“A pity to perpetuate this imaginary castle” — Leeds Urban Myths
BY Daniel Chapman
The argument has raged for at least 124 years. In June 1891 the Yorkshire Weekly Post received a “fairly long letter” from a T. London, “opposing the idea of Leeds ever having a castle.”
A carving above the entrance of the Leeds Exchange depicted said castle, which if it ever did stand in Leeds – as some people have always insisted it did – stood opposite on Mill Hill, roughly where Bundobust and the Head of Steam stand now. “It is a pity,” wrote T. London, “That the Leeds Exchange should perpetuate this imaginary castle.”
And it’s a pity for T. London that the idea of this imaginary castle should perpetuate much longer than the supposedly sturdy Leeds Exchange did; we’re still writing about the castle right now, London, but we’re dropping the subject of the Exchange as if it was a mistake to have ever mentioned it. So there.
And we’re not alone. Discussions still pop up from time to time on forums like Secret Leeds; maps and drawings are produced, theories discussed. Leeds Castle has never quite been analysed out of existence, and it won’t be. Should we ever want to see it we’ll just imagine it, and we’ll endure a few late-night knocks from T. London’s ghost if we have to.
Leeds is full of urban myths like this; legends and stories and buildings that will always exist for as long as people are around to imagine them or to dream into being all the alternate realities that might have persisted; that might be preferable to the present day. Imagine that the amphitheatre had not tragically collapsed back in 1848 while Pablo Fanque’s circus held the crowds enraptured; imagine it had instead stood as firm as it was popular, been made permanent, modified, improved; what great shows might have taken place there over the last 150 years? What would Leeds be like today, with a 21st century circus on The Headrow in place of The Core, continuing a tradition started by Pablo, his wife Susannah Darby, and her dog – if she had one – Luna?
What if plans for a 25 storey skyscraper on Briggate had been carried through to construction in 1938? Marks & Spencer stand on the spot now, but if World War Two hadn’t intervened, a 300ft art deco edifice might have soared above the city, perhaps alone, perhaps joined by other ambitious journeys to the central Leeds skies; Briggate become a garden of high rises, its alleys and yards lit up by reflected sunlight in daytime, reflected moonlight at night?
There’s no reason not to let our imaginations perpetuate these castles, circuses and skyscrapers, despite what T. London might have thought. The same imaginations keep T. London alive today; picturing him crotchety, aflame and indignant, confident in his realm of hard facts where no castle could intrude; and yet spending his days, oh, he spends his days trying to argue people out of their imaginings. What a way to spend your days.
We prefer to spend our days in our imaginations, and in making things up. And you can see what we made up, by reading what follows, and imagining.
“I could hear whispering and I thought it was kids. But I turned an ear to the sound and it was not language I could understand. I felt pressing upon me the not unpleasant sensation of unrest that is, as often as not, what I seek on my walks in the woods.
“Unsought by me there, but discovered by me in the trees, was a pale wraith I could not accurately describe to you, and still be believed in my right mind. Her glimmering lips were the source of the whispering; her watching me through binoculars the source of my unrest.”
“Aye, and a helmet in her lap, but press me not for details until you hear the details for which I pressed her.
“‘Where did you come from?’ I asked her, a straightforward enough question.
“‘The castle,’ she replied.”
“Castle? But there’s no castle near here.”
“I told her that. ‘And yet it’s the castle from which I came,’ she said, airily waving the binoculars about her but indicating no particular direction in which I might observe the same. ‘And I’m present before you, aren’t I?’
“Of course I asked to what castle she referred, but her reply was almost scornful. ‘Leeds,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t have come much farther than that.’
“With that she raised the binoculars to her eyes, scanned the horizon, sighed, and returned her limpid gaze to mine; where I believe she read my confusion.
“‘I know right well that you haven’t seen it,’ she said. ‘But you’ve seen me. And I can remember my life there. My parents, my horses, my knights; my stout, black-bearded guards; my chambers, although they were draughty.’ She said this last like a challenge. ‘I remember the cold,’ she said.”
“How could this creature have any memory of such a place?”
“I put that to her. ‘I remember it all the same,’ she said, again lifting the glasses in her pale, bony hands. ‘Or if I don’t remember it, I know that someday I will.'”
A moment of silence fell between the two men. Neither knew how to begin again; both began again.
“Did she say any more?”
“She spoke more. ‘It’s from the castle that I came, so it must exist in my memory,’ she said. ‘Because, plainly, it isn’t here. And believe me,’ she said, ‘I’ve been looking for it.’
“‘How far have you looked?’ I asked her.
“‘Ask me not how far,’ she said, ‘But for how long. I have criss-crossed these acres, from field to town to city. I search yet, but I shall find it.’
“‘But there has never been a castle here,’ I told her. ‘And nobody in these times is going to build one, if that’s what you expect.’
“She placed the curious helmet atop her head, and glared at me from beneath its brim.
“‘They may not, in these times,’ she said. ‘But they may, in these times, discover one that you don’t know about. Or they may, in times to come. It’s the only course, if it’s a castle from which I came, that of course, there should be a castle.'”
The second man smiled, and knocked his pipe on the edge of the mantelpiece. “A logical sprite,” he said. “Well I never.”
“‘If – ‘ I tried to ask her, at the last, but she cut my question off.
“‘It’s a castle from which I came,’ she said.”
Written by Daniel Chapman & Jennifer Lee O’Brien • Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng
Originally published in The City Talking Leeds: Issue 24