To some folks in Yorkshire imbibing the crystal waters which flow out of Ilkley Moor from behind the iconic White Wells spa is the ultimate Tyke pilgrimage. If Yorkshire were a religion, this would be its Lourdes.
So what better place to go and celebrate Yorkshire Day on Friday than the hallowed tract of moor spreading westwards above Wharfedale from the Cow and Calf Rocks. It is an extraordinarily versatile ridge, offering a maze of paths for walkers, horse-riders and mountainbikers, some good lift for kite flyers when it is too calm lower down towards the valley floor and enough history and nature to keep most people fascinated for hours on end. Even when night falls in summer the place is rarely deserted, and not only because it holds the Yorkshire record for UFO sightings.
That is a lot of pressure for moorland to cope with, and a decade ago there were serious concerns that the five million people who live in Yorkshire were loving the place to death. An additional problem was the moor’s popularity with visitors from further afield because of what one Ilkley resident describes as “that infernal song!”
On Ilkla Moor Baht’at is taught to schoolchildren all over the world, no matter what their language. Only Auld Lang Syne is better known. It has long been Yorkshire’s “national” anthem, and according to legend was written in Victorian times by a Wesleyan choir from Halifax when picnicking at the Cow and Calf.
Today, the moor is in better shape than it has been for years thanks to the creation of the Friends of Ilkley Moor. Volunteers go out with spades and wheelbarrows to maintain the footpaths and bridleways, and if you see groups of people behaving oddly on the slopes overlooking the town chances are they are doing what’s known as “bracken bashing”.
Bracken used to be cut as bedding for horses and cattle but today it is seen as a pest which makes many paths overgrown in summer. So volunteers go out and hit the bracken with sticks, the intention being to bruise the stems near ground level and split them along part of their length so that they fall over and lose sap. The bracken then wastes energy trying to repair itself, and the frond usually dies.
The Friends group organises a programme of activities, and one that is particularly popular is the Wild Plant Food Forage for budding Ray Mears-type survivalists who would like to learn how to identify edible foods on the moor.
The easiest to find at this time of year is the bilberry, and you will often see families picking them on the slopes around White Wells.
It has become an annual tradition for me to spend a few hours gathering the berries, which stain my fingers deep purple in the process. I like to simmer them into a sweet, sticky compote and add a rich buttery crumble topping to make a very different kind of Yorkshire pudding.