Walking Myth into Place: Cancer the Moon-Boat

Our series of self-guided walks continues with the water-sign of Cancer (June 22-July 21 approx.)
You will need the Ordnance Survey 1:25000 South Pennines map. Please note that routes and their condition were accurate at their time of survey, 2017-2020; updates may be made at later dates.
Please be alert to any other quasi-affirmations and correspondences of Cancer as you walk!


The typical Cancer image in landscape zodiacs is a boat, which accords well with the sign’s element of water, and the shape of the boat tends towards the crescent, which not only alludes to the sign’s primary celestial correspondence with the moon, but is also the shape which the archaic constellation known as Argo Navis (after the Argo, the ship used by Jason and the Argonauts in Greek mythology) took.1 This similarity of form is not surprising when considering, for instance, the shape of ancient Egyptian and Minoan boats in surviving illustrations; they share the high bow and tapering stern seen here on the fringes of Heptonstall, and elsewhere in Britain. Another tangential correspondence is with the Cancer glyph – the high prow and tapering stern is mirrored in the dual 6-like figures of the glyph.

So we have a prototype image that fits the symbolic bill, but departs from the image implied by the Latin meaning of cancer, ‘crab’. There is an implication therefore that the use of the word ‘zodiac’ for these landscape configurations may be a misnomer in some ways, as they do not necessarily represent their celestial zodiac counterparts (despite the claims of Glastonbury Zodiac and other researchers); should we then consider the image set of terrestrial zodiacs a similar but independent configuration, overlapping in psychogeographical interpretation but for which we should not expect close astronomical correspondence?


  1. This constellation, cited by Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE, was scrapped in 1763 by French astronomer Nicolas de Lacaille, and divided into three separate constellations – Carina (Keel), Puppis (Stern) and Vela (Sail)




Cancer in the Hebden Bridge Zodiac is the only non-animate image. It appears as a boat, bobbing on the waves of its Pennine hilltop and ready to sail away from its mooring in Heptonstall, away from the valley to the distant hills. Its high prow faces the hills to the west; the stern is also raised, giving a crescent ‘new-moon’ appearance to the vessel, and a rudder is attached. It is just under a mile long.

The crab is a relatively late addition to our zodiac; the classical zodiac wheel was once composed of just ten signs, the other ‘missing’ sign being Libra. This may be why these two signs take on radically different images in the British landscape from those we are accustomed to. Nonetheless, in both cases the images that we find in the landscape are appropriate to the qualities and symbolism associated with that sign.

Cancer is in fact absent from some terrestrial zodiacs, but where it appears it is almost invariably a boat. The vessel usually has a distinct crescent-like shape, which has led to some writers describing it as the ‘moon-boat’, which ties it into Cancer’s natural affinity with the moon. The boat is, of course, inseparable from the element of Water, to which element Cancer also belongs. The earth-bound moon-boat has its counterpart in the heavens, too, in the form of the constellation Argo Navis, the ark of the heavens.

European folk customs also involve a boat in springtime rites; the May-ship is a “symbolic vessel such as the various arks, trees, ships and cradles in which Divine Children and Mother Goddesses were found, cast afloat upon the Ocean of Eternity”.2 The boat figures in the May Song of Padstow, in Cornwall, which declares that St.George travels “in his longboat, all on the salt sea-o”; elsewhere, St. George is believed to have voyaged by boat to the otherworld. In this he may be in the company of the Greek god Dionysus, who sailed in a ‘new-moon boat’.3 The boat is in many cultures all over the world the favoured vessel for transport to the otherworld of the spirits and gods, the land which lies on the other side of the human horizon – the most familiar to us may be that which ferries the dead across the River Styx. This idea recalls a carving in Ireland’s celebrated Newgrange passage grave, which shows a boat with a high prow and stern, (i.e. a rough crescent shape, as in the Hebden Bridge Zodiac) and a single sail; it is thought the boat would have been the soul’s conveyance to the afterlife.

