Friday, 8th March saw me attend my first Leeds Lit Festival event since the launch and it could not have been more different.
Rather than an indoor reading and an interview with one of Leeds’ foremost writers, it was a walk around the older parts of the City looking for ghosts! Our guide was the acclaimed writer, poet and playwright Mark Pajak. Although hailing from Merseyside, his knowledge of the Leeds supernatural is extensive and the tour turned out to be part poetry, part prose, part street theatre, part role play and totally brilliant, as well as adding a fair number of steps to my Fitbit.
A group of about twenty disparate people met up at Leeds Library on Commercial Street, a building which is not short on ghostly history itself, but more of that later. After a short introduction and health and safety warning, i.e. don’t get run over and don’t have a heart attack, we set off into the night. The organisers of the Festival must have a great deal of clout as the rain which had been falling for most of the day suddenly stopped, leaving the streets atmospherically glistening wet but very pleasant for walking.
Our first port of call was the City Varieties Music Hall, where we were regaled with the tale of a man who had hanged himself in the attic during a performance. As with most of the stories, it was beautifully told in a tone which transported you straight back to the Leeds of yesteryear, part Roald Dahl and part Boris Karloff. Mr Pajak has the advantage of being a tall, slender young man with a mop of dark hair, and with his dark blue overcoat, collar turned up against the wind, he looked every inch the Victorian undertaker. The City Varieties has undergone major refurbishment over the past few years which, ironically, added to the impact of the tale, as, when we allowed our natural instincts to take over and raised our eyes to the top storey where the ghost of the deceased was sometimes seen, one of the front of house staff, a young man in a black waistcoat and trousers, appeared behind the glass atrium to see what was going on. It couldn’t have been planned any better.
The mood now set, we proceeded to Fish Street, the second oldest in Leeds after Boar Lane, where we were told of unrequited love between a young man and a fish girl who was reportedly carrying inside her a baby made of stone. At the denouement of the tale, a female figure appeared to the side of the group, with long hair covering her face and blood on her hands. Unlike the City Varieties ‘ghost’ this was obviously staged, but very effective none the less.
It was then on to Leeds Cathedral, The Parish Church as was, where we listened to the story of a homeless man who died in a particularly harsh winter in the early part of this decade and who still roams the grounds.
Round the corner to Maude Street opposite the Palace pub. This was where a poem was recited, recounting the story of a highwayman and the landlord’s daughter, who also put in an appearance. Despite the odd car driving past up the narrow cobbled street, our guide managed to put across the gruesome details without skipping a beat, although he did make an amusing comment about a young man running down the street and into the Palace, obviously in a hurry for a Friday night pint.
Onward to The Calls where we, and several passers-by, were informed of the exploits of Leeds’ most famous serial killer, Mary Bateman. She was a natural seductress and lured men into buying her magic potion, the main ingredient of which was arsenic. She had quite the killing spree as that particular poison was fairly new at the time and the effects were similar to those of cholera, so that was put down as the cause of death. The gruesome details of her eventual hanging which attracted 25,000 spectators were related with a cross between glee and revulsion. A little later when we passed Kirkgate Market we were told that that was the source of the arsenic which was unrestricted in sale, and so cheap that she could buy 140 doses for one penny. That is impressive enough, but when you think that we are talking old money, it is even cheaper. After her body had been flayed and strips of her skin sold as good luck charms, her skeleton was put on show at the University of Leeds, where it still resides.
The penultimate story concerned the Chapel of St Nicholas in Crown Street and was related as we stood under the railway arches, adding an even more sinister flavour to the ambiance. The Chapel was run by Cistercian Monks and provided alms and shelter for orphaned children. When it was demolished, the skeletons of 17 children who were subsequently found to have died of unnatural causes were discovered buried in a cellar. The ghost of a monk in black hooded robes roams the streets nearby, revealing his presence to those who harbour a terrible secret. Needless to say that my past sins caught up with me as we were walking back down Fish Street on the return leg of our journey to Leeds Library.
As I have already mentioned, Leeds Library is also no stranger to apparitions as in 1844 the Head Librarian, John McAlister, saw the ghost of his predecessor, Vincent Sternberg, whilst working late one night. The phantom kept reappearing and so McAlister organised a seance with five of his colleagues to try to contact the spirit of Sternberg. The grand finale of our tour was a recreation of this event, with five volunteers holding hands around a table decked with fork handles, sorry, four candles (The ghost of Ronnie Barker told me to do that) in an otherwise totally dark library. Mark Pajak read the prayer summoning the spirit and everyone waited in great anticipation. The End.
I hope that you have managed to obtain a ticket for this tour, as it was a wonderful way to spend an hour and a half. If you are not built for exercise don’t worry as the walk is not too strenuous and done at a leisurely pace. I would also like to mention the two volunteer stewards, Holly and Rob, who made sure that we all completed the stroll safe and well.
Oddly enough, after steadying my nerves with a libation at Whitelock’s, I caught on my bus home and the heavens opened once again. Spooky.
Should you wish to find out more about Mark Pajak, please follow this link to his website. There are a couple of videos of him reading his work via the menu but I have to say, despite his keen sense of humour, it is not the jolliest of stuff.
For more events in the Leeds Lit Festival please see https://www.theleedslibrary.or
Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living. He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds. He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.