“Shoes that melt”: 47 miles of poetry

In retrospect, walking 47 miles after the wettest summer since records began may not have been the brightest idea I’d ever come up with, but I’d booked the time off work and I needed to stretch my legs. I was going to do the Stanza Stones tour whether the weather be kind or not.

When I first heard about the Stanza Stones I reported it in my news gathering blog, Beyond Guardian Leeds, back in July last year. I was very excited about it when the news started coming out and was keen to start the trail when it finally became open to the public. When the trail guides became available I snapped one up, dug out my trusty OS maps, sorted out some boots and worked out where and when I should go.

The whole route, from Marsden to Ilkley as walked by yr hmbl correspondent

(A small aside, here: I wasn’t going to do the full trail all in one go – I’m certainly not fit enough to walk 47 rough terrain miles non stop and was too close to home to even consider camping hence the plan to take three days, as close to each other as I could. I bought a bus & train zones 1-5 weekly Metrocard; the trail guides for the day walks all start and end at train stations. Brilliant idea, in my opinion. No need for a support crew or to hike back to a start point, or to design circular walks, or even to need a car to get to start points. And I got to sleep in my own bed.)

There was a little confusion over the number of stones to find; most reports (and the trail guide) explicitly said six, but the guide obliquely mentions a seventh and some other reports also said seven. In the end I decided that I’d walk as much of the trail as I felt able to and take in all six marked stones, and just keep my eyes open for number seven.

So with that in mind, I packed a bag, pinned an iMove badge to one of the shoulder straps, got on a train and headed to Marsden.

Day One: Marsden to Hebden Bridge.

I’ve walked from Marsden to Hebden Bridge once before, but it was a direct route, probably no more than 15 miles. This was a solid 18.7 miles according to my GPS tracker, 18.4 according to the guide but I probably went a little off piste. Anyway: the route starts at the train station and kicks off with a leisurely stroll along the canal to Standedge visitor centre. I was too early to see anything there but boats on the canal, but it is a pretty place.

Stanza Stones

Stanza Stones

The route says to cross over the road, find a track and then find a gap in a fence, before heading up to the summit of the first hill. That first hill was surprisingly hard (because I wasn’t used to it), but a good start; the gap in the fence was easy enough to find despite being distracted by sheep and bunnies, and I was rewarded at the summit by a memorial cross and a fantastic view over Marsden.

Stanza Stones

(by the way, these panoramic shots are just small, low-resolution versions; click through to find a bigger version on Flickr, but even bigger ones are available on request.)

Following the path over the hill to the quarry on the other side got a bit blowy, but showed off some interesting architecture from the Standedge tunnel, square and round funnels and chimneys venting steam from the underbelly of the industrial revolution. And then there was the quarry, only a mile from the canal and disused for a very long time, completely sheltered and in stark contrast to the gusts that were threatening to blow me over. I got my first taste of how good the guide was here; I could have easily taken the wrong path and gone over the quarry, not wanting to lose height, but took the guide path and found myself looking at ancient stone.

Stanza Stones

The first Stanza Stone is here; Snow. This was the first piece of the poetry I’d found, and I genuinely loved it. Simon Armitage’s books are more interesting to me than his poetry, I’m afraid to say, but I’m always interested in the well executed delivery of an idea. Snow gave the first idea, and also showed the (well-selected) typeface being used by Pip Hale in the carving. The last part of Snow made me pause, for a moment, to reflect.

Stanza Stones

(am not quoting any of the carved poetry here; you can try & read it out of the photos if you like but I’d rather just give their impression and urge you to go and find them to read for yourselves.)

Around the corner from a somewhat disgruntled-looking sheep I found the poetry seat with a whimsical note, a sign telling people how far it was to Ilkley. Made me laugh, and look forwards to the seat at the other end telling me how far it was to Marsden. But I couldn’t hang about, as the rain was getting up and I needed to get on with the miles.

The route is clearly marked as you walk it, well-trodden paths along the Pennine Way with panoramas that are enough to take your breath away even without the wind and rain.

Stanza Stones

But the rain was coming in, and coming over the hills. I could see it hurtling towards me and was a bit concerned that getting soaked was on the cards, until I crossed over Saddleworth and started heading back towards the M62, and could see a clear demarcation of cloud that straddled the motorway in light and dark. I knew that if I could make it over the bridge before the rain hit I could probably miss the worst of the weather. And so it proved.

Stanza Stones

Over on Blackstone Edge the rain kept away and I was able to trek down to the White Horse through the incredible rock formations up there for a spot of lunch and a pint. (Huge portion sizes for lunch, by the way. Was unable to finish!)

The next part was done under blue skies and warming air; through my beloved, rolling and unforgiving Calderdale past the reservoirs and along the Pennine Way, with blustery edge paths and calmer flats, to the Rain stone, carved into a favourite spot for rock climbers and people who love layers in their rock deposits.

