive big top tent in the Tetley’s space, on December 8th.’

Heaven forefend that Christmas should just be about shops and theatres. At the Cathedral Church of St Anne, as in numerous churches across the city and beyond, it’s the time when choristers belt out their best – or so choir masters like Thomas Leech, director of the dinging programme for the Diocese of Leeds, will hope.

‘Our programme is different from other cathedrals,’ he says. ‘It’s all based in schools, the largest programme of its kind, with our staff working in schools across the diocese, helping them prepare for Christmas music and Christmas events.

‘It’s a very special time of year for our choirs and choral directors; at times frantically busy, at times exhilarating and – when the cathedral’s silent before the Midnight Mass preparations start – beautifully still. Rehearsal for Christmas will start in early December as the choirs sing for daily cathedral services so there is limited time.

Beauty and the Beast, NORTHERN BALLETBeauty and the Beast, NORTHERN BALLET

‘We’re always delighted with the musical standards the children reach – we have very high aspirations for them and they always seem to exceed these.’

Members of Leeds Philharmonic Chorus are warming up for Christmas too, with carol concerts – including one at HMP Leeds – and their biennial Messiah in the programme.

For Judith Blake, there’s a major factor beyond facilities and events that brings people to the city at Christmas. ‘Leeds just won an award for enjoying the best quality of life of any city in the country. Part of that comes from the centre being so accessible, but it’s also because it’s so very friendly.’

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