I have an alter ego that is triggered by crossing the Watford Gap as we head up to visit our stepdaughter in Leeds. This other-me casts off her Louboutins and strides the moors of Ilkley and Haworth, conquering inclines and standing victoriously atop rocks of millstone grit studded with quartz, great slabs of leaning sandstone and the shale reaches of Upper and Lower Wharfedale. I am buffeted by wind, cheeks flushed with roses, as I survey the slate gray rooftops of the towns and villages spread out far below me- Conistone, Grassington, Kettlewell and Ilkley itself spreading out like a ribbon along the valley below the moors – the wildest part of the Dales and Ebor Way. The names speak of graft and grit, of people carving out a livelihood in these harsh, seer and beautiful surroundings. As I walk along the ridge lines, it is clear that we are far from Suffolk.
Here, the fields are boundaried by drystone walls full of buff beige sheep clouding the grass, left unshorn far later than in the south and there are stands of pine, stunted and pushed by the winds into Bonsai master forms. Temperatures plummet swiftly as clouds pass through and round us, coating our parkas with a wet mizzle. Rays of sun strafe the moors and the lakes and streams glitter as they pass over them then recede back to a dull gun metal grey. Down below in the car park of Ilkley Moor the flags of the Cow and Calf Cafe are gaudy but act as guide to walkers in a hurry to leave the moor above when vision is blotted out by mists and fog.
A few yards along the winding moors road is the Cow and Calf pub, a 19th century hostelry with rooms, food and cask ale. Originally the site of the country’s first hydropathic hotel in 1844 called the Benrhydding, it became a boarding house in 1949 and then a pub. The gardens and front seats overlook the moors and are just left of the Ebor Way hiking trails that leads up to Barks Crag: the Great Skirt of Stones and Burley Moor. The views are breathtaking.
Ilkley Moor can be found between the eponymous town and Keighley, is part of Rombalds Moor, and reaches 402 metres in height. Known as ‘baht’ and famous for the Yorkshire national anthem; a folk song “On Ilkla Moor Baht’ at” which warns in explicit detail, the potentially dire consequences of a visit to Ilkley Moor “Baht’ at” sans hat, the landscape is designated a national Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). I would advise you to obtain an Ordnance Survey map (The Landranger series No. 297, “Lower Wharfedale and Washburn Valley”) if you plan to walk these moors as there is something essentially soulless about using digital technology to traverse them. Maps speak of the history of this land and of those who plotted it the hard way, properly acquainting themselves with its topography. Until you have tried to spread out a map on a rock, buffeted by winds, pebbles placed on each flapping corner, you have not lived.
The moor is arguably best known for its striking rock formation, the Cow and Calf rocks ( also called Hangstone Rocks) at Ilkley Quarry high on the Moor and made of millstone grit and sandstone in a shape deemed somewhat reminiscent of their name- to those of days past. Quite frankly it is a bit of a stretch to see the likeness and one can only assume that in olden times, locals had an imagination less literal than we do today.
Legend has it that the calf was split from the Cow when the giant Rombald was fleeing an enemy said to be his irate wife and he stamped on the rock as he leaped across the valley. His wife dropped the stones held in her skirt, forming the nearby rocky outcrop called The Skirtful of Stones. A giant tomb and one of the moors major prehistoric sites, it has been dug out over the years leaving it more akin to a caldera in appearance, sunken, moss encrusted and pocked with ferns which appreciate the sopping confines and grow lushly as they cling, leafily prehensile to the vertiginous rock faces.
