Towton Battlefield Trail

Back in October I went to see a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Previous experience has told me that a bit of basic historical knowledge can really help your appreciation of The Bard’s genius, so over the autumn I found myself reading up on Richard’s reign and the whole War of the Roses period (1455-1485). It didn’t take too long to realise that many of the key events of the time took place around West Yorkshire, and that many of the key sites can still be visited today.

And perhaps the most significant event of all was the Battle of Towton, which took place on 29 March 1461 (or 555 years ago today if you prefer). Historical opinion seems to vary on the exact scale of the battle, but clearly tens of thousands of men were involved, of which a very high proportion died, and the Yorkist’s victory over the Lancastrians dictated national events for the next 24 years. Visiting the battlefield today, the Towton Battlefield Society has created an excellent 2-mile Battlefield Trail which manages to combine a full interpretation of events into (perhaps ironically) a pleasant country ramble, which is described below.

Allow up to 2 hours to complete the full circuit. Most of it is around fields but a map is not really needed as the Trail is clearly marked and easy to follow. The route is flattish with a few undulations, and although I went when it was bone dry some parts could get muddy, so choose footwear accordingly.

Start at the lay-by next to the memorial cross on the B1217, half a mile south of Towton village, which itself lies 3 miles south of Tadcaster. The trail is divided into 2 sections, each section covering the 2 main phases of the battle. What becomes immediately obvious is how the geography of the landscape around you helps your understanding of the turn of events. The first section is a simple “there and back” of half a mile which takes you to the first of 10 interpretation panels that line the route. At the cross, you are on the line of the Lancastrians’ position at the start of the battle early in the morning. Ahead of you is a minor vale, with the horizon 200 yards away being the Yorkists’ initial line. So, much of the day’s action (and it was a full day, which partly accounts for casualty figures) took place right where you’re walking, a sobering thought.

DSC02375Returning to the cross, the remainder of the route covers the ground of the Lancastrians’ retreat and ultimate defeat. Late in the day of the battle, Yorkist reinforcements arrived which turned the tide in their favour. This put the Lancastrians to flight, but while the initial phases were fought on relatively flat ground, the line of escape was down into the valley of the Cock Beck. Many of the retreating soldiers met their grisly end trying to cross the Beck (which was swollen by falling snow). From Panels 4 and 5 you view the so-called “Bloody Meadow”, which tells its own story. The Trail follows the edge of the escarpment, so it is easy to imagine the difficulties the retreating soldiers faced.

After a mile of easy walking along a green track, passing more interpretation panels, the route enters Towton village where refreshment is available (when open) at The Rockingham Arms – you might need a pint by then. The remainder of the route follows the road back to the starting point, although happily most of this is on a path to the side of the road, which makes the route possible not just for grown-ups but for families with kids as well.

In closing, when I got back to the car on this particular chilly March day in 2016 I reflected that all I really had to worry about was how long it would take for the heater to kick in and for my feet to warm up. The soldiers on that snowy morning in March 1461 faced a somewhat starker reality. Perhaps we can’t be reminded too often how lucky we are to live in such relatively peaceful times.

Recognise this Meanwood building?

WP_20141219_001

Source: West Yorkshire Archive Service

Here are some clues. The photo was taken in 1920 and the bowling green in the foreground, with its shed, bench and decorative flower pot, is now occupied by flats. And because of this, it’s not possible to take a photo from the same location today. Here’s the nearest possible equivalent:

DSC02313Of course, this is Meanwood Towers, one of the most eccentric-looking buildings in the area. I came across the 1920 photo last year during a visit to West Yorkshire Archive Service (who have kindly confirmed that the photo can be published) and the comparison between then and now is fascinating. The building itself has altered slightly with some of the taller chimneys and the top tower removed for safety reasons many years ago. But what is most striking is how the Towers stood alone from any other buildings in 1920 – indeed the photo is taken from a “sales particulars” document designed to attract potential buyers of the Towers and surrounding estate. Now, the Towers are hemmed in by housing and the view above is obscured in summer when the trees are in leaf.

I find this a pretty good example of why local history can be so interesting – things we take for granted today were not always the same way. It’s worthwhile from time to time browsing the terrific Leodis¬†photographic archive of Leeds and seeing how places across the city have changed over the years. Search using the keyword Meanwood Towers to see the existing old photos of the Towers on the site – I will ask for the 1920 photo to be added.

There is one outstanding mystery about Meanwood Towers if anyone can help. When originally built by Thomas Kennedy in the 19th century, alongside the main building was a separate 800-seat concert hall, 40 yards from the front door. Kennedy had built this to house a church organ for his wife, specially-commissioned from the Schulze organ builders in Germany; sadly, shortly after the organ was installed she fell ill and was unable to play the instrument. The organ was put up for sale and eventually ended up at St Bartholomew’s Church, Armley, where it remains to this day. Now I’m not really a great appreciator of church organ music (I’m more of a Springsteen man myself) but the literature suggests that the quality of the workmanship and its setting in St Bart’s makes the Armley Schulze Organ one of the best-regarded of all such instruments.

Which is all quite remarkable given that it began life 150 years ago in a dedicated 800-seat venue on a site now occupied by suburban housing on Towers Way in Meanwood. The organ house was built of wood and with the organ gone it slowly became dilapidated, and maps of the area indicate that it was finally removed in the 1940s. I’ve never found a photograph of the organ house (unfortunately there wasn’t one in the 1920 sales particulars) so does anyone have one they are willing to share?

First day of spring?

It certainly felt like it earlier this morning on a round of one of my favourite local circuits.

Started from the mini roundabout on Tongue Lane, then around the Woodleas path to the cricket pitch on Parkside Road. The daffs are out which added to this always picturesque scene:

DSC02342Then down through the woods to the beck. This stretch of the woods is one of my favourites – wooded definitely, but very open and light. A great place to bring the kids who can run wild but never got lost:

DSC02343Across the beck by the weir. I’ve always rather liked the way the curved branch of the tree in the foreground frames the scene (an effect only visible during the winter months):¬†DSC02349From here I chose to follow the beck to Weetwood Mill Lane, then up the lane, left down the footpath near the top and across Tetley Field to the duckpond. Having walked through woodland since the cricket pitch, I was once again struck by the contrast of a wide open space, an effect I hope illustrated by this photograph:

DSC02357Finally, through the park and home via the shops. Looking forward to a few more rounds like this in the summer months of 2016!