The search for the huge Hitching Stone took us on single-track roads through the windswept fields and moors of the Pennines, south of Skipton.
From a distance the huge boulder appears tiny, though it’s actually one of the largest in Yorkshire, said to weigh in at a little over a thousand tons. As I trudged towards the rock which sat brooding over the desolate moorland, I noticed an odd effect. Now, I’m not one for overly-fanciful musings, but the Hitching Stone seemed to grow in stature far more than I expected as I approached. From a distance it looks rather inconsequential… but as you near the place, it’s almost like it takes in a great breath and swells up! Sorry, but it’s an impression I couldn’t shake off.
The day was a typical Yorkshire summer day; windy, occasionally sunny but the sky was teeming with threatening, fast-moving, rain-promising clouds. Right on cue, (and half-expected), the clouds opened to bathe the stone in sunlight just as we arrived. It made me smile.
The most obvious feature on the rock was the hole. About eight feet from the ground, begging to be explored…
Scrambling up the sheer sides, I noticed a chain had been secured to the left wall of the hole, just at the right height for grabbing as an aid to entry! The chamber went back a little over six feet. There were markings on the walls and roof that looked like the hole had been enlarged by man at some point. There was writing carved into the floor by some previous explorer. And at the far end of the chamber was the most curious thing - a ‘tube’ that entered from high on the right wall and exited opposite on the lower left wall. The tube then went all the way to the outer surface of the boulder. Geologists reckon this is caused by a fossilised tree (called Lepidodendron) that has since eroded away leaving the ‘tube’.
Some of our group decided to test the acoustic qualities of this natural instrument!
I climbed out of the hole and began to explore the southern side of the rock. With care, it was possible to climb right up to the top of the house-sized stone, where yet another surprise lay waiting. Near the upper surface, in a hole with three vertical sides and one side gently sloping to the edge, was a pool of water, around four feet wide by eight feet long… the water looked to be maybe three feet deep at the far end. Waves lapped at the rock’s surface. Surreal! A little pond atop this massive boulder?!
It struck me that this place was very ‘experiential’. I could imagine some truth-seeker from times long gone, washing in the pool, settling into the hole within the rock, listening to the trance-inducing hum of the wind past the hollow, watching the sun roll down the flanks of Pendle Hill (which it does at sunset on the equinoxes). Water (the pool), Earth (the land-fast rock itself), Air (the noise of the wind) and Fire (the setting sun)…
And above the pool, a carving; some sort of 'cross' ?
One local legend recorded by John Gray (1891) recounts the initiation of neophytes occurring here, the hole assuming the role of one of the many Druid or Priest Chairs found around the country.
There are also two folk-tales relating to the activities of local witches. The first tells how the boulder was named and how it came to sit where it does; being ‘hitched up’ there.
The second recounts how a different witch, this time on the tops of Ilkley moor, was so annoyed at having her view of the land around spoiled by this huge rock, that she stuck the handle of her broomstick into the stone, lifted it high and flung it across the valley.
Definitely not girls to get on the wrong side of…
The position the rock landed turned out to become rather important. Not only does it sit on what has become the border of North and West Yorkshire, it also marks the township boundaries of Keighley, Cowling and Sutton.
Given that the concept of boundaries or ‘liminality’ in magic and ritual is given great importance by folks with more knowledge on these matters than me, I wonder what significance, if any, this has on the site. It was certainly a significant enough place to host ancient councils and parliaments. It was the site of a Lammas fair until 1870, with the racing of horses nearby and curious competitions; Alec Wood wrote in 1973 of the old ‘treacle and pudding eating’ competition!
From the top of the stone we could see another rock, half a mile or so to the north-west. The map showed it to be called the ‘Winter Hill Stone’ so we set off to check it out…
It’s a wind-blasted thing, from one angle it reminded me of the Doubler Stones near Addingham. On the side that faced the Hitching Stone there appeared to be plenty of cup markings, clustered at the base of the rock. Paul Bennett (Old Stones of Elmet, 2001) indicates the appropriate nature of this rock's name. He writes that if you stand here to observe the winter solstice sunrise, the sun should appear from behind the Hitching Stone on the horizon.
I might just get along to watch this one midwinter... with the obligatory shot of Seasonal Cheer and sexy thermals, of course.
As we left the place, we noticed another carving on a boulder, this one in a pasture north of the site:-
Another 'cross' of some sort... ?