I took the camera, but I took only one picture. Not that first morning… that first dawn that we watched rise in the east from the top of the Cow. It didn’t seem right at that moment. There would be other dawns, but that moment would never come again.
From the moment I crossed the ditch that edges the moor, it had me by the heart. It is not a feeling I can explain. It is every love you have ever felt, every yearning, every hope and every prayer… it rises through your feet, carries the incense of bracken and centuries of heather… it is the embrace of a mother, the caress of every lover you have known and it closes your throat, cradling its hands around your heart with a pressure that will find only one release.
I barely saw the dawn, only felt its beauty on my eyes, gilding the tears as memories crowded around me, ghosts in the misty light. I remember that as the sun rose I called my companions to greet the sun, yet I could not sustain the chant, could not join the paean with a voice that broke and a throat choked with a joy that felt like goodbye.
After a while, when the sun had cleared the horizon and laid its glow upon the mists, we headed towards the hotel for breakfast. That was the plan… but my ghosts gathered round me, calling me back and as my companions went on ahead, I lingered, listening to the whispers of other times. I turned, smiling, towards the secluded copse where the ashes of love had long since become part of the moor and I waited.
They came then. Memories of childhood… an apple in one pocket, chocolate in the other and the streams to drink from. Great grandfather, Grandad, Grandma Annie… Mum… my own children… me, somewhere in the middle. The long decades of absence when spring would call me back like a hand in my gut. More recent memories when coming here… coming home… was a gift given with love. Older memories, lifetimes beyond my own, etched in the very earth upon which I walked. They called and I followed.
Up the path to the Haystack, an ancient altar to gods unknown by name, but felt in every breath. Grey stone, golden in the morning, heather impossibly pink… even the faded blooms blushing as the morning revealed them in the ever changing light.
I knew I couldn’t go far… I only had an hour or two before we would leave for the day’s adventure. My companions would understand my absence, I knew, though one came looking for me. By then, I was long and far away. On from the altar stone towards the Pancake Stone. I’d always known it as the Hele Stone… my grandfather’s name for it. He’d told me it aligned with the sunrise from the altar… midwinter or midsummer? I’d never tested that.
To my left the moors fall away into the valley; the Wharfe running through, clear waters hidden by the trees except for the odd sparkle. To my right the ancient necropolis of Green Crag Slack, its contours lost beneath fronds of bracken and a counterpane of heather. We would walk that way tomorrow. For now, though, it was just me and the moor.
The profile of the Hele Stone changes, depending upon the angle of perception. Sometimes it seems like a huge hawk, poised for flight on the edge of the moor, at others it is a dragon-like creature… but it is unmistakably Giant Rombald watching over the valley, although he is best seen in winter when the bracken is low. The top is completely pocked with cup and ring markings, ancient and enigmatic carvings whose true meaning is lost in the mists of time, yet it is one we still use to symbolise the sun and more than the sun.
From here I could see the hotel. I would have to go back soon, I knew. But not yet. I was being called onwards, along the edge of the moor… a path where many walk, revelling in the beauty, the view and the clear air, not knowing even a fraction of the history that hides in the heather. I know so little myself, yet have a lifetime of love for this place and watch every stone for the traces of ancient hands.
I have the stories though… the ones my grandfather and great grandfather told me. The ones my mother passed on as we walked. The child’s delight in ‘finding’ a stone circle when my footsteps had been led there by people whose love of the place gave me mine. I learned to listen to the whispers that slip through the cracks of time and hear the stories of ancient voices borne on the wind.
A little further and I reached the scrying bowls. I don’t know if this outcrop has a name… it almost certainly does, and there are cup-marked stones close by, but the place has a particular ‘feel’ that reminds me of another place, on another moor, where a raven guards the stone circle beyond. Here, on the edge of the barrow fields, I cannot imagine such a place would have gone unused.
I sat and watched the clouds in the surface of the water gathered in the scrying bowls and saw another purpose they may have served, as the bones of the dead were cleaned, the pigments ground in the stone bowls and the bones painted with ochre in remembrance of flesh before being given back to the earth. There is a continuity in this… a strange sort of comfort to know that earth to earth, stone to stone, we come, go and remain.
As I began the reluctant descent towards the hotel and breakfast, I climbed to the little amphitheatre littered with fallen rock below the Hele Stone. You can imagine it as a lawn like some of the others, filled with people raising their eyes. As I left, I smiled… the profile of my staff matched the contours of the stone as I looked back. It was only afterwards I thought to take a picture. The staff too is an ambiguous creature.
There is a song in the earth that sings to each of us in its own silent voice, a place that for some reason, harmonises with the soul and creates a bond beyond logic, deeper than memory. I bear the moors in my heart wherever I go… or perhaps it is that my shade wanders here when I am far away.