Stanza Stones

Rain didn’t speak to me as much as Snow did, but the situation could not be more different – wild, open, exposed. And hard, too – the rock here is proper tough millstone grit, the sort of stone that Yorkshiremen have in their bones, the sort of stone that demands grandfather’s tweed suits, hobnailed boots and a cloth cap.

The route took me further on, past cows and along paths that were gradually sinking into the moors. It was coming up to Blackstone Edge that I found the first signs of how badly the summer had affected the paths, all crumbling away and difficult to follow. Here they were becoming waterlogged and vanishing under mud and heather. At Stoodley Pike I stopped and looked out over the Calder valley, and spotted parts of the pathway that the year before I’d been able to run along had become quagmires.

Stanza Stones

Finding my way down to Heb from the Pike was pretty straightforwards, although there was a moment where the route took a sharp right; if I’d missed that (unsignposted) turn I would have ended up in Todmorden. I got to see a new bit of Heb, too – coming out of the woods I found myself at the top of a steep incline that was new to me, so steep that kids were pushing bikes up and having to think twice about whether to ride down. A successful end to a good day, I felt. A good trek, finished off with a cuppa in the park next to the train station.

Day Two: Hebden Bridge to Bingley.

The weather today was supposed to be better, but I packed my raincoat anyway. I was very glad of it, believe me. I started out from Hebden Bridge and headed up towards Peckett Well before turning off through Nutclough wood, and discovering just how much the summer’s weather and all the flash flooding had changed the landscape here. But not too badly, and I was able to climb up the hillside (a path said to be marked in the guide wasn’t, however) and make my way to Chiserley and up past some bilberry patches to the Equestrian Centre.

There was a bit of a confusing bit here; the paths were more like streams because of the weather but I picked myself across the moorland to what I thought was the right spot, but turned out to be a bit farther north than I should have been. Not to worry – I could see where I should end up and instead of pick my way back up the moor and back onto a bridleway I started down a steep, steep slope that led to Lowe Farm.

Stanza Stones

All went well – you can’t miss Lowe Farm, it looks like a castle. Crossed over the bridge, up the road and over a very steep stile, then up the hill past more bilberries and some early blackberries twisting around a trail marker before getting a fantastic view up the valley.

Stanza Stones

Then up and over the top of the hill, then getting onto Warley Moor and heading for the wind farm in the distance.

Ok, so I fell in a bog.

This isn’t exactly a habit but because Sarah uses the “Mike fell in a lake on our first holiday together” story and I once fell in a bog when my friend Matt and myself totally failed to find a route up Pen-Y-Gent and decided to take a shortcut (erm, ok, and that time I got my foot stuck on the downhill off piste at Blackstone Edge, whoops), it seems that there’s a whole undercurrent of zeitgeist which says “mike falls into water”.

On this occasion it wasn’t my fault. I’m going to argue that all the other times weren’t my fault either. But this time I have a perfectly decent reason.

I’d crossed Warley Moor – it was getting a bit boggy from the middle and I was disappointed that my boots were seriously covered in mud from a few deep spots, but it was ok. It felt like I was carrying half the moor with me, though. Which goes to show: never use hyperbole until you really need it. I’d reached here, and that spot in the middle, at about 7 o’clock from the house where the path bends? I was there, heading towards a path marker post. I put my foot down and there was nothing there, no ground, nothing solid, only water and reeds and mud.

I went in up to my waist and my toes just touched a rock before stopping. My right leg was in too, but not quite so deep – only up to my thigh, there. I managed to grab a log – which, in retrospect, was a marker post that should have been there but had fallen over because the ground couldn’t support it – and sling my bag off my shoulder, before hauling myself out of the death trap I’d found myself in.

Instead of my usual shorts I was wearing longs (with zip-off bottoms. Come to think of it I was wearing the same trousers when I went in the bog near P-Y-G. They must be cursed), for which I was very grateful. If I’d been wearing shorts I would have got bog water right up into my nethers. As it was my phone was in my trouser pocket and promptly got full of bog water.

If I’d been wearing my jumper as well as the techno-fibre top I had on I would have had no dry clothes to put on. Thankfully that, and my waterproof jacket, was ok in my rucksack. There was nobody in at the farmhouse (I did go & knock – well, as close as I could because it was a bit heavily fenced off and there was a big barky dog – to see if they had a towel I could borrow), so I stripped off, cleaned up as much as I could, and then because I was in the middle of nowhere with nobody around carried on with my walk. There didn’t seem to be anything else I could do.

My mental state wasn’t good at this point, and then it started to rain.