An alternative crescent shape which relates to Cancer is the cornucopia, or horn of plenty. This is an attribute of female divinities, and Cancer is a female sign with special association with the goddesses of the hearth, agriculture, food production and suchlike. The cornucopia also is associated with the moon, in its first, crescent, phase.

2. Bob Stewart. Where is St. George?

3. Robert Graves, Greek Myths 1 p109


The high prow and stern of the Cancer boat are mirrored in the landscape by high ground, and it is at Cross Hill on the edge of Heptonstall where we start the walk, where a footpath branches off the main road and crosses the field downhill towards a house called Windy Harbour. That path is for our return, however; our route follows the implied direction of the boat, which points west, as we walk along the line of its keel.

This point is marked by the kind of coincidental geography typical of terrestrial zodiacs. At Cross Hill, round about where the water tower stands now, there used to be a mound – whether it was prehistoric or not has never been resolved, but it would have been a prominent mooring for the boat. Even in its absence (the placename also implies that a standing cross may also have vanished without trace), it may be said that a water tower is just as appropriate a mooring for a water sign, if not more so.

Moreover, Windy Harbour is surely an appropriate naming for its position at the stern of the boat. It is also appropriate to describe the nature of this high place, notable for its winds. As we walk west, we pass a couple of benches on a rise to our left – this is Crown Point, and just beyond here is a detached house known as The Beacon, which was home to the parents of Ted Hughes after they returned to their home territory from Mexborough. The trees close around it will perhaps diminish the blasts that Hughes noted, in language fitting for our Cancer boat, in two poems written about this house: “This house has been far out at sea all night” (‘Wind’), “the world rolls in rain / like a stone inside surf” (‘The Beacon’). Despite its water element, Cancer here is a ship of the air.

At the road junction at Draper Corner, bear left along the straight road through Heptonstall Slack. The road is an ancient track, part of an ancient route across the Pennines that may date back to the Bronze Age or earlier. All the fields to the left (or port) as we walk constitute the hull or body of the ship as it lays at rest. ‘Slack’ in landscape terms refers to a dip behind a hill, but there is of course also the phrase ‘slack water’, meaning the relatively still water when the tide is turning, or an area of water unaffected by strong currents – an image which somehow intuitively fits this stretch of the ridgeway between the Colden and Hebden valleys, as we look down the road.

The village became the heart of the Baptist movement in Heptonstall. The first meeting place was at Stone Slack on the right-hand side of the road, a graveyard was located further along on the right, and the road-fork ahead was chosen as the site of Mount Zion chapel. Given the full-body immersion that is the characterising initiation rite of the Baptists, this is another appropriate association for this water sign; but the waters of Heptonstall were not health-giving in the 19th century. As we approach the road-fork, on the left of the road is a well-trough, probably a remnant of the Bulyon spring water, which supplied the houses on this side of the road. Rising on the higher ground of Popples Common ahead, by the time it reached the overcrowded houses that stood on what is now the grass verge it had become an open watercourse, doubling as a sewer – its water quality had deteriorated to the extent that it was described as becoming a “nursery of loathsome animal life” in summer months, a situation that wasn’t helped by  waste from an abattoir on its route. Careless human development thus contributed to a typhoid epidemic in 1843-44 that infected 51 people, but we might note in passing that cancer governs the chest, stomach and digestive system in humans – the latter being the route through which the salmonella typhi takes hold.

Where the road forks, Mount Zion Baptist chapel was first built in 1808; the present building was completed in 1879, and closed in 1974. When it was put up for sale, one interested buyer was a witch from Manchester, Barbara Brandolani, who ran a coven using Ancient Egyptian-style magic. Her plan was to set up a temple for her coven here at the crossroads, a plan that was eventually thwarted4 – but it is interesting to reflect how the shape of the Cancer boat resembles ancient vessels, such as Egyptian reed craft, that were not only used for everyday transport, but also symbolically represented as craft ferrying the dead to the afterlife. With the graveyard and fatal epidemic here on its keel, the crescent boat can be seen as a vessel to the otherworld, carrying human souls westward – and perhaps those of the animals in the slaughterhouse too. The Baptist chapel at the crossroads was perhaps at an opportune location in its heyday.

