The International Writers Magazine
: English Travel (and Hendrix)

On Ilkley Moor
Alex Clark

A strange thing occurs when you arrive in Ilkley; for the moment that you step foot from the train to the platform, everywhere else in the world simply disappears into insignificance. Ilkley bears the resemblance of the more affluent spa towns of Harrogate and Bath, but it's by no means any less amicable.

Indeed, travel there on any given Saturday and you can bet that it's roads and high- streets will be choked with people and cars battling for ultimate supremacy, usually with no clear victor.

Ilkley's high street is as pretty as any other of its kind in the north of England and it’s a real shame to see that commercialisation takes absolute precedence. Behind every other ornate façade is an over- crowded fish and chip shop, or a cheap- as- you like café, or a here today- gone tomorrow bar. It's quite a sight to walk past these establishments on a Saturday afternoon and see the fabric of the buildings throb and pulsate in sync with the rhythmic pound of two- hundred plus heartbeats within, all crammed into a space the size of your front room.

Luckily, it's only a short jog from the high- street down to Ilkley's 'Riverside Gardens'. The park is aptly named, as the blood- red, river Wharfe cuts straight through the middle of it. The term 'blood- red' isn't to be taken lightly, for the waters are tainted a lavish crimson from the rich iron deposits held farther up stream.
The park is sheer magic; every where you look, there is a scene of perfect English quintessence. You never have to look far before you happen across a family enjoying a picnic beneath a splendid life- bearing Pedunculate oak. The noble, old trees always appear to yield a sphere of gossamer around the greenery. It's only when you get closer that you appreciate what an abundance of life the trees hold, and the benign ball of gossamer is, in fact swarms of insects, moths, clouds of irksome blood- sucking midges and the occasional, but ever respected crow, or similar blackbird.

It's difficult to imagine that the town of Ilkley (as it is today) started out as nothing more than retreat for wool barons. It consisted only of double spa baths at White Wells, which grew in popularity at a phenomenal pace. The success of the baths grew larger and wider admirers. Quick-witted business- men erected hotels around the baths to cater for visitors from farther afield and with the rapidly inflating economy that the place was generating, local folk began to realise the potential of the largely green and pastoral lands on the banks of the Wharfe. They began to bring their trades and business to set up. Ilkley, shielded and protected by the imposing Dales national park had established itself as a town.

It is perhaps safe to assume that because Ilkley was so popular as an upper- class tourist destination, it avoided becoming an industrial town like so many around it. As a result, Ilkley has remained a clean, safe town that is largely devoid of any industrial tainting, and nor does it have the seedy redundant mills and warehouses which neighbouring Bradford, Halifax, Leeds and the like have so many of.

The baths survived well into the late 19th century, though their popularity was in steep decline. People no- longer felt the urge to take the plunge into the icy moorland waters, as they had been doing for over a century. Initially, people believed that the waters were curative and people were claiming that the water was easing such ailments as grout and melancholia. Alas, the demand for the baths floundered and soon, they became redundant altogether. It is possible to view what is left of the baths; their remains are in the Manor House, which is claimed to have been erected on the ancient Roman Fort of Olicana, though all there is to see is a stone pit containing green, stagnant water. A pitiful reminder of an affluent and, well esteemed past.

Not all is lost, it's still possible to swim alfresco in Ilkley. Along the banks of the Wharfe, at the far end of the Gardens is Ilkley Lido. One of northern England's largest open air swimming baths, however, by taking a passing look at it, I would say that any curative effects that it may yield are surely by chance alone. In fact, a resident of Ilkley told me in good faith, that the waters have been known to promote grout and melancholia.

Ilkley nestles in the 'Pennine' stretch of the Dales and the hills, which rise dramatically to loom over the town, are literally peppered with gritstone rocks. One of the largest of the lot, a fifty- foot, sheer vertical crag with a smaller outcrop just beneath, named the 'Cow and Calf', lays claim to be where Yorkshire's unofficial, but much loved national anthem was written. The song is known as On Ilkely Moor Baht 'At, which roughly translates from Yorkshire to English as 'on Ilkley moor without a hat'.

