Sacred Hill of the Dead
Yesterday I wandered into truly enchanted country: a land of fairies - of crouched skeletal burials and ancient animal hideaways: the environs of the mysterious 'reef knoll' of Elbolton, towering over the quaint old hamlet of Thorpe.
The stunning River Wharfe is first met at the elegant suspension bridge - allowing access to a bridle track up towards the hidden hamlet of Thorpe.
From the bridle track - I had fine views back over towards the bridge - the fields decorated with ancient lynchets: terracing by medieval farmers for easier ploughing.
This was my first glimpse of the famous reef knolls: Kail Hill, at centre - with the head of Elbolton just visible on the right. These are the remains of a massive 'barrier reef' and once lay where shallow waters of a tropical sea met the deeper water beyond. Deeper water?? All you can see now is the massive rampart of Rylstone Fell - composed of darker gritstone ... and the reason? Well when sea levels dropped, almost to marsh-like conditions - great rivers washed in huge banks of sand and gravel to form those high fells. They also covered the reef knolls which have since been exposed again by glacial action. Hope that makes sense!
Kail Hill is a superb example of a reef knoll and its limestone is made up almost entirely of fossilised remains of the reef of which it was once a part. More about those later. Behind it can be seen the great 'wave' of gritstone making up the northern ramparts of Rylstone Fell - the contrasting grass colour giving away its acidic nature.
Another great view of the contrasting rock types: limestone in the foreground with rich grassland, and the great ridge of Rylstone Fell behind.
In the centre of Thorpe is the ancient village green - where a maypole stood for generations. It is a site of special archaeological interest in its own right.
Thorpe's unique hidden position - between the reef knolls of Kail Hill and Elbolton, has given it the old name 'Thorpe in the Hollow'. As many authors have stated, it never seems to change: with old barns and bricked up windows looking like they haven't seen humans for several generations.
The great sacred hill of Elbolton is revealed as we head up an ancient trackway out of Thorpe. Two centuries ago a man met a band of fairies on the hillside here - and when approaching them he was rudely kicked and spat upon. Hiding one in his pocket to convince his daughter of their existence - he was startled to find an empty pocket on returning home. The hill has been the scene of many strange happenings ever since. Even climbing it - you can feel someone watching your every move - even though the sense of isolation is also very real.
The rustic lane along the base of Elbolton - with the steep slopes of reef limestone towering up on the right.
Thorpe nestles snugly in the hollow between the two reef knolls as we scale Elbolton's eastern slope. It is a battle against gravity - and clearly the ancient folk who dragged their dead up to the cave near the summit must have had serious intention in mind when burying them at such an elevated spot. Just look at that view over Kail Hill!
Elbolton Cave itself - properly called Navvy Noodle Hole - lies hidden beneath a limestone scar near the summit of the hill. Not many visit - even fewer go inside - as this cave is tricky to enter. The supernatural activity around the entrance is legendary.
The cave - better described as a pothole - has a metal cover to keep out sheep. This is easily lifted to give the same view that Neolithic people will have had some 4000 years ago.
Preparing to descend. A very tricky climb down even with a rope - as the sides are slippery and awkward. Presumably weathering has reduced the footholds of the ancients - unless there was another way in which has since been blocked.
This is where it all happened in 1888. The Reverend E. Jones of Embsay lowered himself into the cave for a full investigation. Twenty feet down he hit a layer of debris but could hardly have expected what lay in store for him. Here he initially found three human skeletons in a sitting position - knees drawn up to their chins and for all the world appearing as though sitting around a crude fire. These days the finds are considered to be, in a sense, Europe's oldest 'mummies'. The skeletons were actually surrounded by a rough stone wall - and there was evidence that dogs or wolves had been deliberately released into the cave to remove the flesh before being removed by their supervisors!
Slumping down the hillside is the spoil heap that Mr Jones dug out of the cave. In the debris below the initial three he eventually unearthed at least nine more human skeletons - while beneath these was an 'animal layer' containing the bones of bears, reindeer, wolves, badgers and other mammals. Pottery was also found containing diamond-like patterns - as well as the remains of fires, where peat had been used as fuel. Clearly, Elbolton Cave was history in a pot: a unique and fascinating treasure trove ...
Even so - the history of living things here dates back 300 million years. Examining the reef limestone outside the entrance we meet crinoids from the great barrier that once lay at the margins of a shallow, tropical sea.
The structure of the reef limestone is much different than the traditional Great Scar Limestone we are used to in the Yorkshire Dales. The rock is much more brittle and looser in structure.
There are other pots on the summit of Elbolton - and one of them links through to the main cave itself. There is also evidence of early mining.
Stebden is another reef knoll - just to the north. Strange how the distant Pendle Hill is associated with so many of these ancient sites in the southern dales.
Close-up of Stebden - a beautifully conical reef knoll - from the summit of Elbolton. The great gritstone ridge of Rylstone Fell can be seen behind - consisting of much younger rocks formed by rivers washing in sand and gravel.
Wheatears have been at home here for centuries no doubt. Their calls - like clashing pebbles - resemble those of the stonechat.
I later rejoined the Wharfe at the lovely Linton Falls, just below Grassington. It hasn't rained much this year - so the rocks were more exposed than usual. The limestone here has a pinkish glow.
The last stage of my journey through history was a delightful stroll back towards Hebden, along the banks of a sedate River Wharfe.
Finally - it was back to the stepping stones by the suspension bridge - to put the finishing touches to a great afternoon.