The bear’s throaty growl starts to my right, then circles predatorily around to my left as I turn. But I stay calm, because the beast is not really there – it’s an illusion. I’m on a street corner in Leeds on a bright, chilly autumn morning and there are no bears for thousands of miles – or at least there haven’t been for well over a century.
Between 1840 and 1858, before Burley Park was all tarmac and terraced housing, the street where I’m standing was part of the short-lived Headingley Zoological and Botanical Gardens. I’m on a guided “sound walk” around the graffitied remnants of its walls, and I’ve just reached Bearpit Gardens.
A Garden Through Time, produced by community project 365 Leeds Stories, is an immersive, geo-located audio walk – one of about 50 UK routes available on the Echoes app. As I move about, the GPS on my phone tracks my exact movements and responds by triggering music, sounds and speech. At Bearpit Gardens, Pauline Mayers, a local artist and choreographer, talks about how the flora and fauna in Britain’s zoological and botanical gardens was an embodiment of empire and slavery in the Victorian era. It’s insightful, engaging and acutely rooted in the surroundings. The murmur of birdsong in my ear recedes as I walk on from Bearpit Gardens.
Like many people, I have struggled to come to terms with personal confinement during the pandemic, but sound walks have presented a new way to travel – physically, mentally and, occasionally, back in time.
A house built after the Headingley Gardens were closed, incorporating a section of the old wall. Photograph: Lorna Parkes