Nonetheless I made it along cold edge road to the turnoff for the walk to Mist (which is further along than you think, especially if you’ve just fallen in a bog) and was glad to get into the comparative shelter of the delphs and the quarry workings were pretty interesting. I managed to find Mist but was in no real state to appreciate it. Afterwards I did; the position this stone is in is lovely, but it is the only one on this leg of the walk and needs to be seen in better light.

Stanza Stones

The route along towards Thornton Moor reservoir is again damaged by the weather and sometimes it felt like the path was meandering a bit too far off-piste, but stick with it and you’re rewarded by a nice, gentle, sheltered decline towards the reservoir; no matter how tempting it looks the route to the concrete streams is not simple. And eventually I found myself in Sawood, in the Dog & Gun, a lovely pub which let me use their phone to let my better half know that my phone was waterlogged. Good beer there, too – a swift half and I was back on the road.

The route to Bingley seemed pretty simple but I tried to follow the riverside route from Cullingworth and it didn’t quite work – I was scrambling through fallen trees and along muddy, breaking paths and while I did find the waterfall – dramatic – I also found it difficult to get back onto the trail guide path afterwards.

Stanza Stones

I was sat in a field, under a tree, realising that the rain had picked up some more and my resolve – up to now pretty solid – gave up and told my brain to take a hike. So with a bit of a heavy heart – and dripping clothing – I sacked it. I took the easy route, along the main road from Harden down into Bingley, instead of trying to find my way back onto the path through woods and a golf course. And it was probably here that I missed the seventh stone. But I made it to Bingley and was still able to use my feet, despite having walked for eight miles in waterlogged boots.

Day Three: Bingley to Ilkley.

It took me a day or two to recover from the previous, but when I set out for the third and last leg of the trip I felt happy and positive to be getting back on the trail again. The walk from Shipley to Ilkley is one I’ve done many times but this was a bit longer and took in a corner of the moor I’d not seen before, so I was keen to see why there was this upside-down wellington shape in the top left hand corner of the route.

The walk along the canal from Bingley to Keighley was fine and a good way of easing myself back into the walking spirit. Good weather, people walking dogs, and because it was a bank holiday Sunday there were plenty of boats on the water trying out the three-and-five rise locks. The bridge I needed was number 196, and was about 3/4ths of a mile further on than the guide suggests – don’t take an earlier one or you will get lost.

A climb up a hillside, past a garage belonging to someone who likes to collect broken down Peugeots, and I’m rewarded with a view of the Worth valley.

Stanza Stones

And a bit further up the hill I find myself smelling the countryside and trying not to antagonise cows as I make my way towards some forest. This bit of the trail was waterlogged and had been used by mountain bikers, but I could see their trails and saw that they’d doubled back on themselves a lot going over the field leading towards the forest gate. I could see why – the whole field was turning itself into a paddy and a stream somewhere uphill had overflowed into it. Not wanting a repeat of the big incident I went around the edges of the field trying to find solid ground and did ok, until I got to the gate itself.

Stanza Stones

That may not look like much but the walking stick test told me I’d be up to my calves – at least – in mud in order to get through the gate if I took it at face value. I eventually picked out a route and got through the gate into Rivock Forest.

Stanza Stones

This was proper, spooky, “don’t leave the path!” -type forest with strange pools of light and odd fungus. Brilliant stuff. It probably took me ten minutes just to get 100 yards into it. I felt completely isolated here, in stark contrast to the towpath I’d been on only an hour before. It was lush and green and it felt like a proper forest should do. And not far into it was Dew.

Stanza Stones

I understand there had been problems getting Dew to stay in situ; they had been solved. These stones didn’t feel like part of the landscape, though – the only ones that didn’t – but the words were no less effective for all that. Again, where they were placed was outstanding and the surrounding landscape was a joy but they didn’t feel… integrated.

Onwards and deeper into the forest. The feeling of isolation was still there, even moreso when a low-flying plane started buzzing the valley, until I stopped to take a photo of a drainage channel. A dog appeared, a black lab who looked just as startled as I felt, and started running towards me barking away with two of his mates and an owner jogging up behind them in gaiters and heavier boots than mine, scolding them for disturbing the quiet. Gaiters, I thought, I should have been using them to stop water going over the tops of my boots on the second leg. Hindsight.

A sharp left – again, an easy one to miss as the way the path and road intersected was like a toppled over K – was marked by a sign that I thought read “HATE” but I must be wrong. The forest continued and I was still enjoying the quiet, the lack of people. Then I started coming across dog walkers, disgruntled at losing their wolves amongst the trees.

Out of the forest & past Black Potts I started wondering about these “precariously balanced” stones on the skyline; there are clusters of rocks all over the moor and these seemed nothing particularly special. The farm and cottage are in a dip in the road so you can be going “I need to turn here, but there’s no buildings” but they are there, just tucked away. And then up onto Black Hill.