The song is said to have been written by a church choir group on an outing from Halifax who sang the jocular lyrics whilst enjoying an afternoon picnic beneath the Cow and Calf rocks.
The song contains nine stanzas and in- between the boisterously sung lines of 'on Ilkla moor baht 'at' a narrative, full of typically dour Yorkshire wit and charm tells the story of a young man whom caught his death of cold whilst out a- courtin' on the hills.
The narrative content of each verse goes as follows.
'Wheear 'as ta bin sin ah saw thee?'- Where have you been since I last saw you?
'Tha's been a cooartin' Mary Jane'- You've been courting Mary Jane.
'Tha's bahn t'catch thi death o'cowd.'- You've been to catch your death of cold.
'Then we shall ha' to bury thee.'- Then we shall have to bury you.
'Then t'worms 'll cum and eat thee oop.'- Then the worms will come and eat you up.
'Then ducks'll cum and eat oop t'worms.'- The ducks will come and eat up the worms.
'Then we shall go an' ate oop ducks.'- Then we shall go and eat up the ducks.
'Then we shall all 'ave etten thee.'- Then we shall all have eaten you.
'That's where we get us oahn back.'*- That's when we shall get our own back.
*The last verse was added some time after the song was originally conceived, and for me, could have well been left out of the song. In the very last line of narrative, the colloquial 'oahn' sends over wafts of the Newcastle, or 'Geordie' dialect and therefore doesn't sound consistent within the whole context of the song.
Also, the last line suggests that the protagonist has been unfaithful to a friend and thus, the song looses an element of innocence.

And that's not the only proud moment of musical history that Ilkley can lay claim to…
On the 12th of March 1967, fresh from a gig at the International Club, Leeds, a then little known blues guitarist called Jimi Hendrix was in Ilkley. It was the early days of Hendrix's career in the UK and band manager, Chas Chandler had packed the three-piece 'Jimi Hendrix Experience' off on a whirlwind tour of the north of England to prove their worth.

Ilkley was the last leg of the UK tour; the very next day the band was flying off to Holland to begin an exhausting tour of Europe. As a unit, the group was still in its infancy; they had something to prove, they had to go out with a bang. They did…
The Troutbeck Hotel was dangerously over- packed before the band took the stage.
Hendrix and his band thundered through the first number a typically nonchalant fashion. It's easy to imagine that the psychedelic vibes of London's Marquee and U.F.O club hadn't resonated as far north as Ilkley. As the audience rose to the challenge of the sonic onslaught of one man and his Fender Stratocaster; members of the crowd began to clamber over furniture and even other people in order to achieve a better view of the guitar genius.

Halfway through the second song, as the bank of Marshall amps were cranked to the point of staving in anyone's head whom dared get too close, a nervous police chief stepped onto the stage to stop the show. It was probably the worst decision he ever made.

As the band dolefully resigned themselves back to the dressing room, the audience who, by day, were bank clerks, school teachers and nurses, became a raging mob, hell bent on destruction. They tore fittings from the walls of the hotel; they smashed windows with chairs and any other makeshift wrecking implement that came to hand. They tried to storm the stage before spilling out into the crisp night air to eventually disperse and go their separate ways.

Don’t go looking for the Troutbeck; it's not there anymore, I asked a local couple whom carried the malodorous tainting of oranges and mint imperials if they knew of the Troutbeck. To my questions, the man shrugged his shoulders despondently, whilst his wife rifled through a satchel on the elusive search for more fruit.

I later learnt that the Troutbeck Hotel is now a nursing home and to this day, nothing survives to remind us of the night that Jimi Hendrix was in town.

So, if you were ever thinking of taking a trip to Ilkley to engage in some clandestine frolicking, remember to take a take a good hat with you, otherwise we may well end up eating you oop…
© Alex Clark October 2005

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