Sunday morning we had watched the dawn before breakfast then cleared our rooms and loaded the cars before setting off once more to explore the moors above Ilkley. This time we headed for the ancient carvings of the Haystack, climbing up through the bracken and heather to the first edge of the moor. We passed a furry caterpillar striped with School colours, grouse blending in to the bilberries and small birds almost invisible against the stone. The one thing you have to be on the moors is aware … there is too much to miss.
You could be forgiven for thinking this was the high moor… if you look up from the road it is all you can see, and many visitors to the Cow and Calf will go no further than the path which passes by the huge, couch-shaped stone. Many more will stop and lean against it or perch upon it without ever knowing its significance or seeing the ancient carvings.
The stone reflects the shape of the moor, a ridge rising on its crest almost as if to mirror the land beyond. Along the ridge, a line of carved cups. There are more cup markings on the stone than I have ever been able to count personally, but the tally stands at around sixty, with yet more cup and ring markings and carved grooves. Some may well be natural, others have weathered beyond any possibility of determining how many marks originally graced the altar stone or how complex the design may have been.
The most striking carving is that where the cup and ring marking have been extended to form what looks like a child’s stick-figure. The limbs are extended… god, man or woman? The stone stands at the edge of the great necropolis of Green Crag Slack, separated from the cairn fields by the remnants of what my grandfather told me was a circle of stones, but which may simply be a dividing wall.
What might the Haystack have been used for? The child remembers the gruesome tales of sacrifice with blood flowing from the stone into the moor. The adult smiles… while the stone is certainly the right shape for a sacrificial altar… perhaps the couch is a little too high to be practical and, as far as I know, no trace of such practices has been found. On the other hand, this area of the moor would have seen the rituals of death and the couch would make a perfect resting place on the journey between the lands of the living and those where the dead joined the ancestors. Was the transition seen as a parting or a birthing into a new state of being? I wonder if the departed may have simply rested here a while, or were they perhaps left until flesh became bone? There is ample archaeological evidence that this process was an important part of the rites of passing in many areas.
Not everyone shares my curiosity about the rites of the Old Ones… but I cannot help wondering if our modern fear of death would not benefit from an approach that relates so closely to the seasonal and cyclical nature of the earth of which we are a part.