Although I have lived in many places over the years, it is in and around Leeds that I spent most of my childhood. I was born, in fact, In Hyde Terrace Maternity Home and most of the immediate family lived in either Bramley or Rodley, adjacent suburbs of the heavily industrialised city. Mill chimneys punctuated the skyline long before the first skyscraper went up and a pall of smoke often hung in the air, cleaving to the honey coloured stone and painting it black.
Even then, Leeds was a vibrant place with its wonderful Victorian market, theatres and the bright young minds at the university. There was a real buzz about the place as the music and fashions of the swinging sixties hit the streets and it was a fabulous time to be growing up.
Yet I have always loved the open places, the high moors that I wandered with my grandfather, as I have told elsewhere, before I could walk them alone. Living in such a busy, bustling place I often felt the need for peace, even as a child. The world was, it seems, a safer place for children then in some ways and no one thought twice about letting a young girl wander off to the woods alone.
For we were lucky, the Fall Wood was only a mile or so from home. A growing jewel nestled amid the ‘dark satanic mills’. In spring it was a wonderland of bluebells, the perfume magical and the colour stretching off into the distance. In summer it was carpeted with ‘fairy grass’, feathery seed heads like a mist, inviting you to lay down and watch the sunlight through the canopy. I learned of oak apples and mushrooms, the names of trees and plants, walking with my grandfather and the dogs. I learned of boggarts and barguests, gnomes and sylphs and the long, slow life of earth.
I learned too the family history and the legends of a place that was often my goal on these solitary walks. At the bottom of the wood was the canal. Cross the bridge and down a little further and there was a works bridge to Kirkstall Forge that crossed the river Aire bringing you to the Abbey.
Only a couple of miles from the city centre, this beautiful Cistercian Abbey remains in ruined beauty, an unlikely oasis in an industrial landscape. If you have read Lord Lytton’s “A Strange Story” you may recognise it. I have no idea if he set the book there, but the landscape fits perfectly, with the Abbots house now a museum and the graceful ruins beside the river.
A year or two ago I was lucky enough to be in Leeds one spring dawn and having a little time to spare I went back to the Abbey. It was a glorious morning, flowers were in bloom and the place was almost deserted. Of course the Abbey itself is locked … it never used to be, but vandalism and conservation dictate otherwise these days. So the camera had to be poked through bars in many places to collect the memories.
Untold memories flooded back. The legend of the monk who loved the innkeeper’s daughter, the tunnel under the Aire to the Bridge Inn and the ‘proof’ that the tale was true in the beautiful lover’s knot carved on one of the pillars on the left of the nave. Or the legend of the treasure tells how a workman had been threshing all morning and thought to straighten his back. Walking round the Abbey he saw a great hole. Thinking it might be the legendary treasure.. and he being a Yorkshireman and nothing loathe where ‘brass’ was concerned, crept into the hole and down a tunnel, emerging into a great ‘houseplace’. A fire blazed in the hearth and in the corner a ‘gurt, black ‘oss’ was tethered. Behind the horse was a black, oaken chest, and on ‘top o’t kist a gurt black cock’. The cockerel crowed. “Tha’s bahn t’be brass in’t’kist’ the labourer said to himself, and went towards the black horse. The creature reared and neighed, louder and louder, the cockerel crowed and flapped its wings, so hard it knocked the labourer senseless. He awoke in the Abbey grounds and search though he might, he never found the ‘gurt black hoile’ again.
It may be that he had been led astray by the ghosts of the monks, seen by many a night shift worker in the old Abbey Forge, even up to the present day. I know, for many of my family worked there. It was not spoken of and when asked the menfolk would clam up and refuse to speak. Legends of ghosts abound at the Abbey, even of one who was buried alive in the walls of the Chapter House….Oh it was grand growing up in a family so rich in folklore and history.
So to find myself back in this little urban oasis of peace and beauty one spring dawn was wonderful and richer in memory than I can express. It is something I miss here, where the countryside is farmed and manicured, where the hills are beautiful but tame and the woodlands managed. There is beauty all around but it lacks the richness of love and memory for me.
Yet that place of peace is something we all need, possibly something we all hold in the secret places of the heart and mind, a place where we can retreat and seek solace and draw strength from our roots, wherever we are. In some ways it is very like the ancient people, honouring the land and the ancestors together. There is a continuity, an awareness of time as a great, protecting father who wraps us in his cloak while the earth holds us to her breast like children.
Or maybe I’m just being fanciful as the old legends and the ghosts of memory come back to haunt my evening.