The Cow and Calf Rocks. Picture credit: TJ Blackwell wikipedia creative commons.

“Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee, ah saw thee?
On Ilkla Mooar baht ‘at” – a Yorkshire folk song

Ilkley, a former spa town with its moor and famous song lies in the West Riding of Yorkshire, twelve miles north of Bradford on the River Wharfe, which flows at the foot of its surrounding hills.

Ilkley Moor lies to the south of the town and forms part of Rombalds moor, a stretch of high ground which runs to Keighley in the West.

This natural landscape has several features in which to explore, the largest being the Cow and Calf rocks, two large outcrops, which tilt on the edge of the moor. This has been admired for its formations and spectacular views by visitors since the Victorian era. Over time it has become customary for visitors to carve their initials and year of their visit into the rocks. There are some carvings dating back to the early 1800s, although this been happening on Ilkley Moor since ancient times.

The “swastika” stone on Woodhouse crag features a pattern carved into the rock in the shape of a curved cross. It is thought the origins of this unique piece of rock art dates back to around 2000BC. Long before its corruption by the Nazis the swastika was a symbol of religious significance related to the sun. There are indeed two stones bearing the same symbol as the fainter original was copied onto another nearby rock in the 19th Century.

On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at - Music and lyrics

The tune to the accompanying Ilkley Moor baht t’at song was originally written in 1805 by Thomas Clark, a cobbler from Canterbury for a hymn known as Cranbrook. It was also used to accompany the words of the Christmas Carol, “While Shepherds Watched.” However, the traditional theory of its development into the song we know today started when a choir from Halifax visited the moor. They started singing the lines “Wheer wor ta bahn when I saw thee,” when two of their party disappeared into the bracken for a kiss and cuddle. Another member piped up, “Thas been a courtin’ Mary Jane,” and thus the rest of the choir burst into song using that dialogue to wind up the young lovers to the tune of Cranbrook.

The original first two verses were written down in 1916 but over time a further seven have been added to chart the story of a lover who takes his beloved Mary Jane on Ilkley Moor without wearing a hat. He catches a cold, dies and is buried on the moor, where worms come and eat his decomposing body. In turn ducks come to eat the worms and humans to eat the ducks, meaning that by doing this; indirectly they have eaten the poor original man up. It is not known what became of Mary Jane!

In modern times the opening line to the song has changed from the original sung by the Halifax choir to Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee? (Where have you been since I last saw you) and several lines have been added to the end of each verse in Standard English. These include, “Where the ducks play football,” or “where the sheep fly backwards.” The original Cranbrook hymn is now largely forgotten, but the tune is still used to sing “While Shepherd’s Watched,” in Leeds Cathedral.

The moor is a very popular tourist destination and has a large car park, café and toilets to accommodate the many visitors that come here to admire the views or abseil down the many rock-faces to be found here.

In the town below lies the Millennium Darwin Gardens, named after the famous biologist, who spent time in the town after writing “The Origin of species,” in 1859. Exhausted and suffering from a mystery illness he headed for Ilkley to use its healing wells and as a retreat, from the storm of which was brewing in London over the theories outlined in the book. These commemorative community gardens have a maze, picnic area and fine views of the moor.

Ilkley Park and Riverside gardens are a pleasant green space just off the town centre on the banks of the river Wharfe. There are extensive walks, play area, café and fishing areas. It is also adjacent to the beginning of the official Dales Way, an 84-mile walk through the Yorkshire Dales, ending at Lake Windermere in Cumbria.

The Manor House museum stands on the site of the ancient Roman fort of Olicana and has displays associated with the town and its people. It charts the history of Ilkley from Ancient Times through its development into a spa town and tourist destination. Upstairs is an art gallery, which hosts a number of temporary exhibitions throughout the year. The Manor House is a 14th Century building, which was converted into the museum in 1961.

