Memorializing the Landscape: Walking the Stanza Stones Trail

Image of the Beck Stone reused with thanks to John Illingworth, who retains copyright
The Beck Stone. Photo © John Illingworth (cc-by-sa/2.0).

By: Eveline de Smalen

Preparing to take my sister out on a walk in the Yorkshire countryside, I looked at a map. The map, as it often is in these days of technological wonder, was an app that I have on my phone. I am a literary critic, not a cartographer. I don’t know very much about maps. Still, or perhaps for this very reason, I was intrigued. I was studying the terrain between Ilkley and Saltaire, which I heard was a nice place to walk. There seemed to be some runs of water, quite a few paths, a body of water called The Tarn, and a plethora of small black triangles with names like Cranshaw Thorn Hill, Hog Hill, and the mysterious Spy Hill. A white star in a brown circle marked a landmark called Cow and Calf, and there something caught my literary eye: a second brown circle, this one with what seemed like a white obelisk, marked Stanza Stone: Beck.

The Stanza Stones, I found out, are six massive rocks inscribed with poems by Simon Armitage. All speak of water in various weather conditions: there is a Snow Stone, a Rain Stone, a Mist Stone, there are Dew Stones and Puddle Stones, and finally, the Beck Stone that took me quite a while to find. All stones can be accessed by following a trail that stretches from Marsden in the south to Ilkley in the north, and can be walked in three long legs that lead from one train station to another, or six short ones that start from parking lots. Deciding that I could use some exercise (and reminding myself that I am unable to drive a car), I went for the long ones.

Since I walked the legs of the trail in a somewhat untraditional order, the first Stanza Stones I found were the Dew Stones. The guidebook I carried indicated that I had to make my way through a forest to get to them, and landscape architect Tom Lonsdale writes that

“The two Dew Stones stand on the divide between two very different worlds that were once one. The planting of conifer forest on part of Rough Holden, on Rivock Edge, has created over time a dark inner space, through which a bridleway leads travellers from cultivated fields to a stunning ‘north window.’”

Approaching the hill, however, I could tell that while there definitely had been a forest once, it was now cut down and gone, something that, as a production forest, had always been its fate.

After making my way past the stumps of trees, I paused to read the Dew Stones, and to have a well-deserved snack, and mused on how nice it must have been to emerge from the enclosure of the forest to encounter this poem and the panoramic view of the valley beyond Rivock Edge. The poem speaks of the dew’s power to prevent forest fires, and shows off its aesthetic qualities as well, reminding the reader of its beauty, in spite of its usual inconspicuousness:

trimming a length of barbed-wire fence

with liquid gems, here

where bog-cotton

flags its surrender

or carries its torch

for the rain.

The poem captures the atmosphere of the forest, which is more humid than the open grassland that lies beyond it in this place. It goes on to speak of the sunrise, reflecting the light that would have suddenly struck the walker upon leaving the forest:

Then dawn, when sunrise

Plants its fire-star

In each drop, ignites

Each trembling eye

I was sad not to have this experience of the contrast between light and dark, dryness and humidity, but then another thought struck me. This poem, planted in the landscape, speaking of this contrast, serves as a reminder of what was once here. It reminds the walker, like the stumps of trees behind her, of the ghosts of trees past. Since this is a production forest that will be replanted, it is also a sign of the things that are to come.

Later that day, I found the Beck Stone. This stone sits over the Backstone Beck, which streams around and under it. Like the dew, which keeps the wood from burning, the beck is a powerful force in the landscape, albeit a more destructive one:

soft-soaping a pebble

for thousands of years,

or here

after hard rain

sawing the hillside in half

with its chain.

Like the Dew Stones, however, the Beck Stone also presents the water as something beautiful:

or here, where water unbinds

and hangs

at the waterfall’s face,

and just for that one

stretched white moment

becomes lace.

Although the water is a powerful, destructive force, likening it to lace reminds us that it is also soft and complex, and its ways are endlessly intricate. Like the poem, the water becomes a work of art.

The Stanza Stones may be uniquely elaborate and poetic markers in the landscape, but they are far from the only ones present on the trail that carry messages for hikers and change the way they look at the landscape. Walking the Stanza Stones Trail, I encountered a multitude of cairns, piles of stones collected by travellers over the centuries to guide the way of those to follow in their footsteps, which bear witness to those who have come before. I saw stones with road names, stones with topographical data (“The most easterly point in the County of Lancashire”) and benches carrying dedications to people who walked the Moors before (and, according to one particularly disturbing one, still do!). I saw the massive Stoodley Pike Monument, which shocked me as it suddenly appeared through the mist when I was only about a hundred metres away, which memorialises and has memorialised different events over the centuries.

So even as I walked the Stanza Stones Trail mostly by myself, and in some parts encountered hardly any other walkers, I was constantly reminded of the people who had walked the land before me, the feats they performed, their loves and the things they found important. They changed the landscape continuously, by felling trees, protecting wildlife, and erecting memorials of various kinds, and these acts change and deepen the way we look at the world around us, as we are continuously reminded of how it changes, what it has been in the past, and what it will be in the future. Yet as a literary critic specialising in landscape, and moreover, as someone who walked 30km with little training on a hilly landscape, alone on a foggy and rainy day, I have no doubt that the landscape also changes us as we walk it. In fact, the poetry of the Stanza Stones has in places been changed to fit the stones they were to be carved in. Pip Hall, who carved the poems into the stones, writes how the shape of the stone, which barely has enough space for the words of the original version of the poem, led Armitage to adapt the words slightly, in a way that improves the poem:

“A call from Simon this morning about another alteration. He thought it would make things easier for me if ‘over’ were replaced with ‘at’ (‘…water unbinds and hangs at the waterfall’s face…’). I was pleased about a shorter word which would certainly help with the space issue; and far from compromising the poem, it is, as Simon explained, ‘more active; visually and aurally lighter; gives it more tension.’”

If I’ve learned one thing from my experience at the Rachel Carson Center, it’s that the ways people make sense of the world around them are endlessly complex. In this era of climate change and environmental degradation, it is important to realise this, that the landscape is more than the world around us: it is our past, our present, and our future.

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