Friday, May 4, 2007

Haunted English landscapes

Devil's Field

What happens to those places which have a reputation for being 'haunted', and which may have a record of disturbances' going back many years, once their topography changes beyond recognition? Remembrances of previous buildings may be preserved to retain 'character' in the new planning scheme, but what happens to the 'haunted' field, or wood, once lost beneath the bypass, or housing development? In our late 20th Century, we are so used to the continuous upheaval of building and roadworks, that we hold very short-term memories of our surroundings. Villages drowned beneath reservoirs, or cleared for the park of some Palladio-inspired country Squire, remain in the folk memory: fields lost to the relentless ribbon-development from town centres do not.

People are no longer tied to the same small town where their parents and grandparents lived before them. New housing estates are not necessarily settled by families from the immediate surrounding area. The closer we live together, the more insular we become.

Some places do strive to hold on to their recent, and distant past - if only for the tourists! York, for example, revels in its railway heritage, its wealth of medieval buildings, and its ancient Viking past. Those devotees of the city's ghost-lore delight in the Roman legion which reputedly marches knee-deep through the cellars of the Treasurer's House, conveniently forgetting that the Treasurer's House itself is a fortunate relic of a bygone age - in anywhere but York, it might not have survived. These spectacular and picturesque events are happily recorded in the local psyche, and will no doubt survive for centuries to come. It is the more mundane happenings that we lose. Whilst dining in an unassuming (and unlicensed) fish 'n' chip cafe in the middle of the old town, we were once treated to the remarkable peregrinations of a stainless steel teapot. Psychokinesis, perhaps? A poltergeist troubled by the flagrant disregard for the traditional mushy pea? Who knows, but it certainly won't make a stopping point on the York Ghost Walk.

Joking apart, it is just these peculiar, unsubstantiated incidents which skip the 'official' record, existing only in personal history. If we recorded these 'events' as our ancestors did, handed down through the generations, adding to the local mind-map, or sacred landscape, we would surely be closer to understanding the processes behind them. We have largely replaced the superstitious fear of past ages, with an inquiring mind determined to root out 'the Truth' - it is ironic, then, that we are losing this almost unseen - and certainly unappreciated - mass of peripheral data - on which we could test our (numerous) theories.

We would therefore like to place on record the superstitious local history of an unassuming place, which has in a year been transformed from gorses ringed scrubland to a coloured-brick Legoland of identikit houses. That which was known as Devil's Field is now the bijou suburbia of Adel Meadows. (We presume Beelzebub Gardens was rejected at an early stage of planning...)

The one-time village of Adel is now roughly described as that area which is pierced through by the A660 Leeds Skipton road, shortly after the treacherous Lawnswood roundabout. A succession of pre-war villas, 1950s flats, and later council houses cover the ancient wilderness of Farrar Moor as far as Holt Park top, the highest point in Leeds. Those with OS pathfinder 672 will find the 'officially' unnamed Devil's Field at SE265405. A few months ago, the gardens of Kingsley Avenue opened onto this rough grassland. A trackway took you through the copse and the little beck to Holt Farm. Those with courage, and bicycles, could go further to the looming Cookridge Hall and wander through the ruins of neglected kitchen gardens. Grass grew to the height of a child. All year long, wood was collected there for the bonfire feast, and zealously protected from Wreckers. This was a sacred place for children, but all knew of its unlucky reputation. Nothing prospered there.

Further up the hill, Holt Park Village had been built during the early seventies; on all sides new buildings were insinuated into narrow plots of land, yet the field remained untouched. Devil's Field. Nothing prospered there. They had tried to put buildings there in the past, it was said, but none would stand. Something wrong with the foundations. There was an underground lake at Devil's Field. Tunnels beneath a certain gorse-ring were sought each Summer, and never found. A variant on the lake story, told that something had 'gone wrong' with the drainage at Holt Park - instead of linking to the System, it ran downhill and collected beneath the field. You could not build on Devil's Field - no deep foundations stand there.

