Several years ago I was given a copy of Stanza Stones signed by our esteemed Poet Laureate Simon Armitage. I have the edition, co-written with Pip Hall and Tom Lonsdale, that is published by Enitharmon. If you aren’t already familiar with the Stanza Stones, they are a collection of six poems written by Simon that each have a water theme namely; Snow, Rain, Mist, Dew, Puddle and Beck. His words were engraved by Pip Hall into natural rocks and stones located on the watershed that borders Lancashire and Yorkshire high in the Pennines spanning a 47 mile stretch north and south of the M62 motorway.
The ambitious project was commissioned by Ilkley Literature Festival when Rachel Feldberg was its creative director. I can recall being impressed by the concept ten years ago so I am surprised that it has taken me a decade to get my act together to find them all! I challenged myself to walk the route over two weekends late this summer whilst the heather on the moorland would add to the vistas I knew I would enjoy from the tops. I decided to walk in a northerly direction with reference to Mick Melvin’s walking guide
The first Stanza Stone ‘Snow’ is located on Pule Hill, near where the poet grew up in Marsden and is stone’s throw from the Poetry Seat where the view looking north is impressively far-ranging. The first hour was spent rather frustratingly trying to find the right path up to the exposed rock face near the mine shafts and I felt we had lost valuable time when there was still along way to go. Still, happy to have ‘bagged’ one Stanza Stone I joined well trodden Pennine Way and set out towards Saddleworth Moor. I was relieved the sun was shining because I did not trust my compass work had the weather conditions required me to resort to taking bearings!
After a long stretch of walking across the open moorland, dodging peaty puddles I felt as though I was on top of the world – way above the tree-line. Glorious! Looking west I could see beyond Manchester to the landmarks of the Liverpool docks. I was amazed at the number of reservoirs and tarns that were up there visible only to birds and aeroplane passengers destined for Manchester Airport. It was virtually desolate, save for the grouse, and we met only two other walkers all day. On a footbridge we crossed the standstill traffic on the M62 and a couple of hours later we dropped down towards the White House pub on the Halifax road. A short distance beyond it near the Blackstone reservoir was the second stone ‘Rain’. Day One’s walking was finished with two stones found. We were on schedule despite a clumsy start.
The following day we referred to a different guide written by Tom Lonsdale which we found more user-friendly: The Stanza Stones Trail Guide
With relative ease we located The Mist Stone just south of Oxonhope, which is my favourite of the poems because it describes so vividly to me the sense of water molecules suspended in the air, visible and tangible in this particular state. The sun was shining when I visited but I can imagine how damp it gets at other times of year.
I met ramblers who were also enjoying the glorious weather and views across Bronte country to Howarth but were oblivious to the fact that the Stanza Stone was just by the side of their footpath. I was puzzled as to why the stones weren’t better signposted from the paths as the walkers were intrigued to hear about the Stanza Stones and seemed delighted to see one when we showed them it. We read the poem out aloud and paused to reflect on the language Simon had used. It is copied below as the inscriptions are hard to read from the photograph.
Who does it mourn? What does it mean, such
nearness, gathering here on high ground
while your back was turned, drawing its
net curtains around? Featureless silver screen, mist
is water in its ghost state, all inwardness,
holding its milky breath, veiling the pulsing machines
of great cities under your feet, walling you
into these moments, into this anti-garden
of gritstone and peat. Given time the edge of
your being will seep into its fibreless fur;
You are lost, adrift in hung water
and blurred air, but you are here.
©Simon Armitage 2010
As you can see from the map the last three stones are located relatively closely to each other. So, I have to confess we missed out a bit of the route between Hebden Bridge and Shipley and started the second weekend’s walking near Silsden where The Dew Stones are situated by a wall. Standing tall and proud they were the easiest to find.
The fifth poem was not far away on Ilkley Moor beyond the rocky outcrop known as the Thimble Stones. Engraved on two large slabs lying flat on the ground we initially walked past The Puddle Stones even though they are close to the footpath. Here is the Puddle poem:
Some May mornings
clatter this way,
shedding their iron shoes
in potholes and ruts,
shoes that melt
into steel grey puddles
then settle and set
into cloudless mirrors
The shy deer
of the daytime moon
comes to sip from the rim
But the sun
likes the look of itself,
stares all afternoon,
Its hard eye
Lifting the sheen
from the glass,
turning the glaze
Then we don’t see things
©Simon Armitage 2010
It was mid-afternoon when we pushed on further across Ilkley Moor determined to finish the mission and locate the sixth and final Stanza Stone. Given its name I knew it would be somewhere near the beck and the path across Ilkley Moor was well trodden so I was confident that the end was nearly in sight. However, the guide described three routes approaching from the opposite direction causing confusion to a weary poem seeker. We passed the Poetry Seat and noticed people were reading and posting poems in the letter box, but we were on a mission and the clock was ticking…
Having walked down a very steep path to a wooden bridge and not found it, I then trudged back up the path that seemed even steeper! I admit I lost my sense of humour at this point. It was late afternoon and I had that horrible feeling of failure looming close by. A more attentive re-reading of the directions made me realise that the stone was IN the beck itself! Eventually I found my ‘holy grail’ on a boulder in the beck partly camouflaged with algae. Mission accomplished.
I recommend the walk to anyone who enjoys being outside in the open air. Hill-walking is such wonderful exercise and the sense of freedom you experience in that vast openness is mind-expanding. The poems, scale and position of them are a fitting tribute to the natural environment, the rugged beauty of the Pennines and the element [water] that inspired them.
Thank you to Simon, Pip and Tom and to everyone who was involved making this idea a physical reality for our appreciation, and to my walking companion John who joined me in losing and finding the way countless times throughout our quest.