To Touch Old Leeds

They say there are places where the fabric of time stretches so thin that you can reach though, maybe even walk through, into another age. There are times I feel that in Leeds, when I feel I can push the veil aside and touch other times.

Maybe it because something happened there, that something lives on, some faint echo; I don’t have the answer to that. Yet it seems very real.

Stand by the patch of green by St Mary’s Street off Mabgate. Its look like nothing now, trapped in a construction site. To the south there’s New York Road, all the bustle of roar of the modern world. But if you stand there, you can hear the mourning. It’s where Leeds buried many the victims of the 1832 cholera outbreak, in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church. Over 700 people died in the town, so many of them poor, drinking tainted water, living crowded together (340 people in 27 rooms in Boot and Shoe Yard alone).

The dead were buried quickly. There was little choice about that. few headstones or markers remain. No graves for families to visit. But there, on the edge of Quarry Hill, has always been a place for isolation.

When Leeds has its outbreak of plague in 1645, this was where they built the cabins to house the victims, to try and keep them away from the healthy. Quite possibly some are buried her.  Well over a thousand perished.

Stand, and if there’s a break in the nearby traffic, listen. The voices are muffled, and distant. Maybe more of a feeling than anything distinct. But touch the air in that place and you cut through the centuries.

Not far away, around the Parish Church, the Minster as it’s styled now, there’s the deep sense of history. More than anywhere, inside the building, the Leeds Cross, cobbled together from five ancient crosses that stood outside a much earlier version of the building, in a time before the Norman Conquest, when Leeds has one ragged street – Kirkgate – fewer than 200 people lived here and Leeds was still Leodis.

Reach out, touch the stone. Feel the cuts, how time and weather has worn them away. Back then, the village stood on the boundary of kingdoms. Tiny, but important. These crosses were memorials, perhaps. Certainly a mix of Christian and pagan symbols, from a time when people still hedged their bets about gods. One that’s survived comes from the story of Wayland the Smith, one of the oldest and most powerful English tales (and pre-Christian). Put out your hand, rub it, and you can feel the man who stood there with his hammer and chisel, who worked the stone. You’re there with him, catapulted through the centuries. It’s a feeling to leave you silent.

One more, and not far to walk for this. Just along the Calls. It’s a street of apartments, offices and clubs fashioned from warehouses now. But once it would have been a track leading from the ford over the river towards the church. Not a street, nothing at all, really, worn down by feet and maybe the wheels of carts. It would have existed before Briggate.

Later, the river and canal became the highway for good, bareges loading and unloading, warehouses being built on the river’s edge. There were also sets of stairs down to the water, and the tale of a woman called Jenny White who walked into the Aire to drown herself when she discovered her man (lover? Husband?) was unfaithful.

In 1835, Heaton, in his description of the area, notes “a long flight of steps, dark and ugly, between the houses (the last being into the water, long known by the name of Jenny White’s hole.” From that, it might well have happened before Leeds became a town filled the factories.

Where on the Calls? There plenty of places, and all the river stairs have long since gone. Walk down behind all those buildings, towards Calls Wharf. You’re by the water, and you call almost hear the cries of men who worked there. Look at the river from the right angle and you can see Jenny’s ghost under the surface. It’s there. Still there. Always there.

Jenny White’s story survives as a folk tale. But truth becomes tale over time. She’s remembered. She’s a part of Leeds, like the bodies at St Mary’s, or the man who carved Wayland the Smith in the Cross. Look and you can see them.

Imagining Leeds

The legends and tales and folklore of a place tend to depend on a deep connection with its past. Roots that go deep into the earth to create a sense of history, of being connected to that earth. That sense of place is vitally important. Go to York and history surrounds you. Reach out your hand and you can touch it. Walk along a green lane in the countryside and there’s still a sense of brooding mystery that seems to tumble through the years, the sense that a spirit might suddenly appear in front on you. Visit one of the old battlefields and you can almost hear the clash of weapons and the cries of the wounded and the dying.

Places have power.

