Simon Armitage’s Stanza Stones – Snow.
Simon Armitage is steeped in Pennine Grit. Brought up in West Yorkshire and living in Marsden in particular, his works have been influenced by the rich heritage of the area. I have been reading a few of his books and poems recently and feel an affinity to his working class background. When you delve deeper you realise the profound and original intellect of the man and his ever widening focus. That’s why he is Poet Laureate.
My friend JD, who has featured many times in these posts, told me about some of Simon’s readings on the radio, such as his journey as a modern day troubadour down the Pennine Way, and more interestingly his series of poems carved and brought to life in the rocks of the high Pennines. The Stanza Poems, six poems on the theme of water in various forms: Snow, Rain, Dew, Puddle,Mist and Beck, a collaboration between himself, Pip Hall the stone carver, and local expert Tom Lonsdale, a landscape architect. Those looking hard enough might stumble across a seventh Stanza Stone, a secret stone left in an unnamed location within the Watershed area, waiting to be discovered and read. As far as I know nobody has.
I bought the book and was immediately fascinated. Stanza Stones a book by Simon Armitage, Pip Hall, and Tom Lonsdale. (bookshop.org)
What they have produced is truly magical and the insights of the protagonists brought to life in the book. I take my hat off to the literacy skill of Simon but equally so to the dedication and art of Pip the sculptress which will be borne out in our efforts to locate the stones.
A fairly tough trail, considering the moorland terrain, of 50 miles or so has been worked out between the carved stones from Marsden in the south to Ilkley farther north. Suffice to say JD and I never got around to walking it, mainly because I thought some of the 20-mile days across rough moorland with no bed at the end was too much for me to contemplate. I happily compromise and suggest a motorised raid to the individual stones. The idea catches fire and in a conversation with the ‘Slate Poem Lady of Longridge Fell’ (another story enacted in my lockdown posts) we have a willing and knowledgable accomplice. Welcome aboard Clare, one of her slate poems in her garden says it all.
Cometh the day cometh the hour. We are off to Marsden with a fair forecast. I’m afraid to say my navigational skills fell short of the sat nav lady whom I chose to ignore. We came at the first site in a round about way, but the moorland scenery and deserted roads were worth it. Mutterings from the driver and the other passenger who kept well clear of any navigational mistakes.
An unpretentious lay-by below Pule Hill, west of Marsden, is our starting point. The steaming brick ventilation shafts of the Manchester to Huddersfield railway are obvious above us on the hillside. As well as the railway down there somewhere the narrow Huddersfield Canal goes through the Standedge Tunnel, the longest, highest and deepest canal tunnel in Great Britain. Their combined history is worth a read, it’s a lot more complicated than you think. Above all that are the ramparts of Pule Hill quarry and rocky edge on the skyline. Fortunately for us the original quarry incline is still intact giving an easy climb up into the workings. Memories of plodding up here with ropes and gear for a day’s climbing come flooding back, and I feel a quickening in my step. We are impressed with the amount of quality stone work just giving access to the quarries. What a substantial industry of men must have worked away on these slopes.
I’m distracted by the quarry rock faces I have ascended in the past whilst the other two go off in search of the poems engraved in stone.
At the far end of the quarry are two large blocks built into the wall and there is our first poem laid out in front of us, letters carved into the two stones bringing out the colours of the rock from those past quarrying days. We trace with our fingers across the rock surface. Already after 13 years the patina is changing, and green lichens are crossing the letters, what will another decade bring. There is already some slight damage caused by man.
Here is the poem transcribed as it is difficult, but not impossible if enlarged, to read in the photos. The stanzas cross between the two stones.
The sky has delivered its blank missive. The moor in coma.
Snow, like water asleep, a coded muteness to baffle all noise, to stall movement, still time.
What can it mean that colourless water can dream such depth of white?
We should make the most of the light.
Stars snag on its crystal points. The odd, unnatural pheasant struts and slides.
Snow, snow, snow is how the snow speaks, is how its clean page reads.
Then it wakes, and thaws, and weeps. S A.
Before we leave, we discover a beautifully constructed curving wall seat inscribed with ‘Ilkley 45 1/4 miles’ which is the distance to the last stone via the trail, thankfully we have the car to take us onwards.
We skip happily down that incline, pleased to find the first stone and captivated by the scenery and the poem it now holds. Let it snow.