The tunnels under Preston are the setting for a new book by New York Times bestselling author A.J. Hartley.Advertisement
Cold Bath Street is a ghostly tale that draws on local Lancashire legend about the tunnels, which are supposedly haunted by the ghost of a young woman who fell under the wheels of a train. The story goes that she shares her haunt with the spirits of numerous Victorian children who died labouring on the tunnel excavation.
The title of the book comes from the real Cold Bath Street in Preston. The “cold bath” was a public baths used by poor Prestonians who didn’t have a bath at home, and it’s still intact underneath what is now the Media Factory.
There is so much interest in Cold Bath Street that publishers UCLan Publishing will be doing their first-ever author tour including Bologna Children’s Book Fair and London Book Fair.
Closer to home there will be a reading, talk and Q&A session with the author on Thursday 12 April at 5pm in Greenbank Lecture Theatre, University of Central Lancashire. A signing at Preston Waterstones will take place at 1pm on Sunday 15 April.
Cold Bath Street will also feature at the first Northern Young Adult Literary Festival, which is being held at 53 Degrees on Saturday 24 March. Hartley, who now lives in America, will join the festival for a virtual reading.
Read more: First ever Northern YA Literature Festival comes to Preston
Keeping the Preston connection, Cold Bath Street is illustrated by UCLan fine art student, Janet Pickering, who has won a national award for her work on the book.
We spoke to author A.J. Hartley to find out more about how growing up in Preston inspired the book.
Where did you grow up and hang out?
I grew up in the house depicted in the book, 6 Langdale Road, Ribbleton. The area around Greenlands and from Blackpool Road on the way to Grimsagh pretty much defined my childhood and adolescence, though I spent more time in the town centre when I went to sixth form. The book is very autobiographical in that regard, and one of the core metaphors of the book is that the ghosts’ world shrinks as they forget the places they went in life, so that only those locations they knew best are still open to them. In a sense the book is very much about memory and the way you lose parts of your past as you get older.
Do you miss anything about Preston?
Of course. It’s still very much a part of me, even if I’m very different now. You know that TV show from a few years ago, Life on Mars? I loved that, partly because it captures something of that feeling I have about Preston which is tied to my own childhood and adolescence and is therefore full of conflicted feelings. I’m still proud of where I came from, the people I grew up with, friends and family, even if I haven’t lived there for a long time and don’t really belong there now. Now when I come back I like to just walk around and look at the places I used to know, though it’s impossible not to feel a bit like a ghost myself, irrelevant and forgotten. I guess that’s what inspired the book. And I find myself missing the countryside around the town more than the town itself. Above all, I miss that very English sense of lived history stretching way back into the past because I don’t have that in the US and am still in some ways an outsider there too.
You’re a Preston North End fan – do you think they will make the play offs?
I was disappointed by the loss to Fulham in injury time but it still seems possible to me. I have the iFollow subscription so I watch most games live. I especially like Sean Maguire and have always liked Daniel Johnson.
What inspired you to write Cold Bath Street?
I was back in town and feeling nostalgic. It began there, then I think it took off when I had the idea of killing off the main character in the first chapter and then wondering what happened to him next. I particularly liked the idea of freezing time in the moment of his death so that he didn’t know how the town continued to live and evolve without him, since that’s how I sometimes feel when I come back, like I’m trapped in a moment from my own past while the town lives on without me. Then I started digging into local legends and the ghosts stories I had grown up with (like the Bannister Doll) and started working them into the narrative. A lot of it hinged on the old railway line that ran close to my house and up to Grimsagh and Longridge.
When did you first come to know about the tunnels?
I suppose I had always known about them as a kid (and been terrified of them) but didn’t know what had happened to them since they had been closed off. I started digging around and collecting images, then, whenever I was back in town, I’d try to walk parts of where the railway line had been so that I knew exactly where the tunnel mouths were. I only began to think they would make a good setting for a book when I started wrestling with the story itself. I don’t have memories of going in them as a child so I had to build that sensation through research and imagination.
Your lead character is called Preston – how did you develop him?
Oh that’s easy. He’s me as I was when I was about 15. I tried out several names for him and didn’t settle on Preston until quite late, long after the first draft of the book was done. I liked the way it fused character and the location of the story into one. Historically, I think the name of the town used as a boy’s name used to mean there was a family link to Preston, so I wanted to make that literally true, the character being the version of myself I associated with the town in that period.
Read more: A history of the ghost railway line running through Preston
What and where will Preston folk recognise in the book?
Lots! A lot of the book is set in and around Ribbleton, including the main cemetery there which extends down towards the Tickled Trout and motorway, but there are scenes at the Harris Library (including one involving a famous painting there which scared me when I was a kid), Avenham Park, the Plough at Grimsagh and the shops along Ribbleton Avenue, and Blessed Sacrament church. There are even Romans bound for Ribchester. The railway lines from Longridge down to what we called the Miley tunnel (Maudlands) are especially important. The title comes from one of the places close to where you can still look down into the uncovered part of the tunnel which I think most people will agree is still pretty creepy.
Why did you choose UCLan Publishing?
It’s such a local book that I wanted a local press to carry it, one that would embrace its regional specificity rather than trying to get me to make it more “universal”. The power of a story is in its details and I didn’t want to flatten them out to make something that might suit a wider audience better. It’s actually my first dedicated UK release (though many of my books are available in US editions) so it seemed fitting. It’s a nice extra that the UCLan publishing program operates out of the very area indicated by the title! The work they are doing to put Preston on the map, like with the upcoming Northern YA Literary Festival, is excellent. Anything that draws readers and celebrates what Preston and UCLan have to offer is good in my book. No pun intended.
You can buy a copy of Cold Bath Street from Waterstones, or one of the events mentioned above.
Did you know about the haunted tunnels under Preston? Let us know in the comments below.