It’s a strange thing to walk into someone else’s memories; especially those that have been woven and tangled about a place. A place that you’ve heard about, but never visited. Somewhere that means a great deal to the person who told you about it, but for you, who’s never been, it retains the status of a rumour.
This spring I visited Ilkley with my wife Abi, who spent her early childhood there, and our two sons. I’d been to Ilkley once before on a stag-do, but other than a few pubs and a very brief step onto the moor, before taking an Ale Rail train to Haworth from Keighley, I saw little of it.
I remember being struck by the sudden imminence of the moor at the top of a hill, at a point where houses come to an abrupt halt. As the road curved away, town stopped and there it was, the moor rising up, that famous bit of ground, where in the song, the foolish and hatless risk a cold death and making a feast for worms and ducks. I felt almost as though some magic trick had occurred, that by some strange process, the paving slabs had been whipped away from beneath my feet and replaced with grass and ling heather as I walked.
One part of Ilkley I’d never been to was Hebers Ghyll, though I’d heard Abi talk about it. The spot is of great importance to my wife; a wooded, rock-strewn ravine on the western edge of the town, where Black Beck drops down from the moor, running north through trees and then fields until meeting the River Wharfe. This ground had been the scene of countless childhood adventures involving defying and defeating trolls, when out walking through and up it with her Dad.
“It was always an inset day or something, Mum would be at work and I’d be off with Dad. Our recurring storyline was that Mum had been kidnapped by trolls and that we had to climb Hebers Ghyll to the top, to make sure she was released. That would mean she’d be safe when she came home from work.”
For Abi, going back to walk up Hebers Ghyll again after some years – her family moved away when she was eight – was an emotional experience.
“I remember it always being lush and overgrown. In my memory it was much further away from our old house, but when we went back, I realised it was closer than I remembered. I’d have been quite scared as a kid knowing how near the trolls were.
Taking my own children there years later was a weird feeling. I felt very emotional, but I knew that I couldn’t expect them to feel the same way about it, and would have to take it on their own terms. When a place is very special to you and you share it, as much as you want them to like it, you can’t dictate how they are going to react.
In the end it was fine – they were a bit shouty and loud and not in awe at all, but it was really lovely to take them there. My overall feeling was one of relief and pleasure that I wasn’t underwhelmed by going back.
I was surprised by how similar it was to my memories. I expected it to look and feel smaller, but it didn’t. It was as grand as it was when I was little. I remembered lots of bridges being there, then thought I’d exaggerated that in my mind, but I was right.
It was actually spectacular still to me as an adult. The atmosphere was almost exactly as I remembered. The feeling of coming out of the trees into this vast expanse of sky at the top, was just how I’d thought about it for years.”
My expectations of Hebers Ghyll, without the weight of personal memory and anticipation that my wife felt, were different, yet I still had them. I sometimes wish that this wasn’t the way, that it could be easy as an adult to go somewhere for the first time and simply draw it in raw and direct to your senses, unfiltered by the tight-gridded lines of conscious and unconscious preconceptions.
I felt jealous of our children being able to crash into the woods, shouting and gleeful, taking everything as it came. They did know at the time that they were visiting a place that was special to Mummy, and that she’d enjoyed going there when she was young like them, but this didn’t seem to have any particular influence on how they reacted.
Hebers Ghyll for the boys was interesting in itself, they could run around enjoying being under a dark green canopy of trees; they could whoop loudly and send wary blackbirds, robins and more cautious birds we hadn’t even seen, fluttering higher and deeper into the woods, away from the path. Black Beck was running water to be splashed in, the several little wooden bridges zig-zagging up and over it were there to be run over, jumped on and swung from.
Much as I would have liked to, I couldn’t access the place with that kind of youthful detachment. Perhaps this kind of close, unprejudiced attention remains possible, though I’m increasingly conscious that with a camera almost always to hand on my phone, I carry my own distancing device in my pocket most of the time – the lens at once preserving a slice of memory and erecting a barrier between you and it.
This sort of separation between the immediacy of a place and its perception and recollection didn’t arrive with the invention of the camera. Simon Schama in ‘Landscape and Memory’ explains that the wealthier type of Eighteenth-century tourist would sometimes carry what was called a ‘Claude-glass’ with them, to frame what they saw as picturesque views of verdant hillsides or Italian lakes and distant townscapes, occasionally using a tinted version to provide sunset or other aesthetic effects.
This is not so unlike us today, wielding cameras on our smartphones as we record flat digital impressions of whatever’s taken our fancy. Only now we tend to add the colour filters and shades after the event, before sharing our captured visual currency.
As well as my camera – some of the pictures I took you can see here – I had another kind of filter between me and Hebers Ghyll. As a self-described ‘place-pondering’ blogger, I ambled in, laden with the baggage of expectation.
