Here’s an electronic version of a short article that Layla and I wrote about our ‘Corpse Way’ project, which we’re slowly working on. It’ll be interesting to see how the COVID-19 pandemic affects the proposed developments on the site – although more immediately, the lockdown makes it difficult for us to visit the location we are interested in, since it’s ever-so-slightly further than is comfortable to walk with a small child in tow! This article was originally published in Alkahest Press’ Folkwitch zine (issue 1).
WAKING, WALKING, AND DREAMING THE CORPSEWAY
Phil & Layla Legard (Hawthonn)
I. Walking the Old Corpse Way
Standing on Otley Road, one of the main routes out of North Leeds, you would not assume that you were standing at the threshold of a liminal place. The Lawnswood Arms – a chain pub, complete with Wacky Warehouse, dominates one side of the road. However, cutting through the hedgerow on the opposite side, you will discover an ancient stone stile, and beyond it a well-worn footpath, cutting across a gently sloping field. The path bends as it crosses a small beck, marked by another stile, after which the terrain levels out, passing by old oaks and ashes as it points the way to the ancient church beyond. The contrast is so profound that the noise from the busy road seems to vanish, as you fall under the spell of the Corpse Way.
The church, St. John the Baptist, was built in 1150. Although established as a place of worship, its fabric is a veritable stone grimoire of grotesque corbels and beakheads. Like all ancient churches, it is haunted by pagan spectres: the Romantically-inclined former-rector Reverend Henry Trail Simpson claimed that a carving of the goddess Verbeia was once to be found within the vestry, while a more modern 19th century window celebrates Tubal Cain, patron of both metal-workers and magical artificers. In the 17th century the church benefactor was Thomas Kirke, antiquarian and polymath, now buried beneath the chancel floor, whose ghost was been the topic of a poetic dialogue composed shortly after his death in 1706.
St. John the Baptist connects to the parish of Adel via footpath 17, ‘the Corpse Way’: the ancient processional way along which many inhabitants of the surrounding area made their final journey to the churchyard. To stand at the edge of the field, surveying the path, ones thoughts turn to the many dismal marches which must have been made along this path – how many of those interred in the churchyard beyond made this their final journey? Footprints have long been a component of folk magic, as in, for example, cursing by piercing a footprint with a coffin nail. We may consider how many mourners have left their imprint on this path: the very soil itself here is saturated with the spectral resonance of their processions – a worthy source of materia magica.
With the exception of a small pumping station erected at the western end, the fields surrounding the corpse way have largely remained unchanged within living memory. Within the enclosure, the ancient ditches of a Roman road cutting from north to south were long ago eroded by the plough, while the old tithes of the 19th century maps have now been subsumed into the whole, their walls dismantled and grown over with crops. Of the small building on the west side of the field, which once housed a community stable and – on the floor above – the church Sunday school, strewn rocks remain to maintain its outline. Such had been the slow state of progress – with centuries of history visible as a palimpsest for those who looked closely. However, in 2016 the housing developers of Barratt David Wilson Homes turned their eye to the land. Despite an application to develop 53 houses being rejected in 2017, BDWH returned with a subsequent application in 2018 (No. 18/04343), which is still under consideration, despite the developer having doubled the number of houses they intend to put on the land. The plan also involves tarmacking the Corpse Way. Residents have made it clear that this development will do nothing to alleviate the strain on quality, affordable housing in Leeds, and will also further destroy the historic environment.
The western section of the Corpse Way is now bound on both sides by steel barriers, and the fields on either side of the beck are fallow. You can almost sense the landscape in mourning. Recently, we have been walking the Corpse Way, documenting it, dreaming it, attempting one last desperate act of enchantment: to either raise an army of ghostly mourners to turn back the bulldozers, or else to leave some document as a requiem for what we have lost.
II. Corpse Way and Spirit Meadow
Corpse ways are symbolically rich locations, marking the final passage from life to death (- or to eternal life, if we must). They are liminal places – and, like most liminal places, have a reputation for being enchanted and haunted locales. Folklorists have speculated on the connection between the terrain of corpse ways and their relationship to beliefs in the restless dead: for example, the belief that ghosts travelled in straight lines, hence the corpse way meanders, or that the dead cannot cross water, hence such paths often cross a watercourse. The Adel Corpse Way turns as it crosses a beck running north-south through the field, combining both these motifs at once, and marking an inner threshold – the outer limit of the dead’s influence.