Look for that in Leeds and you’ll be sorely disappointed. I say that as someone whose life involves conjuring up Leeds’ history. Our oldest real artefact is the Leeds Cross, and that a composite, the remnants of five Saxon crosses that once stood outside an early version of Leeds Parish Church, but were broken up and tossed into the walls as filler during a rebuilding. Quite deliberately, we vandalised our own history – and sacred history, at that. It was old, so it was no longer relevant.

leeds cross

Yet somehow that’s emblematic of a place that only began to truly flourish with the arrival of industry. The era of machines and power, water and steam and the manufactory and the mill. They stood tall, the modern equivalent of the castle or the cathedral as a symbol of subjugation of the people. And folk did flock here to live in the shadows of them. Yet while the past is very tangible in both cathedral and castle, the legends and supernatural close to hand,  it’s impossible to evoke any ancient magic inside the walls of a mall. It can’t.

Almost old folktales and songs we might have once had were lost. After I’d first published this, someone ,mentioned the apocryphal tale of merchant John Harrison sending Charles I a tankard filled with gold coins when he was being escorted south after being captured by Parliamentary forces. The event is commemorated in stained glass in St. john’s church – the one Harrison built with his own money before the Civil War. And it is a great story, no duobt about it.

But there could never be a Beowulf or Wayland the Smith in Leeds, because our roots to whatever we possessed long ago have long since been cut. Those bards we have – a Bennett, a Waterhouse, a Hoggart – are all recent, and can only touch the surface, because that’s all there is. They have no grand words or ideas, but their language reflects industry; practical and utilitarian. Notably, all three came from working-class beginnings.

With its factories, Leeds was very a society of immigrants. Not necessarily from other countries, although that happened soon enough, but from other regions. Although it has a history of things that are demonstrably older, it’s essentially people who define a town or a city. Their stamp moulds it more than it moulds them, especially when the influx is so quick and so large. In 1800, just after the start of the Industrial Revolution, 30,000 people lives in Leeds. In three decades that number tripled.

So any Leeds we can imagine only goes back a little more than two centuries. Those roots are barely old enough to sink below the surface. We haven’t had time to create many folktales or songs. And those that have come about are of disappointment, of factory workers or grand Victorian buildings (Jenny White’s Hole, for example, or the Town Hall Lions). This is a place built of brick and smoke, on dirt and poverty. We don’t have a mythology.

And most of those factories and mills that were the foundation of industry have been demolished. The buildings proved as ephemeral as the lives of the people who worked there. They and their histories are erased. The history of Leeds is essentially the history of working people. But when their workplaces become rubble and their homes are torn down because they’re slums, where is the past for anyone to touch? There’s very little history for anyone to dream.

Even our parks are human constructs, where man has imposed himself on the countryside. Kirkstall Abbey was once in the middle of nowhere. Now it’s a tamed, picturesque ruin.

k abbey

It’s probably not just a Leeds phenomenon. Very likely it’s true across the north, in all those places that were built on different industries. And there’s a kick to finish it all off. Leeds was essentially created by industry. By pain and sweat, the riches of a few and the labour of so many. But industry has all but gone. And a city of finance and service industries doesn’t offer much in the way in inspiration.

We all need a spine of tales, of folklore, of songs that are us. And there are artists and writers, musicians and makers of theatre who are trying to do that. But these things need to grow from the bottom up, not be imposed upon a place.

At one point there was continuity. Now things are demolished, refashioned and repurposed every couple of generations. You can’t find any tradition in that. And that’s the pity. Humans need tradition. It’s part of belonging.

Yet a few faint tendrils do curl down and survive in our language. A few things that are uniquely Leeds. Ginnel. Loiner.


There’s beauty in those and other words like them. It’s a dialect that’s largely dying and TV culture makes language homogenised. But it’s holding on. And those words do conjure up a fading Leeds of the imagination.

Possibly, just as Leeds is post-industrial, it’s also now post-mythology. But people will always need stories, songs and ballads to pass on. They always have. It’s part of being human. We need to create them, then nurture the flame and keep them alive.

