Our morning in Ilkley began at the church, a place dear to my heart and with family associations that go back a very long way. Built on the site of the old Roman fortress of Olicana, who knows what lies beneath its foundations and what as there before the Romans came. There is little to see now, of course, other than the shapes in the earth where the fortress overlooked the passage of the river Wharfe that gives the dale its name.
It is known that there has been a place of Christian worship on this site since at least 627 AD and the first church building would have been built from the stone of the old Roman fort itself. Some Norman features remain, but the current building that stands at the crossroads, both in terms of the town and of history, is largely Victorian. The arched doorway, however, is 13th Century and beside it the carved heads of Bishop Paulinus and King Edwin of Northumbria watch those who enter the church they founded.
Inside details from other ages still linger. The Watkinson family pew, an enclosed and screened seat, is dated 1633. The mail clad effigy of a knight, Sir Peter de Myddleton who died in 1336 lies in a small chapel, his head resting upon angels, his feet on a lion. The bell tower is now home to the Saxon crosses that I remember as a child standing outside in the churchyard. They, along with the Roman altar to Verbeia and others, have now been brought in to preserve the intricate carvings against the depredations of the Yorkshire wind and rain. The medieval font was also rescued from where it had once been discarded. Made from stone from the moor above the time its simplicity is beautiful. Above it is suspended a font cover carved with fantastic creatures that echo those carved on the Saxon crosses, and made probably in response to a demand that a ‘decent font cover’ be provided in 1634.
Modern stained glass sits with Victorian; one depiction of St Michael comes from a studio in the place I was born, others come from more celebrated makers and further afield. The altar itself is Elizabethan. In one small church so much of history is still reflected and preserved. There is a continuity here that is tangible. Although a place of Christian worship this church has stood at the heart of a community for so long that it reflects more than the spiritual journey of those faithful to its own religious tenets; it houses the memories of an evolving society and the very personal stories of our forebears who were, perhaps baptised in this font when the full immersion of the river ceased to be used to signify the death of the personality and the rebirth in Christ. They were married here, buried here and their stories are as much part of the human tapestry of light as our own.
Yet the story goes deeper yet and the continuity of life in other realms of nature is also seen here as the carved garland of flowers circles the pillar in stone. Life itself belongs to all and to none, we are individual sparkles upon the waters of creation, regardless of who or what we are or believe. The ground upon which this church was built has seen the unfolding of life since the world began and as we stood contemplating the symbols of one living tradition, we were also leaving our own shadows unseen on the history of this place and carrying it away with us in memory.
The woven lines of the Saxon crosses tell a story of continuity we do not truly understand on a purely intellectual level; we have forgotten the language of their symbols and read the past with eyes glazed by a future unfolding. Yet, the symbols themselves speak to us in deeper ways, human ways that transcend place and time and move with our being through a time that exists only in the heart, and it is there that, regardless of personal creed, we can feel what the ancient craftsmen sought to transmit across the ages and that is echoed wherever the light of the sacred is lit for us and in places of ancient sanctity we can hear their whispers on the wind of time.