We have come to connect the Corpse Way field with the concept of the Spirit Meadow, elucidated in Daniel Schulke’s Veneficium. Schulke describes three forms of Spirit Meadow. The first is symbolic, representing the oneiric working space of the witch, bounded by waking consciousness, sleep, dream and trance. The second is as the site of the witches’ Sabbat (physical or astral), and a place of spirits – likened to the Elysian fields. The third is botanical: as a source of poisons and remedies. It was the association with the Elysian fields of the Classical afterlife that prompted us to explore the superimposition of Corpse Way and Spirit Meadow.
The Adel Corpse Way is aligned West to East. The corpse carried against the rising of the sun. The entrance to the Corpse Way corresponds with waking consciousness and the world of the living, while the exit infers sleep and oblivion. The northern and southern sides are then associated with dream and trance. Trance is placed in the south, closest to the path of the Corpse Way itself, since it is easier to explore magical trance (e.g. through pathworkings and active imagination) than it is to induce magical dreaming or successful dream incubation. The symbolic Spirit Meadow can be seen as a phase plane, describing possible different forms of oneiric consciousness such as the ‘waking dream’ (top left) and ‘sleeping dream’ (top right). The crook of the path, site of the watercourse, and border with the land of the dead, represents a midway between sleep and dream, biased toward the trance state: the omphalos of our Spirit Meadow, and potential focus – physical and psychical – for magical workings. The brook seems to have taken on the mythical mantle of Lethe as the symbolic crossing into the oblivious land of the shades, and one can vividly imagine standing on this threshold point between as the sun sets: the still illumined field of life to our West, and the darkening field of the dead to the East. Standing here we may take on the mantle of the Lychgate Seer, who stood at the church gate watching the spectral funerals of those who would die in the coming year, for this is the prime spot for us to practice our own spirit vision.
III. Enchanted Surveying: Grimoires of the County Council
If there can be any silver lining to such a place being ear-marked for development, it is the paper trail, documenting in forensic detail exactly what it is that may soon vanish. Arboricultural, geophysical, ecological, and archaeological surveys help us – with a sense of urgency – to deepen our knowledge of the place. They are catalogues of the dwellers within the spirit meadow, and bewitching in their technical – occasionally insidious – language of ‘dark corridors’, ‘heavy crown asymmetries’ and ‘linear anomalies’ – a term by which the potentially problematic stretch of Roman road is dispelled.
Over the last decade, the work of Charubel has become important to us while navigating the spiritual landscape. Born John Thomas in 1826, this under-appreciated Welsh psychic used his intuitive gifts to develop a system of healing based on the mantras and sigils of trees, shrubs and plants, along with strikingly imaginative descriptions of how they are apprehended on the ‘soul plane’. With Charubel’s Psychology of Botany (alias Grimoire Sympathia) in one hand, and the arboricultural report in the other, the landscape takes on other meanings and a new visionary quality – whatever one may think of the veracity of Charubel’s psychic perceptions, his work gives us a lens by which to transform the landscape and to see it with new, interior vision. Mauve ash trees, their branches shrouded in dark fog, straddle the muddy bank of the brook. Oak trees, glowing deeply golden stand like sentinels, and elms shine like distant suns within their purple nimbuses. The landscape resonates with their mantras, Hoo-mel, Duw-archua, Ov-al-ack-bah.
Yet, what are the natures, sigils and mantras of the genii beneath our feet? Of loam, diamicton till, and micaceous sandstone? Charubel is silent on this – although if we, entranced, wander the soul plane of the spirit meadow, such insights may be conferred upon us, and indeed they are. Standing beneath a clear, starry sky, where the corpse way bends, mauve ash trees smouldering like recently extinguished candles, the hearts of oaks glowing like corpse-lights, our psychic vision skims away the surface soil to reveal the sandstone bed. Its coarse grain shimmers with muted rainbows, dotted with clouds of shimmering black mica, while pebbles of quartz glow, iridescent within, seeming to reflect the stars back at themselves – the firmament of the gnomic kingdom, whose underground-dwellers rub shoulders with our deceased. So it is to the eye of the enchanted surveyor, that the landscape is alive with intelligences and spirits – the secret natures of the trees, of chthonic dwellers – already associated with the realm of the dead in folkloric accounts – the shades of mourners past, and the dead whose dwellings run from churchyard to beck. We perceive a kingdom of subtle allies, who speak through the landscape to inspire our work.