Five Stone Crosses – A Leeds Story 946 AD

Christmas is over, but a lot of you are probably still off work, scuffling around and wondering how to fill your time. Since it’s still somewhat the season of goodwill to all men and women, here’s a Leeds story to entertain you for a few minutes. It dates from the time when Saxons and Vikings lived in the area, when Leeds was Loidis, on the boundary of kingdoms, and York was Jorvik.

I’d expected a mean little place, like the other Saxon villages in the kingdom. But as we approached, with the horses whinnying at some smell or other, it took me by surprise.
It was neat, cleaner than I’d imagined. The people looked well-fed, eyeing us with quiet suspicion as we arrived. Five of us, me and four warriors, frightening, intelligent men with piercing eyes and dark glances. They’d proved themselves in battle often enough. A good escort for a holy man.
The church was wood, rough-hewn but carefully built. Their God might not be ours, but they worshipped him well. And outside stood five tall stone crosses, heavily carved and decorated with ornaments, scrolls and figures. I could pick out Weyland the Smith in one, from the story they love to tell at night. On others, there were angels, men, who knew what.
I dismounted, looking around. A man approached me hesitantly, bowing his head a little.
‘You’re welcome here, my Lord,’ he said. ‘I’m Hereward. The thane here.’
‘Gunderic.’ I nodded at him. ‘Where are they?’
‘Not here yet. One of my men spotted them a few minutes ago, still two miles away. Would you like something to drink after your ride?’
A girl came with a jug of ale and mugs. Out here we were on the edge of the kingdom. Our land, the Norse land, ended at the river a few yards away and on the hills to the west. It was autumn weather, most of the leaves already fallen, the branches as barren as crows. A grey sky and always the promise of rain on this damned island.
‘King Erik, is he well?’ Hereward asked. Inside, I smiled. Erik’s name was one to make any Saxon nervous. The Bloodaxe, they called him. It was true that he’d used the weapon often enough, but not for a few years now. These were the days of ruling, of words and diplomacy. Instead of the longships, we made marriage with the locals. I had, and Erik, too. His wife was the daughter of a nobleman from Strathclyde.
‘He’s in good health. Still strong as an ox.’ Keep them wary of the man I’d served for twenty years, in Denmark and now here. We’d started as raiders and now people fawned in front of us. We were starting out own dynasties in Jorvik, a kingdom that might include all of England one day.
But not yet. That was why I was in this village of Loidis, standing close to the river, waiting to conduct a favoured guest back to meet my master.
‘This church of yours,’ I said, walking towards it. ‘What are these crosses for?’ I’d been all over the area in the last few years, but I’d never seen anything quite like this.’
‘To commemorate men who’ve died, Lord,’ Hereward answered. ‘Their sons have them carved as memorials.’
‘Why here?’ I wondered.
‘There’s a ford at the river.’ He pointed to a shallow area of the water. ‘Plenty of people cross here. Some stay.’
Not many, from the look of the place. Houses spread in a line away from the church. Clean enough, yes, but hardly busy. I doubted there could be more than two hundred people in the whole of Loidis. But it had the church, more than most of these places. And it had these strange crosses.
A man ran up and spoke to Hereward.
‘Cadoe will be here in a minute. King Domnall’s come with him.’
I straightened my back. Royalty to escort the holy man? I hadn’t expected that. They treated him with honour, so we had to do the same. But I was an important man in this kingdom. Not a king, perhaps, but certainly a lord, with lands of my own.
Ten of them. Domnall, his housecarls, heavily armed and glanced around constantly. They eyed my warriors with suspicion. And on a small mare, a thin man, simply dressed, his wild hair going grey. Cadroe. The holy man.
At first he didn’t seem so remarkable. Then he turned to gaze at me and I saw his eyes. There was something in them, some fire, some certainty and passion. I’d never seen a look like it before.
But I knew my graces. First a bow to greet the king.
