It occurred to me as I drove through the Victorian mansions that line the leafy streets of this end of Ilkley, that I couldn’t remember where Heber’s Ghyll had got its name. I had a vague memory of asking my grandfather about it, but could only recall the meaning of ‘ghyll’, a common word in Yorkshire. It means a stream… or a ravine… and comes, as many local words do, from the old Norse, and means a ‘steep valley’. It must be over forty years since I had walked up the ghyll, and not much less since I last walked down, but I remembered distinctly that ‘steep’ was a pretty fair description.
I remembered too the steps too high for small legs, the succession of rickety bridges over stream and fall, criss-crossing the path that led up to the moor. I wondered if I would be able to find it after all this time, how much memory had altered reality, and what changes the intervening decades had wrought.
Astonishingly, I was headed in exactly the right direction, as the road names soon indicated, and I pulled over in the tiny layby at the foot of the ghyll.
“I’ll just have a quick look, then we can go back.”
My longsuffering companion got out of the car. He knows me better than I do myself sometimes.
I had written about the Ghyll in Swords of Destiny, along with many other places on the moor, and was pleased to find memory had painted it true. Black Beck tumbles down the rock-strewn hillside through the leafy, green woodland. In spite of managed paths, some wonderful Victorian engineering that carries the water beneath the road, and a derelict public convenience, you only have to walk a few yards into the ghyll before the atmosphere changes. Suddenly you are in fairyland… the otherworld… somewhere out of time and place. Somewhere magical.
In fact, it was a pool in Black Beck, just above the ghyll, that we had chosen as part of our ritual landscape when we had first decided upon the solstice adventure together, the three of us, a month or so ago.
The low sun and lush vegetation combine to make the place feel, unlike the England we know and walk every day. It seems almost tropical… but too calm and cool for that. Too hushed and ancient. You wonder if this is how our very oldest ancestors saw this place before the moors became… before the forests were cleared in the Mesolithic era by humans or changes in climate. It is not really known which was the cause, but for thousands of years now the high moorlands have been as they are… a place of wild and unique beauty, completely different from the shady green world of the ghyll.
The iron-rich waters cascade down the steep hill and the path snakes beside and across, following its course. It gets steep very quickly and we headed for the first bench; my companion watching the descent of a little grub, abseiling from the canopy on a silken thread, while I played by the stream until something caught my eye… an upright stone, a giant, that seemed out of place, even in this numinous landscape littered with legends of giants. That rang bells too… but only faintly.
Of course, we had to go and look… wading through the sodden peat bog to climb stairs cut into the earth. The stone stands like a shield, a backdrop improbably balanced on the sheer slope of the hill. In front of it a platform of rock, a huge thing, perched on small boulders and protecting a hollow space beneath. I know nothing of the archaeology of the ghyll itself… and have no idea if this was placed here deliberately by the old ones who have left so many other traces on the moor… or even by a remarkable feat of landscaping in Victorian times. It looks ‘right’ and feels it too. In fact, we both had a very distinct impression about the place.
We didn’t go any higher, deciding to conserve what energy we had left and bring the third of our party to the ghyll the following day, when we were due to meet for a solstice dawn. But for now the sun was setting and we headed back to the car and an early night.
Home again, I did a bit of research and found a possible origin for the name of the place, that ties in quite an odd manner with some of the research for our books. Heber was a grandson of the biblical Magog… said also to be an ancestor of the Irish races like the Tuatha de Danann…and also the name of a people descending from Baath, Magog’s first son, who migrated from the Hibernian Penninsula to their final destination in the Hebrides. There are some interesting numbers associated with the long-lived Heber (or Eber). And of course, Magog is also known in British folklore as a giant… and one of the giant Oaks of Avalon in Glastonbury that were part of a druidic ceremonial avenue….
Odd how these things come together sometimes… or perhaps, in this magical place, not so very odd after all.