Cow & Calf Rocks picture credit: TJ Blackwell wikipedia creative commons

“Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee?”

– On Ilkla Mooar Bah’t ‘at

Ilkley is a former spa town located in the West Riding of Yorkshire. It lies 12 miles north of Bradford on the River Wharfe which flows at the foot of its surrounding hills. It’s most famous for its moor and song.

Page Contents:

Ilkley Moor

Ilkley Moor can be found south of the town. It forms part of Rombalds moor which is a stretch of high ground that runs to Keighley in the West.

This natural landscape has many features to explore. The largest and most popular being the Cow and Calf rocks. It’s made up of two large outcrops which tilt on the edge of the moor.

Many people from all over the world come to admire the formations and spectacular views. Visitors have been exploring this area since the Victorian Era.


Over time, it has become a custom for visitors to carve their initials and the year of their visit into the Cow and Calf rocks. There are some carvings which date back to the early 1800’s although this has been happening on Ilkley Moor since ancient times.

The “swastika” stone on Woodhouse crag features a pattern that has been carved into the rock in the shape of a curved cross. It’s thought that the origins of this unique piece of rock art dates back to around 2000 BC.

Long before its corruption by the Nazis, the swastika was a symbol of religious significance related to the sun. The fainter original symbol was copied onto another nearby rock in the 19th Century.

On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at

On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at - Music and lyrics

Ilkley Moor is not only famous for its attractions and vistas, it’s also known for its song “On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at”.

Despite Ilkley Moor having incredible attractions and vistas, this isn’t the only thing that it’s known for. It’s also famous for the song “Ilkley Moor baht’at”.

Originally, the tune was written in 1805 by Thomas Clark. Clark was a cobbler from Canterbury and created a hymn called Cranbrook. The tune was also used to accompany the words of the Christmas Carol “While Shepherds Watched”.

Despite this, the traditional theory of the tune’s development into the much loved song that we know today started when a choir from Halifax visited the moor.

According to the theory, the choir members started singing the lines “Wheer wor ta bahn when I saw thee” when two of their party disappeared into the bracken for a kiss. Another member then piped up “Thas been a courtin’ Mary Jane”. The rest of the choir burst into song using that dialogue to wind up the young couple to the tune of Cranbrook.

In 1916, the first two original verses were written down. However, over time a further seven have been added to tell the story of a lover who takes his beloved Mary Jane on Ilkley Moor without wearing a hat.

He then catches a cold, dies, and is buried on the moor where worms come and eat his decomposing body. Ducks then eat the worms and humans eat the ducks, meaning that by doing this the people have eaten the poor man up. It’s unknown what became of Mary Jane.

Nowadays, the opening line of the song has changed from the original sung by Halifax Choir. It used to be “Wheer wor ta bahn when I saw thee” and has been changed to ”Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee?” meaning ‘where have you been since I last saw you).

Several other lines have also been added to the end of each version. These have been written in Standard English and include “where the ducks play football” and “where the sheep fly backwards”.

The original Cranbrook hymn is now largely forgotten. However, the tune is still used to sing “While Shepherds Watched” in Leeds Cathedral.

Places to Visit in Ilkley

Since becoming a very popular tourist destination, Ilkley Moor has since adapted to accommodate the many visitors that travel there to admire the views. 

At the attraction there is a large car park, cafe, and toilets. Visitors can also abseil down the many rock-faces.

Another attraction in Ilkley is Rombalds Moor. It’s an adventure playground for rock climbers making it popular with extreme sports enthusiasts.

In the town below is the Millennium Darwin Gardens. These commemorative community gardens have a maze, picnic area, and fine views of the moor.

The gardens were named after a famous biologist who spent time visiting and exploring the town after writing “The Origin of Species” in 1859.

Before his arrival, Darwin became exhausted and was suffering from a mystery illness. This prompted him to visit Ilkley for its healing wells and to use it as a retreat from the storm which was brewing in London over the theories outlined in the book. 

Just outside of the town centre is Ilkley Park and Riverside Gardens. It’s a pleasant green space which can be found on the banks of the River Wharfe.

There are extensive walks, a play area, and fishing areas. Visitors can also enjoy a bit of dinner at the cafe.

Ilkley Park and Riverside Gardens is just opposite the beginning of the official Dales Way. This is an 84 mile walk through the Yorkshire Dales which ends at Lake Windermere in Cumbria.

The Manor House is a 14th Century building which was converted into a museum in 1961. It stands on the site of the ancient Roman fort of Olicana.

Museums & Art Galleries in Ilkley

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

This Ilkley museum features displays associated with the town and its people. It charts the history of Ilkley from ancient times through to its development into a spa town and tourist destination.

The Manor House also contains an art gallery. Throughout the year, it hosts a number of temporary exhibitions for visitors to enjoy.

Another museum is the Ilkley Toy Museum. It is one of the largest collections in the north of England and displays a range of artefacts dating back to 350 BC up to the present day.

This museum is most notable for its large collection of early English wooden dolls and a 1940’s working wooden fairground. It also features toys that have delighted generations of children such as cars, teddy bears, and games.

Theatres in Ilkley

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

Ilkley has a great tradition in amateur theatre. The Ilkley Upstagers are one of the best known groups of its kind in the country. It 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 called The Playhouse. This provides a brilliant platform to show its productions.

