legend to loop road: lord whitney’s lore of the northBack
The Lore of the North exhibition can’t be seen in Munro House anymore. There’s a book with the same name, and peering in through a window at the deserted room, you wonder if there might be a forgotten copy in a dusty corner, or dropped behind a bookcase.
You decide to try the library and turn away from the window, but press back against it when you see a huge black dog marching along the pavement, a procession of smaller dogs following its lead, howling and barking. Its fiery eyes flash your way as it passes, but the dog is headed elsewhere, and it came from elsewhere, and it does not come here for you.
Didn’t you hear something once about Barghests – the black dogs of myth, who come forth in Leeds around Headingley Hill upon the death of any person of local importance, whose paw will inflict on any person in its way a wound that will never heal?
Who would expect to see one here, by the bus station, strolling by the traffic heading for the loop road that will take the drivers either away from here, to Mother Shipton at Knaresborough or to find the moon in a lake at Slaithwaite or the treasure at Kirkstall Abbey, or just bring them back here, every time back to the start, locked outside an empty room, fearing a huge black dog?
Nobody would expect to see a Barghest in Leeds city centre, as the modern city largely does away with myths. The Victorians gave us a great deal, especially in Leeds, but they also removed many speculations of an impractical or unprofitable nature to the sidelines as the preserve of the kranky and the dissolute, and instilled an ideal of heritage that promoted and protected their own achievements, and turned its back on the world that went before.
Lore of the North, the exhibition and book by Leeds artists Lord Whitney, is an invitation to explore the heritage that can’t be seen in terracotta or brick, but can only be heard in stories, and only for as long as those stories are repeated.
“It’s said that ‘legends are the gossip of history’,” Lord Whitney say, “Passed down orally through storytelling, song, dance, costume and traditional customs, amongst many other things.
“Embarking on a journey to find old stories from the North was an exciting, but quite daunting task – we’d originally planned to look at the whole of the North of England so we didn’t restrict ourselves, but quickly became aware of how vast the world of Folklore is even just in Yorkshire! The search took us to all sorts of places – libraries like the Folklore Society library in London and Leeds city libraries, but also meeting experts in the field (from Whitby, York, Heptonstall and Leeds). We didn’t want to restrict ourselves so we asked folk to email us with any stories they knew, and hosted a kind of sharing event for people to learn from the experts and share the stories they knew.”
The book Lord Whitney have made doesn’t retell those stories one by one, but lets you find your own ways through a world where all those stories exist again, borrowing from the multiple choice mechanism of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were popular in the 1980s:
“If you decide to get as far away as possible, turn to page 16. If you stay inside and hide, turn to page 19.”
Following the threads of different legends you take a path through the trails of others, and some pages start to become familiar, while others are only glimpsed memories that no matter which turn you take you can’t find your way back to again – its like getting lost on a Lore Loop Road, that returns you again and again to Munro House when you want to be at the Merrion Centre, or to the suitcase on page four when you want to talk to the stranger on page 79.
Finding the thread of the stories can become compulsive, but follow enough of them and the sturdily made book, crammed with various types of tactile paper and accordion pages, will become dog-eared, worn, creased.
“It was amazing to receive boxes of beautiful books, and the designer in us got very giddy, but the adventurer in us is quite happy for them to end up well thumbed and explored,” say Lord Whitney. “Maybe it’s a bit of a contradiction to try to create something so beautiful only to be (hopefully) looked at over and over, or perhaps it’s an analogy for adventuring through the amazing Yorkshire countryside! We wanted the book to appeal to a range of audiences – from design-led magazines, to Folklorists, to young artists. We’ve sent copies to the Folklore Society and Leeds Library for people to stumble cross, and hopefully be surprised at what they find.
“Making it was a massive challenge. It was fun, stressful, exciting and yes, there actually is a big folded up piece of paper that maps out all the different stories. We also DID find a very accommodating printer – called Pressision in Leeds. They were massively helpful working with us and our graphic designer Amy Rodchester, and we had our producer Lins working hard to help with the mind-bending puzzle of putting together that kind of narrative.”
Building in that oblique approach to the book’s own material means the myths will stay exactly that – myths – unless you’re prepared to look further on your own; but then that’s sort of the point. Mother Shipton never said it was going to be easy; and she never said what she really meant, either. But even if you won’t follow the sound of the Bainbridge Horn, or travel to Giggleswick to feel the ebb and flow of the Nymph of the Well, you can just journey through the book again and again – and escape from its loops through your imagination.
“Folklore can be of use in a not strictly practical or historical sense – from what we’ve discovered it can be fulfilling and enlightening to your imagination and open you up to the incredible landscape and spoken history right on our doorstep. It’s important to be intrigued by your environment and heritage – whether that’s urban or in the surrounding landscape. You don’t have to go far or dig too deeply to ignite your imagination and intrigue.”
You don’t have to go further than Lord Whitney’s website, where The Lore of the North book and screen-prints of Tommy Davidson’s accompanying map can be obtained; there are more photos and stories from the production at LoreOfTheNorth.tumblr.com.
Originally published in The City Talking Leeds: Issue 11