The Ilkley Toy museum is one of the largest collections in the north of England and displays a range of artefacts ranging from 350BC to the present day. It is notable for its large collection of early English wooden dolls and a 1940s working wooden fairground. It also shows toys which have delighted generations of children, such as cars, teddy bears and games.

The Operatic House has been home to the Ilkley players since 1970. Picture creditChristine Johnstone wikipedia geograph creative commons.
The Operatic House has been home to the Ilkley players since 1970. Picture creditChristine Johnstone wikipedia geograph creative commons.


The town has a great tradition in amateur theatre. The Ilkley Upstagers are one of the best known groups of its kind in the country and has a strong reputation for producing young talent which go on to star on the professional circuit and television. The Ilkley players run their own theatre, The Playhouse, and provide a platform to show its productions. It also has a youth theatre, known as The Greenroom, where children can attend classes and rehearse for their annual play.

Ilkley Winter Gardens host the highly renowned Literature festival. Picture credit: summonedbyfells flickr wikipedia creative commons.
Ilkley Winter Gardens host the highly renowned Literature festival. Picture credit: summonedbyfells flickr wikipedia creative commons.


The King’s Hall and Winter Gardens were built in 1907 and is a multi-functional venue hall, which hosts theatre productions, wedding parties, exhibitions and conferences.

The Ilkley literature festival is the largest and oldest of its kind in the north of England. It started in 1973 by a group of local enthusiasts who wanted to hold a book festival in the town. There are over 250 events throughout Ilkley over a two week period in September. Each year the festival has been attended by some of the biggest names in writing and journalism, including Jeremy Paxman, Louis Theroux and the late Maya Angelou.

Uniquely the town also hosts a bi-annual Complimentary medicine festival, at the Kings Hall, which is the largest in the UK. The two events, held in March and October feature demonstrations in treatments such as Osteopathy, massaging and chiropody to name but a few. The stalls offer remedies and therapies for all kinds of ailments.

Ilkley is a relatively remote town, and due to its rough terrain does not have a motorway nearby. Instead it is linked by “A” roads to other surrounding towns and cities, such as Bradford and Leeds to the South, Skipton to the West and Harrogate to the East.

The train station was built in 1865 and runs services to Leeds, Bradford and Otley. It was refurbished and upgraded in 2011 when a new building was constructed and digital screens were installed amongst other things. The adjacent bus station has three stands and runs services to York, Skipton, Leeds and Otley.

Rombalds Moor is a beautiful feature overlooking Ilkley. Picture Credit: Jonathan Rudd
Rombalds Moor is a beautiful feature overlooking Ilkley. Picture Credit: Jonathan Rudd


Rombalds Moor is an adventure playground for rock climbers making it popular with extreme sports enthusiasts. The town is also associated with cycling and it is a very common sight to see large groups of bike-riders on the towns’ roads during the summer months. The moor has been used on the Tour of Britain, while in July 2014 Ilkley was on Stage one of the Tour de France, where the race came down the A65 from Otley and passed through the town centre. Other popular sports in Ilkley include squash, tennis rugby and golf, the latter being significant in that Colin Montgomerie practiced his skills at the town’s club.

Shopping in Ilkley places a strong emphasis on local independent traders, rather than relying on high street names to fill its streets. Ilkley does have a small shopping mall in the shape of the Moors centre, which has a range of fashion, furniture and tea shops, smattered with the odd chain store, rather than the other way round. The Grove has wide pavements, which were built for promenading and houses a range of independent traders and restaurants.

Ilkley with its towering moor, an ever present backdrop is a remote and interesting part of Yorkshire, with something to offer for everybody.


Even before man set foot in Ilkley, during the Carboniforous period, around 325 million years ago, the surrounding Moor would have been a large swamp, fed by several rivers. They deposited large amounts of sediment into this area, which cemented to form large rock faces. The Ice Age glaciers deepened the valley in which the river Wharfe flows thus creating the landscape seen in Ilkley today.

