Sunday, 4 March 2012

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and the Stubbing Wharf

I have spent the last week or so re-reading some of both Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s work, and as I want my blogging exploits to try to capture something of the two places I live, I decided to indulge myself with a Calder Valley/ mills/ chapels/ dry stone walls/crows and ravens sort of post.

Driving along the valley road from Hebden Bridge into Mytholmroyd you cannot miss the recently erected monument to Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate, born in Mytholmroyd.

Hebden Bridge’s two bookshops  periodically have Ted Hughes displays....lots of “Crows”, the occasional “ Iron Man” and references to the “Remains of Elmet” ( Elmet was the last British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles, and refers to exactly this bit of Yorkshire, near Halifax ).

Local newspapers also run features, enhanced by memories of people who remember him, pointing out the exact spots in the valley which provided his inspiration.

Hughes described how the architecture of the valley, borne of industrial revolution and of chapel and mill building from the 1800s, began to collapse from the 1930s onwards, as the industry and religion of the area did. He called it a  
spectacular desolation....a grim sort of beauty.”

This is the Calder valley that I know, and have now lived in for nearly 15 years, first in Mankinholes and now in Hebden Bridge.

 Stubbing Wharfe  
“This gloomy memorial of a valley.
The fallen-in grave of its history,
A gorge of ruined mills and abandoned chapels,

The fouled nest of the Industrial Revolution
That has flown.”

It is about an occasion when he and Sylvia were sitting in what I presume was the Stubbing Wharfe pub, making decisions about their life together. He recognised their different understanding and hopes and dreams, and knew that Sylvia had no realistic idea about this part of the country, where he had his roots. Her impressions were clearly decidedly grim.
You......,sat weeping,
Homesick, exhausted, disappointed, pregnant.”

“If this was the glamour of the English pub, it was horrible”

It was not a good night, and Sylvia's  depression was not helped by
“....The shut in
Sodden dreariness of the whole valley”
“ saw only blackness,
Solid blackness, the face of nothingness,”

There was some light by the end of their evening, brought about by some locals entering the pub, causing the two depressed souls to smile even though, as we know, their story turned out to be every bit as poignant and sad as Hughes imagined.
The Stubbing Wharfe is our local. It is 200 yards from our house, underneath the hillside leading to Heptonstall, where Sylvia Plath is buried.

It is a lovely place, perched on the canal bank, with its cobbled humpback bridge crossing the river, providing access to the valley road, just as Hughes described. However, now there are annual cider festivals, poetry & story telling nights, open mike nights, lunch time canal trips, good quality food, lots of good guest beers and an excellent wine list.
The upgrading in actual decor it has undergone is minimal, in that the well worn floor boards remain bare, and I suspect the bar is pretty similar to when Ted supped his Guinness. (We do not learn what Sylvia drank on that dismal evening).

It has an upstairs function room. We held my father-in law’s funeral tea there, as well as my husband’s 60th birthday party. It is not horrible at all...... Sorry Ted, you either got it wrong, or the mood you both were in that night spoiled your evening. I do like the fact that the poem ends with some snippet of hope though....maybe, even then, he realised it was them rather than the place that was depressed and depressing

“ I had to smile. You had to smile. The future
Seemed to ease open a fraction”

So, how grim is our valley ?
Hughes refers to a grim sort of beauty. In the rain, when the buildings look as if they are dripping down the hillsides, when the rubble left from derelict mills, has moss growing over it, so that it looks natural..... there is a grim beauty. Being an in-comer..... told by a Mankinholes resident on moving into the village, that she lived there to get away from people like me.....I sometime feel I should n’t make judgements about this place. However, as I love it so much, I feel entitled to a view.

It is beautiful, sometimes stark, always beautiful rather than pretty, but it is powerful and strong as well. The Mankinholes resident moaning about me as her new neighbour was actually bringing over a welcome message (in her own way) and an invite to join her for a sherry. Her garden became a bolt hole for my daughter when she wanted to escape her mother’s prying eyes.  A few years later my daughter walked arm in arm with that neighbour, behind the hearse that took the neighbour’s husband to the local chapel and to the graveyard.

