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.

ginnel

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.