Man and woman inscribed their stories here long before the Romans strutted along the Wharfe Valley and christened it Olicana. Over 250 rock carvings have been found within this area, and some experts believe that there may be more buried under the peaty soil. The rock carvings are found on cliff faces, especially near the Cow and Calf rocks, and also on the boulders around the area of Green Crag Slack (Map Ref: SE1340). Known as ‘cup and ring marks’ and more common in the North of England, our fingers traced the curved, circular and horseshoe patterns as we wondered what they represented. Did they mark territories or roaming rights? Do they have a spiritual or clan meaning? Or were they maps of springs, waterholes or attempts to trace the movements of celestial bodies through the skies? On damp days their curliques fill with dew, little lapping rivulets that small children enjoy dabbling their fingers in or sailing tiny boats on, made from the petals of buttercups. Small shallow depressions, the cups are ground into the rocks surface, singly or in apparently haphazard groups and often surrounded by small circular channels, the rings. The Swastika Stone is found near Hebers Ghyll and is believed to date back to 1800BC and is one of our earliest known examples of Celtic Art. It is protected by iron railings to deter any modern day impulses to add graffiti but is open to view. From the path past the Swastika Stone enjoy the great views across Wharfedale then walk on a little further and find a memorial stone to the crew of a Halifax bomber.
Although heather, bracken and wild grasses abound and the going is soft with many places waterlogged with peat bogs, upland areas may have been reasonable hunting, grazing or later farming land as many flints dating back as far as the Mesolithic era have been found around Rumbolds Moor, an area roughly bordered by Ilkley in the north, Silsden in the west, Keighley in the south and Menston in the east. Compared to the lush, easily accessed grazing in the south, where we are from, the moor looks inhospitable but humans will work with what they have got and cloven hooved animals are more agile than us for sure.
The Twelve Apostles Stone Circle, a Druidical stone circle can be found along the Dales Way, about 1.5 miles from Ilkley Crags. The view from the circle, looking over the Aire Valley, Burley Moor and Upper and Lower Lanshaw Dam then north towards Menwith hill is stupendous: purple heather, matted grasslands interlaced with rough tracks and cinereal rock against an ever changing backdrop of sky. A natural stopping point, this is the place to stop and rest.
The circle is roughly 2000 years of age and covers a diameter of 52 feet with twelve 4-foot high stones, as dishevelled as an ancient ruin in a hard to reach wind pounded place ought to be. The archaeologist Arthur Raistrick suggested that there were originally around twenty stones in the circle. all set within a rubble bank with a seven-foot megalith in their centre. Formerly in possession of such names as the ‘Druid’s Chair’ and the ‘Druidical Dial Circle’, the latter may be a colloquial leftover of its reputation as a site where the solar and lunar year would be recorded. The central megalith is key to the supposition that the stones acted as a druidical dial circle and it might have performed the role of shadow marker or a point from which supernal trajectories could be mapped. Do keep in mind though that what you will find today is far removed from what would have been seen here four thousand years ago. The patchy woodland which once quilted the moors has mostly receded to be replaced by a thick blanket of heather and the stones have been moved, knocked about and neglected by the local authorities. They have been righted and are now watched over by local archaeologists and pagans but don’t expect a mini Stonehenge and don’t sit on them- the circle is very fragile and some of the stones sit on the surface of the soggy moorland, propped up by smaller ones.
The nearby and virtually forgotten Black Beck Well nearby was once an important and vital stopping off point for travellers across these inhospitable moors and it might have been that the location of the stones was chosen in relation to this as they are a mere 200 yards apart. They were certainly sited proximate to the crossing point of two critical trackways that bisected each other and the moor. These ways face the four cardinal points, known as airts, and one of them is believed by archaeologists to have been the point at which a exigent prehistoric trading route crossed the Mid Pennines.
Legend states that is impossible to count the stones at the first attempt whilst locals speak of floating white spheres among the stones and of UFO activity too. One such sighting was back in late 1976 when three men from the Royal Observer Corps saw a white silent sphere hovering low over the stone circle only to shoot vertically into the twilight skies and vanish; a similar light was seen by other witnesses in July 1990 at the Backstone Circle. In this case, a white ball hovered on the horizon only to approach Twelve Apostles where it stood low and still over them. After a series of ‘strange maneovres’, it headed off towards the west, allegedly chased by a RAF fighter. Dramatic tales….