At the end of our four-day weekend in Yorkshire, we found ourselves peering through telephoto and zoom lenses at the gargoyles high on the walls of York Minster.
Which was not unlike the way our trip began, peering through telephoto and zoom lenses at seabirds nesting on Bempton Cliffs, on the North Sea coast,
which includes the largest mainland gannet colony in the U.K. Wind and rain made photography difficult — but see Rachel’s blog post for the several stunning wildlife photos she was nonetheless able to capture.
I’d never been to a seabird nesting colony like this before, and found it awe-inspiring both for the sheer numbers of birds and for their spectacular, if bizarre-seeming, choice of a nesting location. It was a little surprising, too, because I don’t tend to associate Great Britain with teeming wildlife.
But perhaps I should. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had its origins not far from Bempton Cliffs, in a campaign against the hunting of birds for plumes in the 19th century. And as we viewed the archaeological collections of the Yorkshire Museum three days later, it became clear that an affection for animals has deep roots in this part of the world.
The tension between bird-lovers and dog-lovers found expression on various signs around the uplands, where we hiked with friends over Midgley Moor in the Hebden Bridge area on Saturday.
The exhortations appear to be bearing fruit, judging from the number of skylarks and curlews flying and calling on all sides on top of the moor. A golden plover (above) appeared to be trying to lead us away from a hidden nest.
The moors with their abundant bogs and peatland have preserved archaeological artifacts that wouldn’t have survived in most other places,
such as this Medieval leather box embossed with hunting scenes.
As elsewhere in Britain, there’s a robust walking culture based on an ancient network of public rights-of-way.
In earlier centuries, long-distance walking might have been for trade or religious purposes, though I’ve always suspected that many of those who went on pilgrimage simply wanted an excuse to go tramping over the moors for a while.
Where public footpaths cross fencelines, farmers have to install gates or stiles.
Walls of dark standstone are still the preferred form of enclosure here. We passed one that had just been finished.
The stone walls shape and give character to the landscape, supplying a visual link between the lush river valleys with their stone buildings and the high moors with their rocky outcrops.
A spirit of whimsy seems to infect the local stone architecture,
and apparently it’s not uncommon to find artists manipulating the river stones in Hebden Bridge a la Andy Goldsworthy.
Coming from a country with poor to nonexistent public transportation, I was charmed to see local buses appear like mirages between the stone walls. One bus exists solely to ferry walkers about.
A trail-side plaque reminded us that people have been photographing each other on picnic excursions here for some time… and also that Ted Hughes grew up in the area.
The transition from pasture to wild glen can be sudden,
with forests of some considerable age and diversity alternating with pine plantations and young woodlands.
In Hebden Bridge itself, we were treated to a tour of a private cemetery that transitioned abruptly into gardening allotments.
I’d been curious about the whole allotment phenomenon, and our hosts, Polly and Liz, were happy to show us around their plot.
The allotments of the dead were smaller and shadier,
but some of the occupants seemed to have been named with just such a resting spot in mind.
Sam Greenwood’s name is disappearing under a coat of moss. It doesn’t get much more poetic than that.
Cultural attitudes toward nature are millennia in the making. The Vikings brought an animal-obsessed art to Northumbria when they invaded in the ninth century,
but as older artifacts in the York Museum demonstrate, that was just a new variation on an old theme,
an amalgam of native, Anglo-Saxon, and Irish monastic motifs.
Regardless of the medium, Medieval artists and craftsmen were obsessed with beasts.
Creatures such as horses and deer had sacred significance in pre-Christian times, so archaeologists and art historians tend to assume a religious motivation behind some of this art.
And the tradition of the royal hunt preserved the form if not the content of ancient, sacrificial rites.
For at least one Medieval sculptor in York, the angels practiced falconry.
These days, it’s beer bottles that Yorkshiremen decorate with rare winged forms, such as the endangered twite.
The natural history wing of the Yorkshire Museum features an exhibition on extinction, including such relics as this cobwebby and disgruntled-looking giant moa, and winding up with exhibits on locally extirpated species, such as wolves and great bustards, that might someday be reintroduced.
Last year, Hebden Bridge was devastated by floods, due in part to the poor condition of the peatland on the moors. I can’t help thinking that a few wolf packs may be just what this landscape needs.
But that, of course, is up to the people of Yorkshire, who perhaps prefer to keep their wildest creatures confined to the stone ramparts of cathedrals or the rocky cliffs at Bempton.