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. Continue reading