The Stanza Stones project saw an artist carve the words of a poet into stones set into the Yorkshire landscape. In the first of our
The Stanza Stones line a blistering 47-mile trail. If, like me, you describe yourself as a walker, but get breathless on Holgate Hill, you will be relieved to know you don’t have to visit all of the six sets of stones in one day.
I’ve never yet made it to the Ilkley Literature Festival for fear of driving on my own at night-time. In 2011, the festival collaborated with poet Simon Armitage and stone artist Pip Hall to devise the Stanza Stones trail and I had been looking forward to visiting them ever since. Simon wrote six new poems which Pip carved into the landscape.
Like Ghurkhas, we planned our trip with precision and decided to kill two stones with one metaphorical bird. We had worked out that if we visited Dew, which the website assured us would take us a very achievable 20 minutes, we could also get ourselves down the road to Puddle.
I have recently worked out how to use navigation on my Samsung and consequently we only got lost once. We arrived south of the stile to discover that “parking” was a bumper short of a lay-by. It was at this point that we realised that this was serious walking, the kind that takes you past herds of cows and lone folk with sticks, rather than a saunter through a village.
There were indeed cows: gigantic beasts that would have made me turn on my own hooves to find a detour if I had not had Ed with me, who assured me that “they were friendly”. I got brave enough to ponder a while and take a few pictures on Instagram, before we headed up the path towards the dark, dark forest that apparently held the secret of the Dew Stones.
We had expected some mud (hence the walking boots and not-so-new jeans) but we hadn’t expected mud like this. We have both survived festivals, where the mud came over our wellies and we slept in quagmires across the country. We are not afraid of a mud. But this was exceptional stuff, the kind that sucks you in and threatens to swallow you up.
We hopped around the field like hares. We tried to skirt the edges. We tried to run for it. We tried to lie flat on our bellies and slither like snakes (simile there for you). We could not get from the field into the forest.
We saw a couple of locals and had a jolly shout across the field about the mud and how treacherous it was, and how funny we all looked. I was reminded of Stevie Smith’s Not Waving but Drowning. We spent our 20 allocated minutes trying desperately not to give up but we were utterly defeated.
Being defeated is not something I take lightly. I make all the right philosophical noises, but the sun breaking through the clouds, the spectacular view from the gate, the smiling cows… nothing could raise my spirits. I wanted poetry and I wanted it right there and then.
Ed is not one for a sulk, so we got back in the car, put the heater on full to dry out our feet, and headed towards the second set of stones on our itinerary: Puddle. We were a little nervous. If the Dew Stones were swamped, surely the Puddle Stones would be flooded.
We made our way up t’hill to Ilkley Moor, where a little sing-song in my “whippet down the mine” voice, lightened my mood. Passing the bikers on our way up to Rombald’s Moor, and finding a bit of a crowd, we started to get a sense that there would be something to see at Puddle.
The radio mast marks the spot and we started to get it – the reason we had been defeated by the bogs at Dew. If truth be told, if we had got ourselves to the first set of stones, we might have had a pleasant enough little jaunt and decided it was time for a cuppa, leaving Puddle for another day. We didn’t get to Dew because we were destined to get to Puddle.
The moor looked stunning in the sun. The walk uphill was so calming that we could have easily forgotten about the stones. The landscape was making its own art; the wind was singing its own songs (poetic, eh?).
At either side of the path, small clusters of stones started to appear. These are known locally the Thimble Stones. At one of the larger clusters, I thought we had found our poetry, but it was just a little Pennine graffiti. We sat for a moment and ate a couple of Hobnobs and for the first time in weeks, felt perfectly relaxed.
Some of the Stanza Stones are carved in situ; Puddle was carved on recycled flags from a former mill-stone factory. The walk up the hill wasn’t too taxing when all you are carrying is an almost empty, novice walker’s rucksack. I would love to know how the stones found their way there.
The Puddle Stones sat comfortably in their landscape, laid like gravestones, and we found ourselves respectfully walking around them. I felt the urge to clean them up, lay flowers there, say a prayer… or something.
You will only find snippets of the Puddle poem on the internet. I have looked for it since. Photographs on Flickr will not give you the whole picture. Light reflecting off the bevelled edges of the carvings make the poem difficult to photograph in any detail.
I suspect that there is method in keeping this particular poem a little bit of a secret, for a little bit longer. More often, we expect things to come to us easily: to Google everything. Would I have asked Ed to give up a Sunday afternoon in the pub if I had read the poem before going? These poems are meant to be read amongst the geography that inspired them. You are meant to make the walk.
Sometimes, reading poetry is like wading through mud (a cliché, but relevant here, I think). You have to be in the right frame of mind. If you are connected to the poem by its theme or by your own personal history, understanding the poem comes easily. Other times, other poems require effort and stamina and it can feel like a pointless trek, an easy jaunt or the most satisfying of journeys.
I had no real expectations of the poems themselves. I am not a huge Armitage fan, probably because I have never given his poems any real time. I will revisit his poems and Ed and I will revisit the forest that holds the Dew Stones.
Standing at the Puddle Stone, the wind picking its way through the heathers and making us pull down our hats, my tummy rumbling and remembering we had walked our way through lunchtime, rethinking the pools of water around our feet as “rain junk” and “sky litter”, I was blown away.
- The Stanza Stones Poetry Trail runs from Marsden to Ilkley
- Price: free
- For more details, and to download the whole Trail Guide, visit the Ilkley Literature Festival website or visit the Stanza Stones site
- By car it takes about one hour 20 minutes from central York to the starting point. The guide suggests walkers park in a lay-by at Banks Lane, Silsden