Lendal Bridge is a fine example of Victorian engineering, and its ornate cast iron decoration is worth a second look. In the 16th century there was a ferry crossing here, connecting St Leonard’s Landing with the other side of the Ouse. The landing was an important one in the medieval period, as stone for building the Minster was brought by water from the Tadcaster quarries and unloaded there. The ferry, too, was an important link between the two sides of the city, particularly after Ouse Bridge collapsed in 1565.
The bridge here was not built until the 19th century. It is the main route linking the station and the city centre, and if often crowded with tourists and others making a day trip to York. The pavement isn’t wide, and I have often had to squeeze to one side when walking to the station to make room for visitors walking up to the city in packs. I thought about that experience, and how strange it would have seemed to Hawise when writing the scene where Grace tries to get away from York for a while. In the excerpt below, she is on her way to the station.
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Doggedly I leant forward, pushing my way through the air which had grown gluey and padded with resistance. Every step was a huge effort. I started to feel dizzy with it.
I made it past the Red House and across at the lights. My legs were trembling by the time I passed the library, and when I got to the entrance to Museum Gardens I had to lean against the wall to rest, my breath coming in jerky puffs. The station seemed impossibly distant on the other side of the river.
The river where Lucy had drowned. Where Hawise had drowned. Where I would drown too if I couldn’t shake her hold on me, I realised with a burst of horror.
I had to get away, but the recent rain had left the Ouse swollen and sullen under the bridge, and the thought of crossing it filled me with terror. I made myself leave the safety of the wall and face the river while my mind screamed, No! No!
I took a hesitant step forward, then another, but the conviction that I was stepping out over the edge of a cliff was so strong that I stopped again in the middle of the pavement, my skin clammy with dread. This was all wrong. There was no bridge. I should be going down to the ferry, not walking out high into the air as if I had wings.
That was Hawise thinking. I struggled to push her from my mind. There was no ferry any more. Instead there was a perfectly good bridge. I hadn’t crossed the river once since I had arrived in York, I realised. Subconsciously I had been avoiding it, but there was no other way to get to the station.
It was ridiculous to think that I couldn’t cross the river, I reminded myself fiercely. Of course I could. The bridge was real. It was concrete and tarmac and stone. All I had to do was put one foot in front of the other and not look at the water.
Tourists and day trippers were flooding up from the station, walking three and sometimes four abreast across the bridge with its narrow pavement. They weren’t tumbling through the air, down into the cold brown clutch of the river. The bridge was real enough.
I took a deep breath and made myself walk on, but the morning had taken on a nightmarish quality. I couldn’t shake the conviction that I was walking along a tightrope, suspended high over the water. I didn’t now what was real any more.
There were too many people. They pushed towards me like cattle, their faces terrifyingly blank, bearing me back towards the Minster. I couldn’t get past, and icy panic gripped my guts. It was as if the world had turned against me, and I was alone amongst aliens. If I fell, I was sure they would have simply marched over me.
As it was, the crowds broke around me as I faltered in the middle of the pavement, but there were always more people behind. An army of tourists, marching on up to Betty’s and the Shambles and the Minster. They just kept on coming, many of them wearing little more than their shifts. They were grotesque, their heads were uncovered, the women’s often polled, their legs bare or encased in strange hose, a great, intimidating troop of shameless vagrants flaunting their nakedness, jostling past each other without courtesy.
I blinked, and they were once more just ordinary people but Hawise’s horrified reaction at the amount of flesh on display lingered and I averted my eyes in disgust. My heart was banging against my ribs, my blood rushing in my ears. There were so many of them, I couldn’t get past.
Go back! Go back! You can’t do this!
Ignoring Hawise, I gathered the last of my courage, and tried to dodge out into the kerb to get past the advancing hordes, but a bicycle almost ran me down. The cyclist swore at me as he swerved and shot past, and then I looked up in terror to see a monstrous, roaring wagon bearing down on me, but there were no horses and the sound of it filled my head so that I could only gape at it, paralysed by fear.
‘Watch it!’ Just in time, someone grabbed my arm and yanked me back onto the pavement as the bus swept past with a blare of its horn.
‘Th-thank you,’ I stammered, but my saviour had already moved on.
I fought my way across the pavement to the wall and leant against it, pushing my palms against the stone to reassure myself that it was real. It felt real, but I was no longer sure any more. My head was ringing with resistance and I was sweating.
My phone bleeped. A text from Jan. R u coming?????
Shaking, I pressed back into the wall. Sorry, sick, I texted back. Can’t make it.
© Pamela Hartshorne 2012
All photographs © Kippa Matthews