IV. Re-Enchantment, Resistance and Preservation: Walking, Waking and Working the Path
In late 2018, when the steel fences were erected, we were shocked and consequently recorded Layla violently beating and rattling them. There recordings were incorporated into a track called Widdershins, by way of embedding a sonic curse aimed at BDWH into our music. More recently, our deepening interest in working with the Corpse Way over the last couple of months has coincided with a desire to pursue collaboration with a fellow Leeds-based experimental musician Borehole, who records geologically-inspired drone music. In late September, we gathered together to walk the Corpse Way, to produce recordings of the area, and also to seed the place with sigils as magical foci for our remote workings. Seals composed of a monogram formed of our initials were placed at either end of the Corpse Way, while further sigils encoding other intentions were secreted around the area. Halfway along the first stretch of the Corpse Way, we heard a distant sound, which we did not immediately recognise for what it was – church bells, ringing a hypnotic three-note peal, beckoning us toward the ancient churchyard: a sonic incursion which once again reconfigured our apprehension of the place in sonic terms – the bells – to paraphrase the famous inscription at Winchester Cathedral – ring for the dead, and call the living. In this parish, there are three notes for the living, and a monotone knell for the dead.
At this point our work is in its formative period: we are at the stage of obsession. Agrippa followed the law of sympathy with his suggestion that, to attract celestial powers, we must become more like that which we seek to attract – an edict found in literal form in the Picatrix, which suggests dressing as a soldier, for example, to attract Martial influence. While we have toyed with the idea of wrapping ourselves in winding-sheets toward this end, obsession has often been a way in which we have found ourselves drawing closer to the genii locorum of the place even from a distance. We can obsess about the place in waking consciousness: revisiting by re-listening to our field recordings. We can transform these recordings into their ‘soul plane’ representations through creative trance: entering the zone of absorption where hand, ear and inner-eye collaborate seamlessly. Often we create what we call holophones – multi-layered sonic environments that shade between these concrete and abstract sounds in order to develop the requisite trance state for visual and/or auditory scrying. What we will unearth, what entities we will meet upon the path, and what manner of artefact may come from the process, we have yet to discover.
Over the last decade we have walked the Corpse Way many times, often walking to Adel after paying our respects to the Romano-Celtic carving of Cocidius at nearby Alwoodley. While the place has always called to us, the imperative to begin working with it was not so urgent as it appears to be now. Although our work has just begun, Schulke’s concept of the Spirit Meadow, and the visions of Charubel have provided practical methods by which to re-enchant the space – to open the imaginal doorway a crack. Their work has helped to outline the symbolic and visionary geography of the place, and discover the occluded focal points of areas like the ‘inner threshold’ where the path crosses the brook. The Spirit Meadow concept also provides ideas for future rites to be enacted on site – such as using a ritual procession to the rarely-visited northern side of the field to enact rites of dream incubation. Although the debatable question is: to what end?
Naturally, we aspire to raise an army of the dead and elemental in defiance of the developers, and to supplement the 369 objection letters (and one misguided letter of support) with our own creative and magical contributions. Should the planning permission be granted, we will, at least, hold a record of the vanished soundscape and the phenomenology of the place, ready to be re-animated by other travellers in the twilit country. And should our work prove futile in the face of corporate and council machinations, we will have at least entered the field and purposely stirred up its ghosts to bear witness. As David Southwell’s now-famed maxim tells us: re-enchantment is resistance.
Charubel [John Thomas]. 2003. Grimoire Sympathia (edited by A. R. Naylor). I-H-O Books.
Devereux, Paul. 2003. Spirit Roads. London: Collins & Brown.
Schulke, Daniel. 2017. Veneficium. Three Hands Press.
Simpson, Henry Trail. 1879. Archaeologia Adelensis. London: W. H. Allen.