Novelist, poet and playwright Simon Armitage explains how the mystery of the Yorkshire moors has inspired his latest, collaborative project, Stanza Stones
It might seem perverse or even a little bit unadventurous to wax lyrical about the landscape that begins at my very doorstep, but the moors of West Yorkshire have become more mysterious and exotic the longer I’ve lived in them. I grew up in the village of Marsden, the last and highest village in the Colne Valley before the Lancashire border, and my parents’ house was a sort of sentry box on a steep and narrow road that headed towards a vanishing point somewhere above us. Pule Hill sits at the top of that road, and as a child I’d often scramble up to its summit. They say on a clear day it’s possible to see the Humber Bridge and Blackpool Tower from up here. It was never that clear, but the sense of elevation and the jet stream of fresh air was always breathtaking.
Some of the surrounding landscape had a more foreboding atmosphere: Saddleworth Moor, with its macabre history, and the crash sites where planes had come down in the war. You can still find engine parts and fragments of fuselage littering the ground, 60 years on, if you know where to look. And the moors can be bleak in winter — not somewhere you’d want to get lost in — the dark peaty soil appearing to merge with the iron greyness of the sky to form an almost featureless landscape without horizon or reference point.
That said, such bleakness can have its own striking beauty, when the cotton grass comes into flower and each stalk offers its pom-pom of bleached white hair, or when they cover the ground like a million brilliant-white arc lights flaring in the sun or phosphorescing under the moon. Or when the weather is mild in the valleys and planes but snow puts a white cap on the moor.
Sometimes in winter, driving over to Manchester, I’ll stop the car and pluck a stem of cotton grass or scoop up a handful of snow, and present it to a friend on the other side of the hill; a little token of a different world transported to the grinding mass of the city. Last week, I watched a barn owl quartering a plateau of tussock grass above the village of Holme — another ghostly white and ethereal presence against an entirely colourless background. And in summer, on those rare days when the wind drops and the clouds are peeled back, I’ve experienced a sort of becalmed tranquillity and solitude that feels utterly unique to that landscape.
But what has always amazed me most about the moors is they are nearly always empty. A person can spend a whole day on Black Hill or White Moss, or walking down Wessenden Valley and not meet another living soul. Even though the huge industrialised conurbations of West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and Greater Manchester lie only 20 miles off in different directions, and busy towns like Huddersfield, Halifax and Oldham are just 10 minutes away by car, and villages and hamlets lie in every fold and hollow. To me, that has always made the moors a place of contemplation and composition, as if I see them as a blank page. It’s unusual if I go out for a walk and don’t come back with a poem.
For this past 12 months, I’ve been stretching that idea to its literal conclusion; so instead of writing about the moors, I’ve been writing on them. The Stanza Stones project is a collaborative adventure with letter carver Pip Hall and the Ilkley Literature Festival. The idea, quite simply, has been to write a series of poems and carve them into the local landscape. At first, I envisaged something on a grand scale: a kind of Mount Rushmore of poetry, with verses hundreds of feet high gouged out of a hillside or cliff. But ambitions were eventually scaled back in line with budgets, environmental
and artistic impulses, and the six carved poems — some etched into rocky outcrops, others chiselled into new stone gateposts or paving slabs across boggy moorland paths — now form the Stanza Stones Trail. It’s 47 miles from the starting line at Marsden Station to the chequered flag at Ilkley Station, but nobody is expected to walk it in one day.
As if writing poems wasn’t a strange enough job anyway, writing poems that will last for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years is even stranger; like writing for people from the future. Each poem is about water — the shaping element of this region — in its various forms. There’s a dew poem, a rain poem, a mist poem, a stream poem, and even a puddle poem (a sort of homage to the runt of the water litter). And on Pule Hill, above Marsden, carved into the wall of an old quarry, there’s a snow poem. I’d say it’s my highest achievement — certainly in terms of feet-above-sea-level — and the thing I’m most proud of, even though on many days there’s no one to read it, apart from the odd sheep and, at night, the stars above.
Simon Armitage is a British poet, novelist and playwright, whose works include novels Little Green Man and The White Stuff. Awards include The Sunday Times Author of the Year, a Forward Prize, a Lannan Award, and an Ivor Novello Award, among others. In 2004, Armitage was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was awarded the CBE. www.simonarmitage.com
Published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)