Walking with a friend by the river Wharfe a few days ago, I was surprised to find about a dozen species of wild flowers still in bloom. There was quite a lot of Yarrow and Hawkbit, some Scabious, even Eyebright and Thyme. We had a late Spring, and, so far, autumn has been quite mild. There was also a lot of Honey Fungus, Armillaria mellea, around the base of dead and dying trees along the river bank. This parasitic fungus sends out black ‘bootlace’ rhizomorphs that spread through the soil, infecting woody plants up to 100 feet away. Once fruiting bodies appear, the tree is usually doomed. Honey Fungus can apparently live for a thousand years, becoming an enormous living organism. Interestingly Yew are one of the few tree species able to resist its advances. Humans have not been able to find a chemical antidote. I wasn’t aware of much this at the time, but always take note of what ‘shows’ on a walk, and the quantity of these not unattractive fungi made them impossible to miss.(1)
Undoubtedly the star of that first walk was the river herself. In places about seven or eight feet of translucent fast flowing water, sculpting banks of gleaming rounded limestone pebbles. And, of course, the river birds. Not least, and from my perspective, given the business of the weekend, not entirely unexpectedly, a Kingfisher, who flashed briefly into view, hugging the opposite bank and quickly disappearing into overhanging cover. Then reappearing, as a scorch of electric blue light against green water, zipping along to find a better perch.
The next day we went to visit the ‘Verbeia’ altar piece in Ilkley. Miranda Green writes that ‘she may be Verbeia, the personificatory spirit of the River Wharfe’. The snakes she holds may have been intended to represent both actual snakes and the water of the river. At spring sanctuaries in Gaul a rippling regenerative serpent ‘represented the spirit of life-giving, purifying water, which could cleanse and heal’. Water can, however, both give life and destroy it.(2) In several places where the Wharfe roars through narrow channels between constricting rock outcrops, warning signs record recent deaths by drowning. These are powerful and alluringly beautiful places where the life force is palpable, but wet limestone can be notoriously slippy. The earliest recorded reference to a River Weorf occurs in an Anglo-Saxon record (dated 963 CE), and the river’s name might have been derived from Verbeia.(3) The notice beside the goddess carving says she may be Demeter holding two torches, or perhaps her daughter Libera. Whoever she was, I found her image evocative, and was pleased that although she’s now in the parish church, this is on the site of the Roman fort where she was venerated.
We then walked up on to Ilkley Moor. Although its only about thirty miles from where I live, I’ve somehow avoided going there, so this was my first visit. Our first port of call was the bath house at White Wells. It so happens that Charles Darwin came here in the autumn of 1859 to get away from the limelight when The Origin of the Species was being published. He wrote home to say that ‘the water cure has done me much good’, but then fell and sprained an ankle. With Verbeia in mind, I was struck by the Victorian eulogy to the local spring water, even though it was written as advertising copy rather than pagan liturgy. The water here is ‘mellifluent, diaphanous, limpid, luminous, transparent, pellucid … the aqua vitae, the elixir of life. It is vitalising, animating, resuscitating, exhilarating, enthusing, sustaining, refreshing, invigorating, delightful, and delicious to bath in’. It is ‘the nectar of the gods and goddesses’. And this was the abridged version. Now that’s what I call a placebo affect!
We climbed up some rough stone steps to the Moor, and paid our respects to the ‘Twelve Apostles/Druidic Calendar’ Stone Circle, before heading across the moor on a recently upgraded path. Helicopters had brought many tons of flagstones from demolished Bradford mills up to the moor to be used in these new causeways. They can be quite uncomfortable to walk on, and are not much better to look at, so hopefully they’ll wear in.
After a mile or so, we stumbled upon one of poet Simon Armitage’s ‘Stanza Stones’. Puddle is inscribed on two recumbent flagstones, so its unobtrusive. This is one of six poems evoking different aspects of ‘In Memory of Water‘, carved into rock at various places across the South Pennine watershed. They strike me as thoughtful and beautiful poems that respond to the landscape they’re sited in. The project also involved taking young writers from across Yorkshire up on to the moors to make their own poetry. Where I live we’ve been subjected to a rash of poor quality sculpture, plonked into urban and rural landscapes as little more than a set of signposts, or calling cards from artists and funding bodies. Recently, for instance, I noticed that a natural rock in a prominent hillside location had been converted into a sculpture of a human head. Presumably the artist thought they were improving upon nature? We do also have some subtle and/or celebratory pieces of public art, but I’ve become quite wary of the genre. The stanza stones are, however, carefully sited, with due permissions from Natural England where needed. They seem respectful of the landscape. Verbeia might have liked them. I just hope they don’t spawn a series of less respectful imitations.
Ilkley Moor is, of course, famed for its petroglyphs, especially the cup and ring marks. Much has been written about these, but I didn’t want to read it before visiting. There’s such a thing as over interpretation, after all. For anyone interested there are some fasten-your-seatbelts dreamscape accounts online (see Paul Bennett’s description of alignments from the Twelve Apostles stone circle, one of which clearly enters world-as-trickster territory.(4)) Besides, I had gone there to hear the recordings of Ted Hughes’ inaugural performance of his remarkable Cave Birds poems at the 1975 Ilkley Literature Festival. Last Saturday’s event was a strange occasion, not least because Keith Sagar, literary critic and close friend of Hughes, who was to have given the talk, had died a few days previously. The event, re-organised with the encouragement of Sagar’s family, became a fitting tribute to him. The Ted Hughes recordings were, unsurprisingly, quite thought provoking, so more about him in due course ….
1) see First Nature website
2) Miranda Green, Celtic Goddesses; Warriors, Virgins, and Mothers, British Museum Press, 1995.
3) Nemeton, A Sacred grove: Verbeia, A Brythonic goddess: Living Water, Rain Striker. Consulted 22/10/13.
4) The Northern Antiquarian, Twelve Apostles, Burley Moor, West Yorkshire. Consulted 22/10/13.