An overcast but dry day waited for us to get going on our hike up Ilkley Moor. The moor, for those not familiar with the geography of Yorkshire sprawls above Ilkley a small town north of the West Yorkshire city of Bradford.
Moors are wild and often bleak places, uplands of low-growing vegetation, heathers and bracken with high rainfall and peaty soil which is a rich store of carbon. The website of Friends of Ilkley Moor tells us: “It is estimated that there is twice as much carbon stored in Britain’s soils as there is in its woodlands.” https://www.ilkleymoor.org/discovering-ilkley-moor/conservation/
On this typically British summer day, cloudy and just the right side of warm (perfect for a hike) my companion and I had a mission, a destination in mind. We were heading to the Beck Stone, one of seven large rocks located across the Pennine Watershed, each with a poem by Britain’s Poet Laureate Simon Armitage carved into its surface. This project was conceived by the Ilkley Literature Festival in 2010 who commissioned Armitage to write a series of poems for the South Pennine Watershed. Armitage wrote poems which, in his words, celebrated “the element which gave shape and form to this region, namely water.” Each poem describes water in a different form: Beck, Puddle, Mist, Rain, Dew and Snow. The seventh Stanza Stone was placed in a secret location and remains unfound to my best knowledge. Pip Hall, letter-carver, carved the poems with her assistant Wayne Hart and the Stanza Stones Trail, which covers 47 miles between Marsden, Armitage’s place of birth and Ilkley was devised by landscape architect Tom Lonsdale.
We set off on our walk from Darwin Gardens Millennium Green close to Ilkley town centre. The Millennium Green was built to celebrate the turn of the 21st century and incorporates its own carved stones to honour Ilkley’s famous one-time resident. We had fun tackling the stone flag maze at the Green’s heart.
My companion cheerily told me it wasn’t far at all to the Beck Stone, only a mile. When we were, later, scrambling up some rocky stretches at times unstable underfoot, I remarked in response “Maybe only a mile but you didn’t tell me it was a mile straight up!”
As well as the most obvious heathers and ferns, we also came across cottongrass, crowberry and bilberry and, as we climbed, a stunning vista opened when we turned to look down on the town we’d left behind.
In his introduction to the Stanza Stones trail guide Armitage refers to the tradition of carved stones across the moors. From pre-historic standing stones, boundary stones placed throughout time right up to contemporary graffiti, people have been placing and inscribing stone in the wild environment for millennia.
When we reached the Beck Stone it did not disappoint. Backstone Beck, trickles then rushes down the hillside and getting close up requires a small jump across the stream and a bit of a clamber onto an adjacent rock. I did it! I perched on the rock and read the poem out loud. Here it is:
The Beck Stone
It is all one chase.
Trace it back the source
might be nothing more than a teardrop
squeezed from a Curlew’s eye,
then follow it down to the full-throated roar
at its mouth – a dipper strolls the river
dressed for dinner in a white bib.
The unbroken thread of the beck
with its nose for the sea
all flux and flex, soft-soaping a pebble
for thousands of years, or here
after hard rain, sawing the hillside in half
with its chain. Or here, where water unbinds
and hangs at the waterfall’s face, and
just for that one, stretched white moment
©Simon Armitage 2010
This poem evokes a perfect image of the beck, its persistence through millennia carving the landscape as the words are carved into the stone.
Our next goal was to find the Poet’s Seat promised to us beyond the Beck Stone. There, walkers and aspiring poets are invited to write and post a poem in the clever postbox which then spits out another poem left by a previous visitor to the Seat.
We walked on and gradually climbed and reached the Poet’s Seat where a family, mum, dad, uncle and kids were busy writing and talking about poetry. When asked if she had written a poem to post, one of the girls told us perkily, “Parent’s doing it”! Clear division of labour in that household.
We had brought poems to post but realising the intention to encourage on-the-spot composition, my companion took up the challenge and wrote a short ditty about coming across Simon Armitage on the moor.
What more to desire — fresh Yorkshire air, glorious vistas of moor and communities below and poetry! I’m looking forwad to finding another of the Stanza Stones on our next adventure.
Here’s a review of “Stanza Stones” the book by Simon Armitage, with Tom Lonsdale and Pip Hall
(Enitharmon Press, 2013); hbk, £15
Procrastination atop the Yorkshire moors
The stark and promise full moor beckons.
I might venture up to Stoodley Pike,
grand obelisk, peace built
into every brick, nothing surrounds it
taller than scorched tussocks, scrubby grass.
I could turn north, strike out for Haworth Moor.
What chance to come upon Emily dreaming there?
Perhaps a half-glimpse of her ethereal skirts turning
in a swirl of mist or her voice on a whisper of air.
If I head down toward the wooded valley,
dark gatherings of trees press close
to stone houses ranged on the hillside.
I can swish through knee-high grass in the field,
a picnic table beside a gnarly apple tree,
good rest stop. But still the need
to consider Blackshaw Head,
to imagine all its seasons beyond this
slow-breathing summer. Rain
lashing in at 45° or snow stacked against stone
like a battlement. Never a soft enfolding.
Also the necessity of bathing.
A huge breakfast cup
to stream water over my head
indulgence of bubbles, slosh of water
over my shoulders, breasts and belly,
water in big splashes, playful
and somehow surprising.
After dressing there are the plants
to water: greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers
and all around the house, pots and baskets;
pelargoniums, hostas, petunias,
impatiens, and lined against a wall
or in a space between path and grass,
the ones easy to miss.
At last, I approach the blank page,
after I find the right spot, summer house
and bench in the garden too hot.
On the swing-seat I can sway, push into a rhythm
find words to match, fill paper
with this place.