What could a man from Hampshire possibly tell the people of Ilkley about the moors?
Did William Atkins fear a potential lack of tolerance from the large audience as he walked out onto the stage at the Ilkley Playhouse? If there was any such antipathy to this ‘offcomer’ from Hampshire, Atkins punctured it perfectly with his very first words:
“I feel like an imposter in more than one way. There is an omission in my book, and that omission is towering above us as we speak.”
The appreciative laughter at his frank confession that Ilkley was not featured in the book indicated he had created a ready ear in his audience.
The event began dramatically as the audience was immersed in an engaging piece of film.
The cries of curlews, bright green stars of sphagnum moss and salt-white pearls of hail falling on black peat; the audience were up close and personal with the moorland. In the voiceover, Atkins said the moor provided “a kind of answer to the portion of myself that remained uncultivated” and it was a place for the “outcast, fugitive and misanthrope”.
The slim man at the lectern, simply dressed in black, had a look of that charming adventurer Tin Tin in his bright, open, boyish face. He told us he sees the moor as a sort of sea, and the satellite images he showed us showed the dark green ‘shore’ where the moor edges up against the “mosaic” of cultivated, fenced fields.
First, he took us back to how the moors would have been before mankind, at a time when there was less to distinguish it from the surrounding lowlands. The only indication that you were climbing up into the moor would have been the ‘breeze louder in the trees and a wetness in the air’.
Then he jumped across the historical stepping stones of humankind’s tenure on the moors; industrial (lead mining), economical (land reclamation in the Napoleonic Wars), social (as a location for the desolate Dartmoor prison and for sport as “gentlemen came up with guns” to shoot grouse).
Throughout the talk Atkins allowed a wide range of writers and poets to stand witness to the nature of the moorlands. We heard from WH Auden, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Emily Bronte, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Fowles and Henry Williamson. It felt as if their ghosts might be standing just beyond the curtains in the wings of the Playhouse, nodding as Atkins conveyed the way that each of them rendered humankind’s urge to run from, embrace, celebrate, absorb or even (in the case of Plath and Bronte) become the moor.
If his book “has a heartland it’s the West Yorkshire landscape Emily Bronte describes” he said. He talked about Top Withins (the possible real-life Wuthering Heights) and showed Sylvia Plath’s sketch of it. What Hughes called her ‘transatlantic elation’ led her to suggest they should buy it and renovate it, but Hughes raised “the empty horror of the moor” as an impediment to her plan. The last resident of Top Withins, Ernest Roddy, was a soldier recuperating from the First World War. In 1926, he had needed the isolation and freedom of that bleak place to recover, but he was equally drawn to the valley villages for human warmth. One can have enough of the moors. Even Atkins spoke of his relief as he made his way back down, and how the sight of a heron which “eddied low over the river conifers was for me a sudden symbol of all that was not the moor, of the vibrancy and variety of the cultivated land.”
As a teenager, Atkins spent many “dusks, dawns and holidays” on a tract of wild land near his home. That lifelong attraction to moors has spun him out across England in this “attempt to articulate the experience of exploring them”. Having no fences, he says, is “enormously valuable”, and his fascination is “more than a response to beauty.” His lyrical and dramatic attempt to convey all this to us made clear his admiration for a landscape that refuses again and again to be tamed. If ever there was an audience that could appreciate this concept, Atkins had found it in Ilkley.