Tracing Time Across the Moors

By , The author is a naturalist and lives in Keighley, West Yorkshire.

WALKING on Ilkley Moor in winter, say between September and April, is a chilly experience, for it can be a most inhospitable place. Yet to see the moor in all its moods is a great adventure. I have walked some of it, and next year my wife and I plan to walk from Addingham to Bowness on Windermere. We plan to stay in guest houses and farmhouses along the way, and we travel light. Of course, the more spartan travelers take huge backpacks and camp out, but I feel my camping days are over unless I go by car.

Ilkley is a lovely place to stay. People come from all over the world to see the remains of a Roman fort known as Olicana. Without doubt the most interesting feature of Ilkley is the Swastika Stone. The Swastika Stone is believed to be part of a pagan rite - a fire ritual. It is something of a mystery, and, as far as I can find out, there is only one other like it in Britain, in Northumberland, but the stone varies slightly. There are some ancient ritual stones in other countries, but certainly not many.

To get to the stone you must walk from the All Saints Parish Church, up the main street to Wells Road, go over a small bridge. White Wells will be on your left, high up on the moor. Walk up this path for 1 1/2 miles; in spring and summer the area is alive with song birds, the skylark's song fills the air, and you'll hear the call of the curlew that nests in the meadows.

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Note, too, the gardens full of blossoms on your right, and the little bridge over Hebers Gill is a marker to let you know you are almost to the Swastika Stone. Take the left path, you'll see a large rock with railings around it, to keep people from walking over it. Once here you have beautiful views of Wharfdale and Ilkley nestled in the valley below. You may hear the call of the red grouse and at other times, particularly in the twilight, there is peace beyond imagination.

I take an Ordinance Survey map of the area, which gives me fine detail, marks boggy areas, stone circles, and old battle grounds and burial grounds of the distant past.

The moor is alive with cotton grass and heather. There are large rocks with openings underneath; these are possibly the home of the fox. I look around for feathers and bones, the remains of his meal, to see if I can trace his tracks. Birds of prey hover over the moor in search of rodents such as shrews and voles and young birds; the commonest of these is the kestrel.

Back down in the town, if you visit All Saints Church, you may see the crosses at the base of the bell tower that date back to Anglo-Saxon times. It is likely that this area was an important ecclesiastical center, and may have been the site of a pre-Viking monastery.

Alongside the tower wall are coats of arms of the local families. Closeby stand two Roman altars, probably used to make sacrifices in Roman rites. The church reshaped them for its own use.

Outside the church, the crossroads invite exploration of a much wider area. One road leads north to Skipton, the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales. To take this road is to see some of the loveliest countryside in Britain.

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