At the road junction, an old milepost reminds us that we are travelling on an old road across the Pennines. We follow the Burnley route, which takes us uphill past Popples Common. ‘Popples’ is a dialect term meaning ‘bubbling like water’, and hence refers to the plentiful springs that rose in this area. Our road takes us past the Common and over the Knoll and on between the houses and gardens of Knowl Top and Edge Hey Green. We approach another fork at the end of Edge Hey Green; this is where the Gemini giant almost stubs his toe on the boat; following the line of thought that associates the coat with a journey to the otherworld, we might reflect on the many heroes of myth and legend, including King Arthur, who are carried away by boat on their final journey – invariably, in Celtic-influenced culture, westwards. Perhaps Gemini, facing along the axis of the zodiac towards Sagittarius firing his bow along that same axis, is prepared for his final journey.

Just before the fork, we take a gap between the houses just before Cambrian Cottage. We have reached the bow of the boat, and the path to the left takes us downhill to begin delineating the boat’s high prow. At the end of the track is Little Lear Ings; enter the front yard and bear diagonally left to the path between the outhouse and 5-bar gate. Turn left through the stile, as far as the next stile, then turn right downhill, keeping the field wall on your left – traces of the old causey-paved path remain, raised above the level of the field; causey stones not only help a walker through mud, they also protect against erosion. Towards the bottom of the field, the path jigs right and through a gate, and you bear right to a ruined gateway a few yards away, and continue on downhill with the wall again to your left, towards the wood. On this stretch you first hear the sound of cancer’s water element – the rippling of Colden Water through the woods below. Go through the nearby gate into what is a patch of bracken during the Cancer period, and turn left (the abundance of bracken, bramble and nettles on this section of the route might discourage shorts at this time of year). You are now at the tip of the boat’s prow (even if you are at its lowest landscape elevation – this is a ship of the air, remember) and you follow it on another causey path, beside a very old retaining wall – the difference in ground level gives an inkling of how long it’s been there. On this stretch you are accompanied by the sound of rushing water from the brook below.

In time you come to a parting of ways – take the uphill path away from the woods, following the Hebden Bridge Pennine Way Loop and Calderdale Way. Through the stile, a clear line of causey stones take you forward, following signs, until shortly before a farm gate, with the red Loop sign pointing ahead, you turn left uphill along the causey path to the left of the wall. Cross the stile at the top of the field and turn right, and you’re following the top of the hull.

The detour around the prow has not taken you a great distance along the boat’s length from Little Lear Ings, and has introduced slopes like you haven’t yet had on this walk; but it was necessary to get a sound of Cancer’s water element, lest you forget – for with the high altitude and the raised causey paths, this is a boat that, barring mud and rain, keeps you dry and out of the water… as it’s supposed to.

After 100 yards, turn right towards Higher Slater Ing; immediately before the gateposts, turn left through a stile into a field and follow the causey track above the wall. Follow the path on to the patch of trees, within which are an old well trough and the remains of an old pond, now largely silted up. Across the house drive and keep straight on, with Heptonstall church tower directly ahead. Looking about 30 degrees to the left of the tower you can see the round mound of Cross Hill on the edge of the village, where we started, and, swathed in trees in the field below, Windy Harbour.

Allusions to water continue as you follow the path, with spring-fed troughs alongside, especially at Pike Stones Bank House and at the far end of the field beyond it. Past the well-troughs here you go over a stile into a curious small near-triangular space, with a bench affording some fine views over the Colden valley. Five paths lead off this little space, so it is quite a crossroads. Our path is the small one on the far side of the triangle, leading off left into the field from a large engraved rock at its entrance. This well-marked path crosses two fields, past a small wind turbine and Fields Farm, on its way to Windy Harbour. Look for the red Hebden Bridge Loop signs again to take you past the farm and back up to the road where your Cancerian journey began.

4. For the full story of this controversial and unsuccessful episode, which raised intense feelings on either side, see Paul Weatherhead, Weird Calderdale.