Cow & Calf (& Bull) Rocks, Ilkley Moor, West Yorkshire

Legendary Rocks:  OS Grid Reference – SE 1306 4679

Getting Here

Dead easy!  Get to Ilkley train station and look across the road to your left, cross it and walk along.  100 yards on is Cowpasture Road.  Walk up it!  You’ll be at the rocks in 10-15 minutes.

Archaeology & History

Cow & Calf Rocks from above - thanks to Jason Hawke's superb 'Yorkshire from the Air'
Cow & Calf Rocks from above – thanks to Ian Hay’s superb ‘Yorkshire from the Air’

There’s nowt specifically archaeocentric directly relating to these great rocks — well, nowt that’s been found out about anyway! — though all around here over the last coupla centuries people have found numerous flints, and we have various examples of rock-art (cup-and-rings) carved on rocks close by.  There have been attempts to verify what may be cup-marks on both the Cow and the Calf — with the old master, Harry Speight (1900) telling how there used to be remains of cups and lines on the rocks, but apart from some well-worn ‘cups’ on some of the edges, these seem hard to find.  For worrits worth: if Speight said there were some carvings here, its more than likely true.

I think the main relationship ancient man would have had with this great rock outcrop would have been a ritual one: the rocks themselves had no need of human imprints: their size and nature would deem them of great spirit indeed, to anyone with an ounce of feeling.  Not sure that’s the way most modern folk would see things – but that’s to be expected I s’ppose!


These grand rocks once had the even greater Bull Rock as a close companion. It was on top of this, wrote Eric Lodge (1939:40), that,

“the only point in the immediate vicinity of Ilkley from which a view of York Minster was obtainable. ‘Tis some sixty years ago, however, that a local tradesman recognised its value in building stone, and despite strong protests, quarried it for the construction of the Crescent Hotel, situated at the corner of Brook Street and Leeds Road in Ilkley.”

The matter was described in the Leeds Mercury in 1899, thus:

“About the year 1850 an act of vandalism was perpetrated at Ilkley, which would have been impossible in these days, when the Ilkley Local Board watches with such a keen eye anything that may enhance the historical interest of this rapidly increasing watering-place.

“Below the two huge rocks known as ‘The Cow and Calf,’ which have attracted thousands of visitors and invalids on to the breezy heights whereon they stand, stood a rock larger than the Calf, which was known as the ‘Bull.’  It was much nearer the highway than the Calf…

“The ‘Bull’ rock had its name cut in large letters on the side that lay nearest the road, and it is much to be regretted that an unfortunate dispute between the owners of the free-hold and the lord of the manor, in which the former won the day, gave them the right to break up this noble rock and cart it away for building purposes. It is said that the Crescent Hotel was mainly built from this stone, so some idea may be formed of its vast size and proportions.”

Incredible – they’ve turned a gigantic sacred rock into a large hotel! (and I’ve never been in it) Let’s hope it’s haunted to buggery!  Does anyone know any Fortean history about the place?

Another legend tells that one day the local giant, Rombald (who gave his name to these moors and lived up here, somewhere, with his even greater but unnamed wife), decided to meet a friend a few miles away to the east, at Almscliffe Crags.  So in just one step he strode over the Wharfe valley right across to the legendary crags, but he slightly stumbled and in doing so, left he footprint embedded on the face of the Cow Rock, which can still be seen today.

In modern times, the Cow & Calf have been the centre for occasional UFO, or earthlight sightings.  But this appears to go back a bit earlier than when such curious light-forms were thought of as visiting ETs; for good old Nicholas Size (1936) reported seeing burning lights and curious figures up here — but when he saw these lights they took the form of druids and pagan spirits.  One wonders what they’ll morph into next!


  1. Bennett, Paul, The Old Stones of Elmet, Capall Bann: Milverton 2001.
  2. Collyer, Robert & Turner, J. Horsfall, Ilkley Ancient and Modern,William Walker: Otley 1885.
  3. Cowling, E.T., Rombald’s Way, William Walker: Otley 1946.
  4. Hay, Ian & Pritchard, Lisa, Yorkshire from the Air, Myriad: London 2005.
  5. Lodge, Eric, Yorkshire Walks, Arthur Wigley: Leeds 1939.
  6. Size, Nicholas, The Haunted Moor, William Walker: Otley 1936.
  7. Speight, Harry, Upper Wharfedale, Elliott Stock: London 1900.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

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