‘Your Majesty.’ My voice was loud enough for everyone to hear. ‘I’m Gunderic, sent by King Erik to make sure his guest reaches Jorvik safely. He welcomes you all to his kingdom.’
No answer, other than a short nod of acknowledgment. I turned to Cadroe.
‘My master looks forward to meeting and talking with you, sir.’
‘And I look forward to seeing my dear Æthelberta again.’ His eyes twinkled.
‘My Lord?’
‘Not Lord, not Sir. I don’t have a title and don’t want one,’ he said.
‘You’re related to the king’s wife?’ I’d never heard this.
‘Distantly, but yes. I’m related to Domnall, too.’ He tilted his head towards the king who was talking to the thane. ‘And we’re all God’s children, too.’ For a moment I thought he was teasing. But the smile on his lips wasn’t mocking me.
‘King Erik is expecting us in Jorvik,’ I told him, looking up at the sky. We’d spent the night in Sherburn and set out early to meet Cadroe; we’d be expected before nightfall.
‘Of course,’ he agreed. ‘But first, please, I’d like to preach for the people here. They rarely see a priest.’ He looked at me. ‘For their souls.’
Who was I to disagree? Treat him with respect; those had been my orders. As long as he didn’t take too long, we’d have time.
A work with Hereward, the sharp ringing of the bell that seemed to fill the sky. Another few minutes and the villagers came. A rag-tag bunch, the children as filthy as boys and girls anywhere. The women scared, full of tales about the Northmen. The men all farmers, with rough hands and weatherbeaten skin.
Once they’d gathered, Cadroe stood in front of the crosses and began to speak swiftly in his Saxon tongue. I spoke it passingly well – I had a Saxon wife myself, and my children switched between Norse and Saxon as if they were one language – but it always seemed ugly and guttural to my ears.
But a strange thing happened. As Cadroe spoke, it seemed to make on a musicality, a beauty I’d never noticed before. His words came quickly, too fast for me to follow them all. I glanced at the man quickly, then again. Before, he’d seemed small, someone not to be noticed in a crowd. Now he seemed taller, broader, and it seemed there was a light around him. I closed my eyes then looked again. But it was still there.
He spoke for five minutes, standing in front of those carved memories to man. I could understand how people thought him holy. There was some quality about him, something larger than any of us there, bigger than flesh, deeper than blood.
Cadroe finished with the sign of the cross and the words, ‘May God go with you and protect you.’
And then, as his mouth closed and he began to walk towards me, he became an ordinary man again, with his grey hair, the lines on his face and thin body.
I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t explain it. But I’d ask him on the journey. We had ample time in the saddle ahead of us.
In less than five minutes we were ready to leave. Before I could mount my horse, though, Domnall beckoned me over.
‘My Lord?’ I asked.
‘You saw, didn’t you?’ I opened my mouth to lie, but he continued, ‘I watched your face. He has the message of God on his tongue for all who’ll listen. Please, make sure your king listens to him.’
‘That’s my Lord’s choice,’ I reminded him.
‘Of course.’ Domnall smiled easily. ‘But give your Lord one message from me, please. Tell him that men prosper more in peace than in war.’
‘I will, your Majesty.’
I climbed into my horse and we began to ride away.

Historical note: In the Life of St. Cadroe, he’s remembered as crossing between the kingdom of Strathclyde (ruled by Domnall) and the Norse kingdom (ruled by Eric Bloodaxe) at Loidis – the Saxon name for Leeds. It was a village on the border, used for crossings, and that gave it stature, even if it was still very small. When Leeds Parish Church was being rebuilt in 1838 workmen discovered pieces from five stone crosses that were dated back to the ninth and 10th centuries. The fragments have been put together to make the Leeds Cross, which now stands in Leeds Minster.
These could have been preaching crosses, which predated churches. But those would generally have come from an earlier period. It’s far more likely that they were memorials erected to commemorate important people. Why would that be in Leeds? We’ll never really know, but it’s an indication that the village had real value importance, certainly to the wealthy individuals who commissioned the crosses.