Evidence of early civilisations can be found on Ilkley Moor. These carvings date back to The Bronze Age. Picture credit: TJ Blackwell wikipedia creative commons.
Evidence of early civilisations can be found on Ilkley Moor. These carvings date back to The Bronze Age. Picture credit: TJ Blackwell wikipedia creative commons.


The moor also harbours evidence of ancient life in Ilkley, such as the swastika cross and arrow heads dating back to the Mesolithic period, around 11,000BC. The twelve apostles’ stone circle, which was constructed 2,000 years ago, is also evidence of life and a settlement in the area. There have also been the remains of what is believed to be the Olicana fort, a Roman settlement discovered on the banks of the River Wharfe. Three Anglo Saxon crosses dating from the 8th Century can also be found in Ilkley Parish church. The place remained a small village during the Norman period and was noted in the Doomsday book as belonging to William de Percy. However it is not until the 17th and 18th Centuries that Ilkley began to become significant. This was due to the discovery of spas at the nearby village of Wheatley, nowadays known as Ben Rhydding. During the Victorian era it became a fashionable spa town, where, like neighbouring Harrogate, visitors would flock to take in its waters as they were believed to have healing qualities. Moreover for this reason and the adjoining moor, Ilkley became a place known for its peace and tranquillity and therefore resisted industrialisation. Charles Darwin retreated here in 1859 after the publication of the Origin of Species to escape the controversy of his theories. He went to the White wells at Ben Rhydding to receive hydrotherapy and treatment for a mysterious illness.

Nowadays the town is a popular tourist destination and much like the Victorians is seen as a place for escapism from the pressures of modern life. It also has a strong cultural core with its traditions of amateur theatre and literature, inspired by the scenery of which it lays.

Ilkley can be found in West Yorkshire, in Northern England and historically was in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Ilkley is a Spa town.

The area around Ilkley has been inhabited for many thousands of years. There is evidence that dates from the Mesolithic period which is 13,000 years ago.

There is also evidence that the area around Ilkley was settled and inhabited during the Bronze Age, 1800BC. There are many Cup and Ring marks to be found and the remains of dwellings on Ilkley Moor.

On the Woodhouse crag on the moor can be found a strange carving. It is a curved Swastika and is known as The Swastika Stone, sometimes called a Fylfot. It dates from the Bronze Age.

There is a stone circle on the moor, The Twelve Apostles Stone Circle, is thousands of years old and is Druidic in origin.

There are remains of a Roman Fort that is thought to be Olicana. The fort’s outline is quite clear and is 160yards by 100yards in size and can be seen in the centre of the town.

The site of the All Saints Church has been the centre for Christian Worship since the 7th Century. The present church is mostly Victorian.

Ilkley is included in the Domesday Book and is recorded as Ileculine and a few other variations of the name.

It is thought that the name Ilkley is a derivation of the old British name for rock, ‘Llecan.’

During the 17th and 18th centuries Ilkley became famous as a Spa Town. The Rhydding Hydro was built at nearby Wheatley.

If you come from Ilkley you are an Olicanian. The name comes from the Roman Fort that Ilkley is built on.

Ilkley is famous for Ilkley Moor, which is a stretch of open morrland between Ilkley and Keighley. It is famous for the Yorkshire anthem, On Ilkla Moor Bah’t at.

In the song, Mary Jane tells her lover that he should wear a hat because the cold winds on the moor will cause his death. After he is buried the worms will eat his corpse and the ducks will eat the worms. Then the people will eat the ducks. Then we, the singers, will all have eaten thee.

A retired Policeman, in 1987, saw and photographed an “Alien Being” on Ilkley Moor.

Ilkley is home to a famous Toy Museum. It has a collection of toys that dates from 350c to the modern era.

Each year Ilkley hosts The Ilkley Literature Festival. It is England’s oldest and biggest literary festival. The 2014 festival takes place between the 3rd and 19th of October.

Ilkley Golf Club is one of the oldest in Yorkshire. Colin Montgomery practiced there for many years.

Ilkley is twinned with Coutances in France.