Our company sat in the window of the dining room sharing breakfast and looking out across the gardens to the Cow and Calf. The hotel itself is already high on the moor, yet the hills climb ever higher beyond the horizon as if shadowing the human journey, the quest for the understanding of our own inner heights. In the bushes the birds were also seeking breakfast. A blackbird, bluetits and a tiny brown wren. You seldom see them as a rule. They are small and shy, yet this year I have seen one often in my son’s garden and my own, and Stuart and I had a magically close encounter with one of these tiny creatures following our last trip to these moors.
There is a lot of ancient folklore that surrounds this little bird with its humble brown feathers. In European tales it is seen as the king of birds and even its name signifies its royal associations. It was also a sacred creature; its ritualised stoning harking back to the tales of sacrificed gods. To some it is a symbol of knowledge and divinity and to see one during a sacred journey is to be blessed with the promise of inner knowledge and a glimpse of the elusive divinity that pervades all life. Perhaps it is for this reason it was sacred to Taranis and brought the flash of lightning that illuminates the darkness. It seemed a fitting start to our day, seeking to harvest the understanding seeded throughout the year.
Our morning took us into the town of Ilkley itself. It is a Victorian spa town; the healing qualities of the pure, moorland waters being much vaunted in that time and the architectural heritage of the area is one of square, golden stone. But our journey was to take us back beyond the Victorians; the area’s earliest inhabitants date back some 13,000 years or more and even now it is possible to find their flint tools up on the moors.
The valley is fertile and wide, carved long ago by the glaciers that cast the stones into fantastic shapes. Today a river runs through and an altar to the goddess of the waters, Verbeia, holding her twin streams or snakes, still survives in the church that is built on the site of the Roman fortress of Olicana. A plaque in the churchyard marks the north gate with the head of Janus, the god who sees both yesterday and tomorrow and within the church Saxon crosses show twin beasts entwined. Yet it is true that these twin gods, past and future, are not two but three, for they always hold the present in their very being and the story is as continuous as the triangle, or the trinity, where neither beginning nor end can be discerned. Nor is it possible, perhaps to determine which holds more importance, past, present or future, as their place in the dance continually shifts. The past cannot be changed though our own understanding may seem to change it. The future is as yet unborn in the belly of a present that is past before we know it… and yet it is the only place we can both act and be.
The town itself sits upon layers of history… the history of man and beyond man. It, like the rule of the invading Romans and Saxons is an example both of the imposition of the changing world we construct and of our natural evolution that results in and adapts to these changes, in much the same way that we are both architect and recipient of the changing stories of our own lives. Yet beneath and beyond our structures and walls… all sharp angles and corners… life itself flows, even through stone, with the slow meander of the river of time and, when we can see this, even our towns and cities may become a temple to life.