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.

Leeds Past, Leeds Present, Leeds Future

Within the Leeds city centre, the oldest buildings are churches and pubs; somehow, those twin continuities say a lot about how we view our own history, and perhaps the people who lived here.

The burial ground at St Peter’s Church (the Parish Church, or Leeds Minster as it is now) was dug up and the headstones moved for a railway line. The dead shouldn’t stand in the way of progress, after all, and that piece of land was worth more developed into roads and track and buildings that as a home for old bones. For Leeds history.

burial ground

But there are other pieces of our history that have been quietly swept away. The oldest house in Leeds, which stood on Lower Briggate, went in the mid-1950s. For a while in the 1990s the council stood in favour of getting rid of Kirkgate Market.

kirkgate market

The same council that loudly trumpeted the Motorway City of the Seventies idea. A city centre full of cars and pedestrian on elevated walkways.

motorway city

These days that seems crazy. Back when it was mooted, it offered a science fiction future.

Cities evolve. They have to, in order to meet the changing needs of their people and businesses. But looking ahead at the expense of the past isn’t a solution.

We’ve discovered that our parents and grandparents had solutions we were quick to ditch in the name of progress that have proved more sustainable than the things that replaced them. The reusable shopping bag, hanging washing on the line rather than using a tumble dryer…make your own list.

The point is that we’ve become too ready to jettison the past for the latest fad. And while this isn’t my bailiwick, it seems been the case in planning Leeds, too. Abandon manufacturing and jump on the retail bandwagon. Meanwhile, the Sheffield area has redefined what manufacturing can mean and is poised to move ahead on a sound financial footing.

I love Leeds. The city, the team (and yes, we are up!). I want the best for everything here. But the first step in running any city is to make it a good place for all the people who live there. A tricky balancing act, and one I wouldn’t want to have to administer.

Yet…are we asking the right questions about what we want and need in this place?

What do you think?