A world-class weaponry and armour collection, from rare swords to an umbrella gun, is on display at this excellent, free family-friendly museum
In a nutshell
The HQ of the UK’s oldest museum collection (split with the Tower of London and Fort Nelson in Fareham) is a purpose-built citadel of gleaming steel and polished glass. Opened in 1996 and overlooking Leeds Dock, the Royal Armouries has centuries of weapons and armour from around the world spread over five floors. There are themed galleries, including Oriental (with the only surviving example of elephant armour) and Tournament (showcasing Henry VIII’s curly-horned helmet), and the impressive Hall of Steel containing thousands of spears and breastplates ranged in patterns up its walls. Several displays managed to overcome my teenage son’s world-weary indifference, such as Empress Elizabeth of Russia’s intricate rifles, an assassin’s tiny crossbow and a sneaky umbrella gun.
The Self Defence gallery includes a case of stuff for killing vampires, including wooden stakes, a Belgian pistol, crucifix, holy water, bottled garlic, and rosary beads. Nearby, there is a “pulse rifle” from the movie Aliens and five shining Swords of Middle Earth from Lord of the Rings.
Best thing(s) about it
“The samurai armour and samurai swords. And the crossbow range,” according to my friend’s nephew, nine-year-old Ayen, who’s been to the museum five times. My son liked the sword-fighting demonstrations and agreed the crossbow range was fun.
What about lunch?
There is a limited selection of lunch dishes in the basic ground-floor bistro, snacks in the coffee shop and a picnic area upstairs with vending machines – and views. The bistro serves cakes for about £2, toasties with salad and chips (£5.50) and ham, cheese or tuna salads (£5.95). There’s a Pizza Express one minute’s walk away on the dockside and more choices not too far off in the centre of the city.
Exit through the gift shop?
Absolutely. Packed with stuff for junior warriors and historians of all ages, from Playmobil Knights to Game of Thrones-style dragon eggs. There’s a table full of Horrible Histories books and a shelf of cuddly armoured elephants. Ayen “got a catapult pencil sharpener ages ago, which still works”.
It’s a (mostly) traffic-free 15-minute walk along the river from Leeds railway station. Even better, get the free, yellow water taxi, which leaves every 20 minutes from Granary Wharf just behind the station and drops off right outside the Armouries. Alternatively, the city’s biggest car park (Clarence Dock) is near the museum and charges £6 for up to four hours.
Daily 10am-5pm, closed 24-26 December.
Value for money?
Brilliant. Entry to the Armouries and a ride on the water taxi from the railway station are both free; the museum is huge and it is easy to spend several hours there. There are also free demonstrations of various martial techniques. The crossbow range costs £3 for eight bolts. Some holiday activities have free re-enactments and archery practice; others charge a fee, such as the Easter jousting tournament (19-22 April) with real horses in the outdoor Tiltyard (family ticket from £26).
For Ayen it was 9/10; for my teenager 8/10, proving the Royal Armouries’ impressive mix of action and display can engage even kids who think they don’t like museums (and parents who thought military museums were boring).