The sound of geography

“I’ve walked all the way from south of the river.”
I love the sound of geography.
The language of directions not just by means of street names, shops and pubs, but of bridges, hills, rivers and ginnels gives me a strangely warm sense of satisfaction. Before our cities became pulsing vein-systems of traffic, geography was still important to people. You can hear it in place names, descriptions becoming appellations and history embeds itself in the landscape.
In Leeds the voices of the past are everywhere: Briggate (bridge street), Kirkgate (church street), Cavalier Hill (where Royalist forces in the English Civil War bombarded the then-town centre), Park Row (which skirted the edge of parkland)…
Having moved so much throughout my life I’ve never been as knowledgeable about an area as someone who’s lived there their entire life. Places have merely been locations, background scenes for whatever is going on in my life rather than being an intrinsic part of it or influencing it.
Although I was born here and am officially a ‘Loiner’ – someone born in the city centre – I left when I was a child. I’ve been back for almost eight years now. Longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere. Yet long enough for me to start feeling as if I know the place better, and have begun to properly thinking of it as its constituent parts, rather than as a homogenous whole. For me now, it’s not just ‘Leeds city centre’, it’s Briggate, Headrow, Mabgate, Boar Lane, Water Street and Neville Street. Each one as separate as the other.
And I have history to thank for that.
I know that in 1643, hordes of Roundheads streamed up Briggate and overran a 12-foot-high barricade that ran from St John’s Church to the waterfront, expelling the Royalists from what is now the main shopping district. I know that The Calls was originally a path through the gardens of the houses on Kirkgate. I know that in the boundary wall of the Parish Church, there’s an ancient stone that marks where Leeds stopped and the influence of York began. I know that Vikings used to meet at Headingley, that most of the houses in Meanwood are built on old quarries from which the stone for most of the old buildings in the city came from. I know that the Kirkstall road once went straight through the nave of the derelict abbey. I know that Leeds once had three railway stations.
And I know that the city itself, despites centuries of redevelopment and regeneration, is still based on medieval layout of the medieval town.
So I love the sound of talking about the city in ways that aren’t just street names. The river is a case in point – not exactly on the scale of the Thames it still divided the city in two. To the south, endless chimneys and streets filled with mills. To the north, the civic quarter and the main shops. Briggate, which has always been at the heart of the city, has always been a den of villany; the covered alleys – known as ginnels or Low Ins – that riddled its buildings still survive in the ginnel pubs The Angel, The Ship, The Packhorse and Whitelocks, but minus the abattoirs, brothels and gin shops that once hid there.
It makes me feel grounded to refer to these landmarks, remarkable not just for their history but for the way they have kept their identity in the face of centuries of change. Leeds reaped the rewards of development but mercifully escaped the same arrogant 1960s contempt for the past that decimated the centres of Manchester, Bradford and Liverpool.
This city’s face may seem to have changed, but its voice is still that of the past. You just have to listen, and to repeat the way it talks about itself.


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