A New Year’s Day walk into the past. After all, what better way to enjoy the beginning of 2016 than a stroll to take me back to being nine or ten years old?
I grew up in the Carr Manors in Leeds and I’d often go up to Stonegate fields to play football. When I was eight I received a blue tracksuit for Christmas, the heavy, fleecy, warm kind that was the only sort of tracksuit back them. So proud, it was off to the fields for a kick around with my best friend. The fact that I was a terrible footballer didn’t matter; the track suit would make me better. Needless to say, that hope died very quickly.
After the rain and all the floods that Yorkshire’s undergone, striding across the fields wasn’t a victory walk. Instead it was a chance to wade through a swamp, all the way to the far corner and the woods I once knew as King Arthur’s Castle, although there was never any sign of a castle when we used to hurtle our bikes around the footpaths there in an imitation of pedal-powered motocross.
Why it was called King Alfred’s Castle, none of us knew. Or cared. There are rocks to explore and places we could be daredevils. When you’re a boy, who needs more than that?
But it seems there really once was a castle there. Not a real one – that would be far too much to hope – but a folly erected in the late 18th century by a merchant named Jeremiah Dixon, with a plaque dedicating the place to Alfred the Great, the pious and magnanimous, the friend of science, virtue, law and liberty. It finally collapsed in 1946. Much better than a statue if you’re throwing your money around. Over time the hill became known as King Alfred’s Castle, until the proper name of Tunnel How has been forgotten. Even some of the streets close by have the King Alfred name. Up there is also supposedly the highest spot in Leeds, which accounts for the red Ordnance Survey marker hidden in the bracken.
So, in between the memories and cyclocross, there’s a bit of history, too. Just down Stonegate Road, even more history at Revolution Well, erected in 1788 by Joseph Oates, who owned Carr Manor (big house across the road, nowadays used for visiting judges, and ancestor of Captain Oates of Scott and the Antarctic fame). It’s some stones put together. I must have passed it often as a child but it never registered with me then. But when you’re young, ancient history is what happened to your parents or you learn in school. I never thought it could be all around me.
Put up to commemorate 100 since the arrival of William and Mary and the certainty of Protestantism in England, the carving on the north side reads: Bog in the adjoining field drain’d,/ spring open’d,/ and conducted hither/ For the benefit of the Passenger,/ and the neighbouring House/ Novr 5th, 1788/ the 100th Anniversary from the land’g of/ KING WILLIAM/ in memory of which happy AEra,/ this is by Joseph Oates inscrib’d/ THE REVOLUTION WELL.
A couple of hundred yards along the road, on the other side, stands Carr Manor Fields. Right in the middle is a standing stone. Also put up by that busy Joseph Oates, it has an inscription in Latin that translates as Neither do the lands know themselves in the turning of the years. It’s supposedly a reference to a Civil War skirmish that might have ended here. That knowledge is from the Internet. The ground was far too boggy to cross and revive my memory. Not that I could have read Latin at nine. Or cared. Cowboys and Indians, knights and robbers were all far more appealing.
When I was small, much of the area was open land, wild, before Carr Manor Primary School was built. Many of the houses around went up at that time, too. I do recall walking the thin ribbon of tarmacadammed path that gave access to Carr Manor Road once the schools were there. High green chain-link pence on either side, it always seemed like a prison walk, as if there should be guard towers with machine guns and bright spotlights.
Then, out on the street, up the hill that was always filled with warm summer dust in memory. Up and up, with the arm memory of pushing a bike. I’d driven along here at times, but walking them for the first time in decades was quite different. We moved from here to when I was 11, to a place about a mile away, but which could as easily have been a foreign land. Yet there was so much that stood as markers of childhood. I could remember what kids have lived on which street. A particular house brought a young face into mind. I felt as if I could have found my way around with my eyes closed. Maybe I could; but what I have been seeing inside my head is how it was, not how it is now. The differences are few, of course, but they’re there.
That past is mine, to carry round and treasure. And sometimes it makes a change from the present.