Foremost, there were my wife’s shared stories. Before I even got to it, I wanted the place to be lush, verdant and beautiful, in some vague, Romantic sense. Without direct memories of my own, I had still pre-populated Hebers Ghyll with borrowed emotional ghosts – my wife as a little girl exploring, my father-in-law, younger, brown-bearded, steadier of foot, leading the way, as a cast of leering, shifting, stone and bark-skinned trolls, danced ahead in and out of the shadows.
I also carried in a variety of non-specific notions – a liking for and desire to see and be within woods, wildflowers, birds and other creatures – for a connection with ‘nature’. These thoughts would bounce along in my mental back-pack and mix with visions of Middle Earth, or Westeros and multiple other wilds, real and imagined, that I’ve read about, or watched, that have all helped shape and arrange the ways I react to different landscapes.
Finally, less foregrounded, but there too, was the matter of the North – Yorkshire in particular. For various reasons I’ve long romanticised the idea of the North of England. Partly perhaps, knowing that my Mum grew up in Sheffield before moving to the south west.
As a student I went off to Nottingham, thinking I was going to ‘the North’, filled with ideas of bright, brassy lasses; a sense of dour authenticity, of grit and wit and pit, fuelled largely by teenage readings of DH Lawrence, Sillitoe’s Saturday Night Sunday Morning and Peter Tinniswood’s Uncle Mort and Carter Brandon. I’d not been there long before Kieran from Blackburn disabused me of this misguided notion: “What you talking about? You’re in the South…”.
Whilst my geographical misconceptions have long been corrected, my attraction to a cultural confection of superficial Northerness has stuck. So Hebers Ghyll for me was never going to be simply an interesting place to visit, but a slice of actual Yorkshire, informed by a teenage nostalgia for a region that I’d visited, but never truly known.
Of course, without some sort of conscious effort to liberate ourselves from our personal rag-bags of mental associations and impressions, we all experience place through the tight binds of memory.
Even if we end up somewhere, by mistake or chance, there’s likely to be a cultural connection, or feeling, that helps to ground us. We may never before have driven down a particular road, arrived into a specific station, or sat down on a riverbank far from home, but we will have an idea about what a road is, how stations work and what rivers do. If not accessing our own recollections, we’re often influenced by someone else’s – whether a lover’s, an artist’s, or the author of a guide-book.
As Simon Schama notes in his great work on the subject, Landscape and Memory, “landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.”
Or, as the painter Samuel Palmer, that mystic seeker of numinous landscapes, made for cradling soft sleepers, or gatherings of folk under moonlight, once stated in a letter “Landscape is of little value, but as it hints or expresses the haunts and doings of man.”
And yet for all this expectancy, setting me up for disappointment, I still found Hebers Ghyll extraordinary. As we walked deeper in, going uphill, the main sensory impression that struck me was the greenness of the place.
The obvious, immediate greens of leaf and stalk were there, along with moss on rocks, but alongside this primary greening, a curious kind of secondary atmosphere pervaded the whole lower area. This was a shimmering, playful green of light and reflection, winking off the beck as it trickled and bubbled downhill, flashing through branches, reaching fingers into crevices between the boulders and stones and broken stumps that lay scattered on the ground.
Still the rocks stayed, as the water buffeted their solid rounded sides, relentlessly gushing in and around and down past them. The greens shifted and danced, like the imaginary trolls: sages, limes and pistachio, with hints of yellow in lichens, emerald and jade in shadows, olive and apple tones, the green eyes of small pebbles below the surface, planes of dark steam-engine greens like hyper-colour photos of 1960s trains, about to depart, sea greens, bank note colours, parakeet-bright screaming greens and more muted earthy and weedy variants.
All these shades and tints of green added to an impression of a place that was a little unearthly, for all the carefully laid and maintained paths and well-looked after bridges. Inevitably a literary association came to mind and I thought of the Green Knight’s chapel from Sir Gawain, although that one, as I later reminded myself, was viewed as a bad, devil-haunted place: “Whether this be the greene chapelle?/Here myght aboute mydnyght/The dele his matynnes telle!”
Standing inside, Hebers Ghyll did feel chapel-like in some ways, though not bad, simply earthy and good. However, with fairy-tale creatures in mind, as we passed through, we did see one mossed tree stump that looked almost like a crouching figure, a creature frozen in time, squatting, waiting, perhaps for the dark.
Finally, inevitably we reached the top, crossing the last bridge and meeting that great wide sky of Abi’s memory. Turning left and east we looked across the muted browns and yellows of the moor towards White Wells and beyond, to where we knew the landmark Cow and Calf Rocks stood somewhere in the distance – in a week this same stretch would be ravaged by fire.
The boys, spotting some large, table-like slabs of rock, sprinted off to these, quickly scrambling on top, before sprawling in the spring sunshine and calling down to us: “Come on, come up, you can see everything.”
Links and References
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Everyman 1991, edited by A.C. Cawley and J.J. Anderson
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Simon Armitage, Faber and Faber, 2007
Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama, Harper Collins, 1995
Mysterious Wisdom: The life and work of Samuel Palmer, Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Bloomsbury, 2011