The Stoodley Pike monument has stood on the ridge of the Pennines above the Calder Valley towns of Todmorden and Hebden Bridge since 1856, a thick finger of gritstone pushed from the moorland into the wind like a finger dipped into a cooling stream. There has been a cairn on the site for centuries, with one legend recounting that if the pile of stones was not kept tidy, doors would bang and things come unstuck in the valley below. An earlier structure built in 1815 to commemorate the downfall of Napoleon collapsed on the very day years of European peace ended with the declaration of the Crimean war. Its 37-metre-high replacement was created by James Green, a local architect and Mason presumably responsible for the hexagram carved on the northern wall. Even without knowing that the Masonic order often carve this emblem near the entrances to their temples, the obelisk looks grimly phallic and magical, dominating the horizon for miles around.
Until May this year, my last visit had been on a dank day in the mid-1980s. The occasion was a church walk under clouds that gnawed at the tops of the moors, shortly before I moved with my family to the south of England. I vividly recall the black tower looming over me. Built from the same stone as the towns of the valleys of the West Riding, including the house I grew up in, it subsequently became a monument within my own mind, a memorial to a lost sense of belonging and a peg that kept me anchored to the county of my birth. After all, I might even form part of those moors. I’d had a succession of unpleasant operations in my earliest years, and wondered if those pieces the doctors removed had been shovelled into the incinerator of Halifax Royal Infirmary to be crisped and disintegrated with bandages and puss and foetuses and scrapes and shit. I dreamed the ashes whirled up the hospital chimney and, encouraged by the baffles that spiral around it, carried up into a cold Yorkshire easterly, out of the town where the fields and dry stone walls rise towards the dry white grass, before floating down and slowly down past the stones of the monument to disappear into and become peat.
At primary school just outside London my northern accent was quickly chipped away, yet I was always listening for the northern wind, hearing it in the distortion of airliners flying far overhead, jet engines that left white contrails in the sky and a roar that dissipated to a whisper over 30,000 feet. The hollow-out noise became the sky’s palm, massaging the moorland grass to move a million blades as one undulating skin. It would take me back to that line of moorland, defined but irregular against occasional blue skies like a worn old blade, cutting through forgetfulness to flashes of the past: “put wood in th’ole” for “shut the door”; the Calder Navigation in Hebden Bridge, where dad caught trout that tasted of mud and I’d watched a swan take hissing umbrage to an old man, chasing him down the towpath, his wife in hot pursuit trying to thrash the bird with her umbrella; Dad packing a shovel into the car on winter drives across the tops, crocuses in the snow on roadside verges. Talk of the moors murders must have reached my young ears, and I’d shrink from the car window while crossing these high flat lands where mire and Myra alike might drag little boys down.
Yorkshire thus became a vividly incoherent and romanticised compendium of humour and horror, and I dreamed of returning to this landscape where I was born. For a while it looked as if I might have to, as my 16-year hold on an increasingly expensive London began to feel untenable. Just as new towers rose and glowed in the light-polluted sky, so many of my favourite haunts and dark places off the narrow were obliterated. I’d remained in London for those switchbacks out of ordinary life; now they were vanishing. The city has become bland, its hectic energy stifled. Certain communities smugly pride themselves on their progressive tolerance by pointing at election results and other signifiers of intelligent liberalism, but I can't help notice that the pubs that serve six-quid pints and “small plate” menus seem to inhabit a different world from the Anglo-Caribbean hairdressers and Turkish coffee clubs across the road. Might this be the moment to renege on the Faustian pact that anyone who embraces city life must make? We don’t all give the same in that exchange. Some seek money, some opportunity, but creeping into my endless sleepless nights was a dread that I’d given too much to a place that had changed so much we’d outgrown each other.
I developed a fanciful notion that along England’s Pennine spine I might find the roots of my own nervous system, that if I touched the stones of Stoodley Pike they could call me back. A few years ago, I’d walked north from Grassington to the limestone pavements above Malham Cove alone and felt a depression lift as soon as I got off the train and crossed into a sheep-cropped meadow. This May, I got off at the same station, but struck out south across the moors down towards Hebden. At first, the going was heavy. London life is easy on the feet, but these long, steady ascents soon twisted the breath tight in my throat as the bright and hideous rucksack that held my tent and clothes for the weekend creaked on my back. The day was unexpectedly hot, my bottle nearly empty and my olive army surplus top sweat-soaked. On the OS map, a blue pint pot in Lothersdale offered relief.