You couldn't build on Devil's Field but you could certainly dump there. It became a builder's spoil heap - glassy accretions of concrete formed strange lunar landscapes amongst the grass. Householders threw their garden leavings there. Others came to hide their night's work in the concrete dens. Broken bottles, used condoms, a tramp's fireplace, children's toys part-buried in stone. The Village-builders were not the first to leave their refuse on the site. Underneath the grass were cracked and broken grave-stones.

Devil's Field was haunted, but none could say by what. A man had disappeared there, it was said. Set off to reach the other side, and never made it to the fence. Still others would tell you of the tramp that died in the gorse-ring, whose body had lain there all the long hot Summer. Completely desiccated, they said. Each year the gorse-rings moved. Successive waves of children pushed their way through in annual trepidation.

One explanation for the unlucky nature of the place went back to its first owner. All this land had once belonged to Kirkstall Abbey. Following the dissolution, it was said to have been bought by a defrocked monk. At Cookridge Hall had lived Thomas Kirke, 17th Century composer, collector, astronomer, mason, and alchemist. In nearby Moseley Wood, he constructed interconnecting geometric pathways, and in the Norman church at Adel, he commissioned a heraldic window for the vestry. Those devotees of Kirke and his close friend, the antiquarian Ralph Thoresby, praise them as Yorkshire worthies: there is a local hinting that he felt some need for divine intercession.

The Hall passed through many owners, eventually becoming an institute for epileptics, and now a carefully manicured golf club in landscaped grounds. But a few years ago, it formed part of a peculiar landscape of fear for the local children. Always, somehow 'not right'.

After dark, Devil's Field was a place for gangs, riding over childish terrors with teenage bravado. One of these gangs organised a late summer ritual of hedge-hopping and apple-scrumping. On a particular evening, shortly before nearly killing themselves with the cider they had brewed in a tin bath, those gang members who lived at the bottom of the hill agreed to meet with those who lived at the top. As the story goes, the bottom-enders could hear the top-enders singing and shouting a few streets away, eventually catching sight of them about a hundred yards away, just crossing into the field. Moments later, the three boys came running at breakneck speed straight past their friends, with no intention of stopping: one yelling at the top of his voice. Shrugging their shoulders (as only 14 year-old boys can) and assuming some stupid trick, the latter party continued to the appointed meeting place, climbing up a grassy rise that covered the builders' rubble. As they crested the rise and looked towards the tall trees of the copse, a vast and luminous shape seemed suspended in the air. It was white, shining. One of the party described it as a 'ten foot tall Chrysanthemum Fountain' - only a firework could capture his impression of glistening, cold flames. No braver than their predecessors, they turned and ran - 'bricking it', in the vernacular.

This curious event was carefully omitted from all gang records. Both parties maintained a discreet silence over the matter.

Nothing more might ever have been thought of the whole affair had not, a few years later, a group of lads in a pub turned to discussing Devil's Field. One related the tale of how he, and two companions, had gone into the field one night. They had gone over to the copse, and suddenly before their shocked gaze a white and luminous light had risen from the ground. He was surprised to find that one of those present had been in the second party that night, and could more than corroborate his story.

This event thus entered the dubious record of Devil's Field. What was it? A ten foot will o' the wisp? Marsh gas, or methane effluvia from the buried waste? Who knows. Even if perfectly explainable by science, it is unlikely to be expunged from the local catalogue of 'hauntings'. Or is it? Now that the name, Devil's Field, is erased from the mind-map, have its terrors also ceased to exist?

Perhaps those new residents of Adel Meadows, with their elegant gabling and matched garages, carefully arranged forecourt shrubberies where the gorse-rings used to gather, perhaps they would care to tell us?

A Yorkshire tale of presences and mysteries, related for us by Jo Hirons from Northern Earth 86


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful read! Further more pedestrian Adel history on

Anonymous said...

This should carry a warning "Not to be read by Adel residents late at night!"
Thomas Kirke is buried under the chancel floor of Adel Church. A poem dated 8 July 1706 records a dialogue between the ghost of Thomas Kirke and the Rector of Keighley, Miles Gales. It is in the British Museum papers of Hans Sloane MS 4457 F.48.