Usually, the arrival of better weather and lighter evenings heralds the launch of Wakefield Civic Society’s programme of guided walks. These are usually led by me. They are a great way to show off my home city and the walks attract both people who live locally – who always learn something new – and people who are visitors to the city. This year, for the first time, I was planning to embark on a series of new guided walks in my own name, rather than under the banner of the civic society: you should see the plans I had for my ‘Carnival of the Animals’ walks!
Sadly, though, the coronavirus has kicked all such plans into touch, at least for the foreseeable future. This a great shame, not least because we were all set to resurrect our very successful ‘Historic Ghost Walks’ in the coming weeks.
At the end of 2018, I was contacted by Wakefield BID to explore the possibility of my doing some ghost walks around the city centre. It was pointed out that many cities have them and that they can be a big draw: ghost walks, I was told, are an increasingly popular way of finding out something of the history of a place while also having a bit of fun. Having been on one myself in York a few years back, I understood what was meant and I said I’d give the idea some thought.
The first problem was that I don’t personally ‘believe’ in ghosts! I also had the credibility and reputation of the civic society to consider so I couldn’t just make things up. What I eventually came up with was more a ‘Murder and Misery’ tour, telling the rather sad stories of the malcontents and miscreants, the misfortunates and the miserabilists, who inhabited Victorian Wakefield. And if ever there was a time to take off the rose-tinted glasses about the ‘good old days’ my stories certainly had that effect!
Although the walks were advertised as ‘Historic Ghost Walks’, the historic part was really that these were the first ghost walks to ever be offered in Wakefield (as far as we know!). We were also very clear in our promotions that there were no actual ghosts on the walks – well, none we expected anyway – and the ‘Ghosts not included’ strapline was prominently displayed. Despite this, the first batch of four ghost walks booked up solidly in a matter of days. We didn’t charge for the walks (thanks to a grant from Wakefield BID) and we had the usual problem of people booking and then not turning up (but these were compensated for in part by some people turning up who hadn’t booked!) but nonetheless over 100 people took part over the four walks.
So popular were the walks (and the demand expressed on social media was palpable) that I asked Wakefield BID to sponsor more walks, which they agreed to do. So, another four walks were offered in the autumn and they too were solidly booked, with bookings coming in within minutes of the walks being promoted on social media. A further 100+ people took part in the second set of walks.
The walks looked at some actual cases reported in the local press in the Victorian era and some original court records. Although we hadn’t heard of the coronavirus in the summer of 2019, Wakefield’s cholera outbreaks of the 19th century did get a mention on my walks, and we looked at the original location of the mass burial ground in the city centre (the remains were later removed to allow development to go ahead).
I didn’t have to do much original research of my own as the late Kate Taylor, a local historian and writer, had written a book (Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Wakefield) which contained many of the stories I needed (there are similar books in the series for other towns and cities written by different authors). All I had to do was to identify suitable stories, plot a route which took me past the crime scenes or where the stories had unfolded and then, on the night of each walk, help to set the scene by explaining some of the history of the buildings and the streets we were walking, adding some overarching social history about living conditions at the time, and tell the sometimes gory stories that made up the walks. A little embellishment and improvisation here and there, not to mention some occasional extemporisation, all helped to add colour.
Well, guess what? People loved it! They laughed a lot (yes, I know, people will laugh at anything!) and were very complimentary in their feedback. Hence our plans to bring them back in 2020.
Time will tell if it’s going to be possible to do that this year; I do that we can, but even if we don’t, I’m sure the walks will return when conditions allow. We all need something to look forward to and the walks were great fun, both for those taking part and for me to do. We may not have seen any actual ghosts last year, but I’d like to think that I raised a few spirits.