The Playhouse also contains a youth theatre which is known as The Greenroom. Children can attend classes and rehearse for their annual play.

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

Festivals in Ilkley

Ilkley is known for its literature festival which is the largest and oldest of its kind in the north of England. The Ilkley literature festival 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. These include Jeremy Paxman, Louis Theroux, and the late Maya Angelou.

Uniquely, the town also hosts a bi-annual complementary medicine festival. It is located at the Kings Hall and is the largest in the UK.

The two events are held in March and October. Each event features demonstrations in treatments such as osteopathy, massaging, and chiropody. There are also stalls that offer remedies and therapies for all kinds of ailments.

Travelling In & Out of Ilkley

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

Ilkley is a relatively remote town. Due to its rough terrains it doesn’t have a motorway nearby. Instead, Ilkley 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.

In 1865, the railway station was built. It provided Ilkley residents with services to Leeds, Bradford, and Otley. 

A new railway building was constructed to replace the original. It was refurbished and upgraded in 2011 to include modern features such as digital screens.

The bus station can be found opposite the train station. It has three stands and runs services to York, Skipton, Leeds, and Otley.

Cycling in Ilkley

The town is also associated with cycling. During the summer months, it’s very common to see large groups of bike-riders on the town’s roads.

In July 2014, Ilkley was used on stage one of the Tour de France where the race came down the A65 from Otley and passed through the town centre. The moor has also been used as part of the Tour of Britain.

Other popular sports in Ilkley include squash, tennis, rugby, and golf. Golf being especially significant in that Colin Montgomerie practises his skills at the town’s club.

Shopping in Ilkley

Shopping in Ilkley revolves around local independent traders. Rather than relying on high street names to fill its streets like most places, it has a strong focus on supporting local businesses.

Ilkley has a small shopping mall designed in the shape of the Moors centre. It has a range of fashion, furniture, and tea shops along with the odd chain store.

Ilkley’s idea to focus more on locally run shops compared to retail chains just adds to the town’s charm. People choose to shop in Ilkley for this reason, to support independent traders.

The Grove is also a popular place for both residents and visitors. It’s home to a range of local shops and restaurants. Originally, the Grove was built with wide pavements for promenading.

Ilkley is a wonderful Yorkshire town. It’s community focused and has plenty to offer people of all ages.

History of Ilkley

During the Carboniferous period, around 325 million years ago, the moor surrounding Ilkley would have been a large swamp

Before man, there was the Carboniferous period that dates back to 325 million years ago. During this time, the moor surrounding Ilkley would have been a large swamp being fed by several rivers.

These rivers deposited large amounts of sediment into this area which then cemented to form large rock faces. The Ice Age glaciers deepened the valley in which the river Wharfe flows. This created the landscape that we see 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 harbours evidence of ancient life in Ilkley. This includes the swastika cross along with arrowheads which date back to the Mesolithic period around 11,000 BC.

You can also find the twelve apostles’ stone circle which was constructed 2,000 years ago. This shows that there is evidence of life and settlement in the area since 11,000 BC.

Remains of what is believed to be the Olicana Fort has been discovered. This was a Roman settlement discovered on the banks of the River Wharfe.

Three Anglo Saxon crosses can be found in Ilkley Parish church. They have been thought to date back to the 8th Century.

Ilkley remained a small village during the Norman period. It was noted in the Domesday book as belonging to William de Percy.

However, despite all of this, it wasn’t until the 17th and 18th Centuries that Ilkley began to become a place of significance. This was all thanks to the discovery of spas at the nearby village of Wheatley which is now known as Ben Rhydding.

During the Victorian era, Ilkley became a fashionable spa town. People visited Ilkley’s neighbour Harrogate to take in its waters as they were believed to have healing qualities.

Afterwards they would then visit Ilkley as it was known for its peace and tranquillity thanks to the adjoining moor. The town also resisted industrialisation which is what the visitors were after.

In 1859, Charles Darwin decided to escape to Ilkley. He’d just published his book “Origin of Species” and wanted to avoid the controversy of his theories.

Whilst relaxing and spending time in Ilkley, he paid a visit to the White Wells at Ben Rhydding. He received hydrotherapy and treatment for a mysterious illness.

Nowadays, Ilkley is a popular tourist destination. Much like the Victorians, it is seen as a place for escapism from the pressures of modern life. It has a strong cultural core along with its popular traditions of amateur theatre and literature, often inspired by the town’s surrounding scenery.

Ilkley Trivia

Ilkley is located in West Yorkshire which was historically the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Ilkley is a Spa town.

The area around the town had been inhabited since the Mesolithic period – 11,000 BC.

Evidence suggests that Ilkley was settled and inhabited during the Bronze Age, 1,800 BC. Cup and Ring marks have been found along with the remains of dwellings on Ilkley Moor.

Woodhouse crag on the moor has a strange carving. It’s a curved swastika and is known as the swastika stone, sometimes called Fylfot. It dates back to the Bronze Age.

A stone circle called The Twelve Apostles Stone Circle can be found on the moor. It’s thousands of years old and is of Druidic 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.

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.

Ilkley is famous for Ilkley Moor and the Yorkshire anthem “On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at”.

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.

The Ilkley Literature Festival is England’s oldest and biggest literary festival.

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

Ilkley is twinned with Coutances in France.