Stanza Stones

It started to get boggier here again, and passing over drystone walls and through patches of heather were all well and good but again I was asking myself why I came out after the wet, damp, miserable summer. Then I passed over the brow of a hill and came across a view that made me realise why I did this, and why there was the odd kink in the corner of the map.

Stanza Stones

(the panoramic view of this is also available but it needs to be seen big.)

This was simply beautiful, the rolling hills and lush countryside, the views that make me smile and feel privileged to live nearby to this fantastic landscape and have the time to enjoy it when I could. But as much as I wanted to sit and enjoy this the rain was coming in again and I had to make progress; despite Ilkley being no more than an hour away by normal means I knew I had to cross halfway back to get to Puddle.

Puddle is aptly named; the route to find it took me across more boggy country and even before I’d reached West Buck Stones I’d nearly lost a boot trying to find my way across the moor and gain some more height. The walk along the wall from the Stones to the TV mast was diabolical, and I was joined by a number of people all tying to pick a way that didn’t involve too much mud and water. It was only a mile or so but it took me the best part of 45 minutes to get to the mast, and once again I had a boot full of water – but at least I was sticking to the theme of the stones.

My first thought on reaching Puddle was sheep have no appreciation for art, as it had been well deposited upon by those animals seeking a steady, not-too-damp place to carry out their business.

Stanza Stones

The hardest to read by a long chalk Puddle was found in the rain, again with nobody nearby, and on the flat; the only scenery was heather, bogs and an incoming wall of grey rain that blocked out the views anywhere off-moor. I didn’t linger after reflecting on the line that makes the title of this blog, but headed off to the trig point (where, like at the trig points before I took a self-portrait) and then onto the apostle stones. I’ve seen the apostles before, many times (and will do again, one Sunday soon when the skies are clear), and decided to turn off early to head towards Backstone Beck (the seventh stone could well be here, I suppose).

The right-hander at Backstone Beck should have presented the poetry seat, “built around the remains of a former shooting lodge”. I found two places that fit the bill, one of which had recently been hunted ’round for someone seeking the same place, broken bracken and folded back ferns, the fear that the seat had become overgrown already. It was only when I got back that I discovered that the seat was not there yet, because nesting birds would have been disturbed. The view was spectacular, though – all purples and greens and rushing water. Alas, no milepost telling me how far it was to Marsden.

Stanza Stones

And then down the path alongside the Beck. I came across something that could have fit the bill to cross over but wasn’t quite right, so onwards and down, down, down until I spotted Cow & Calf rocks in the distance and the Beck levelled off to show people that it was still tameable.

Stanza Stones

Down towards the quarry where there were too many people after the quiet I’d been living in while on every other part of the journey, and then back towards the beck to see it tumbling down the side of the moor, carving its way into the hillside atom by atom. And there, hidden by a rock and some gorse and a patch of beautifully-tasting bilberries – whilst there I ate enough to turn my tongue purple – I found the Beck stone, the last one on my trek.

Stanza Stones

I loved Beck. I could have sat there for hours – and did sit there for quite some time – watching the play of water and the light on stone. And the idea. “It is all one chase”, which could mean micro, the beck starting out high up on the moor becoming more the further down it gets; or macro, our lives, always striving, always moving after something, chasing goals or dreams. Or both, or neither. Ambling down towards the town and a fat rascal form Betty’s I reflected on this; my goal for these days was to find the stones, get some exercise, see some scenery and take some photos. All of that was done and more besides, and I felt happy that the plan had been fulfilled. But unlike acquiring many goals there was no feeling of emptiness, of “now what?” angst that sometimes happens; rather I felt happy and contented that I’d taken part in the Cultural Olympiad and seen something that should remain long past my ending.

Stanza Stones

And then sat on the train home I lifted my leg and reflected that believe it or not, this wasn’t the muddiest I’d been on these three days.

For the record, I did these walks on 22, 23 and 26th August 2012. The Stanza Stones trail is well worth your time and energy. Please go & see them. I saw nobody else out there looking for these guys, although that could be down to the weather. Individual stones can be found with a car and some walking and I will admit the 47-mile trek can seem a bit daunting (and I did it in a very difficult way), but once everything dries out a bit this is a spectacular walk. I’ll be doing it again next year – after all, I have the seventh stone and the poetry seat to find.

I took many more photos than the ones in this article; 77 of them are on my flickr stream. Larger versions are available on request.


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4 Responses to “Shoes that melt”: 47 miles of poetry

  1. Beautiful pics and lovely to read – apart from the bit where you fall in so deep – that would have terrified me.

    • backwardslion says:

      It was, to be fair, a bit startling. But I suspect that it’s one of those things that if you’re expecting it to happen you’ll be ok.

      And thanks 🙂

  2. Wow! Fascinating to the end!

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