Dizzy under the sun and palms blotched with dehydration, I panted my way in through the door of the Hare & Hounds. “BOOTS”, came a greeting from the gloom inside. “They’re not muddy”, I said, twisting and holding up the soles for inspection. “RIGHT”, said the landlord, a face of grumpy disdain materialising as my eyes adjusted. At the bar, decorated with little save a picture of Paul Weller, I asked for a pint of lime and soda. “Cheapest pub in village,” the landlord announced, a comment not addressed to me. I gulped at the water furiously, a carbonated fusillade clearing my thick tongue. “Aye, most expensive too,” came the reply from the other end of the bar. “Well,” said the landlord, “it’d depend what you’re after.”
Refreshed, yet perplexed by a Dour Yorkshireman encounter straight out of Central Casting, I struggled up steps set into the far side of the valley. A lady sat outside her cottage told me that on the previous weekend walkers had trudged past through a blizzard. “You’ll not be getting lost today,” she assured me. Indeed – I was starting to realise that my adult mind had outgrown the chaotic impressions its younger self had made of the moors. Dotted around alongside the Pennine Way are unofficial sculptures, bathtubs full of flowers and shrubs protected from grazing by thick mesh, a red diesel barrel in an old stone trough. Yet this haphazard appearance is an illusion, for however open the moors might seem, this landscape is one of boundaries. Long fences hummed, a black bin bag streaming from a garland of barbed wire. At one ruined farm a half-rotted hare peered out from underneath a wooden door without catch or lock, as if it had been put there as a warning. Most striking were the walls that cross the moors in lines as straight as the white scores the jets of my childhood left in the sky. I climbed a stile, stopping at the top to rest, and looked down the line of dry stones that it traversed. To the right, cropped grass pockmarked by tussocks shimmered green. I turned around and in the split second before I jumped, saw Stoodley Pike floating in the hazy distance over the near horizon. I landed with a thump on the wild side where rough heather slid between purple and brown and looked up, but it’d vanished.
There were still three ridges to go, a lengthy trudge over the muddled patchwork of ground burned for grouse, wizened grey stalks like fast-food chicken bones discarded on the streets back home. Eventually, the moorland gave way to mossy oak woods crossed by streams that ran over rocks the colour of rust, the path winding down past gardens where gnomes and sheep skulls sat among the daffs. As I reached the high points, Stoodley Pike doubled then tripled in size. My friends called and offered to give me a lift but I was having no cheating, even though I’d taken my last sip of water before starting the final ascent towards the tower, dense black against the luminous afternoon sky. As I hauled myself up the final stretch of the path, the monument disappeared into light.
I passed under the hexagram carving through a doorway I’d forgotten existed into an overwhelming darkness and climbed 39 damp and mossy stairs to a viewing platform. It felt strange to be here, on top of this totem that had called out to me for so long. I hadn’t remembered being able to climb it at all, and now I was here... now I was here, I looked out towards clouds not quite whipped into rain above a group of wind turbines and felt the pang of anti-climax. Three decades of wondering what this would feel like – and it didn’t amount to much at all. The little boy who’d been here no longer existed. He might as well have been claimed by the bog.
Seems my past is defined as much by my present and fears for the future as by fickle memories. I remembered a newspaper article I’d read a few weeks before, pooh-poohing a private school’s bid to instil “Yorkshire grit” in its pupils. “You can’t teach grit,” it ran, “You imbibe it like mother’s milk from your surroundings... and once absorbed, it never goes away.” I wasn’t so sure. As rocks become hewn stones we change from our place of quarrying, and will never quite fit again. For most of us now our sense of self is shaped not by the myths of place of birth, but by flows of people and goods such as those carried in the aircraft that had tricked my mind into visiting these moors. I could hear a rattler train making its way along the Calder Valley. In fifteen minutes or so, it’d enter Halifax through a tunnel under my primary school.
The clouds started to clear as I made my way down, throat clacking with thirst. Keen to reach my friends, I left the path to follow a compass bearing down into the valley, and promptly sank to my ankles in the damp ground around a spring. I cried out over-dramatically and went down on my knees, flung water from the stone trough over my head, then dunked my face and greedily slurped from the surface. I stood and licked the water from my lips. It was cold and earth sweet but salty from my sweat, and my eyes stung, blinking against the low spring sun. I stared into it as the wind chilled my cheeks and tickled my ears with that familiar quiet roar as it rushed past, to where I did not know.
Stoodley Pike was originally published in Issue 2 of Somesuch Stories. You can purchase a copy here.
Photograph by Luke Turner