 Strong  dry stone walls, strong  dry humoured people, and spectacular landscapes.......
“Hill-Stone was Content”
To be cut, to be carted
And fixed in its new place
It let itself be conscripted
Into mills. And it stayed in position
Defending this slavery against all.
It forgot its wild roots
Its earth song
In cement and the drum song of looms.
And inside the mills mankind
With bodies that came and went
Stayed in position, fixed like the stones
Trembling in the song of the looms.
And they too became four-cornered, stony
In their long, darkening, dwindling stand
Against the guerrilla patience
Of the soft hill-water

 So, yes .... a grim and powerful beauty, and a special place to live.


  1. A really wonderful post, Janice! My goodness, you've got the blogging bit between your teeth now, haven't you? :-)

    Being an edge-of-Pennines girl myself, though from t'other side, I really appreciated that. The scenery and buildings are very much what I grew up with too. One thing that would have been different and rather depressing when Ted Hughes wrote those lines is the colour of the stone. I think we tend to forget in these days of sand-blasted, golden stone, just how dark and dreary buildings looked when so smoke-blackened. The cottage I grew up in looks so different now the stone has been cleaned.

    1. Thanks Perpetua. Annie warned me that once I started on this, I would see blogging opportunities all around me. I am also fascinated by your approach, and now regard following other's accounts of their lives, and interacting with them as somewhat more rewarding than sitting watching TV in the evenings! However, 3 posts in 3 days means I am going to have a rest for a while and catch up on other people's posts. I certainly agree about the sand blasting. Hughes actually describes the hump backed bridge near the pub as being black...... and obviously, now it isn't.
      Thanks again. J.

  2. I love this post, Janice. I'm quite fascinated by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, so this was a double treat - to read their words and yours.

    I agree with Perpetua about the colour of the stone and how that has changed things so much. I remember the blackness of Bradford before I left for London in 1977. I was glad to leave the city but for the surrounding countryside my fondness for the Pennines was well-established and I found I missed it very much. And when I see and read posts like this, I think I miss it even more!
    Confession: I occasionally check out houses for sale in the UK - and always in this area. I've seen several that I think might tempt me back - though that feeling passes fairly quickly and is more symptomatic of not having found a house here than really wanting to return. Once the children are grown, I may have to indulge in your choice and have two houses - one here and one there! (Note to self - this is a good plan...)

    Excellent stuff, Janice!

    1. I remember being shocked on seeing the Houses of Parliament on TV....yellow and creamy, as opposed to the black that I remembered from my it wasn't just the look of the north that was altered so much by sand blasting.... so yes, I suppose Ted might have a different view now....but then with Sylvia's grave up there on the hillside, having read "Birthday Letters", I suspect he'd still be pretty depressed about things.
      I do hope we can make the 2 homes thing work. I would hate to leave here for good, but I am sure it is actually the people rather than the buildings and landscape that really have the hold. Thanks for your comments Annie... have a good day. Janice x

    2. Definitely not just the north, Janice. I was at Oxford in the mid1960s, when the cleaning of that glorious Cotswold stone was only just beginning. Most of the colleges were pretty black too, id not quite as bad as the industrial north. when I go back there to visit DS, who lives there now, it doesn't look like the same place.

  3. A really excellent post Janice. You write so well, and I really enjoyed reading this one x

  4. Thanks Ayak. I am really loving having conversations across the globe...I feel incredibly privileged to be able to dip into people's lives, as they share what they are doing and thinking about. Its such fun !

    1. She's hooked, you know, folks, definitely hooked. :-)))

    2. no doubt about it P. You and Annie have a lot to answer for.

  5. What a touching, poignant post this is, Janice. I've not studied Ted Hughs, and now mean to rectify that soon. These words here have touched me; both his and yours. I've been on a personal quest to bring more poetry home from the library and this, with these lovely pictures, and the conversation you have started, makes me want more. Thank you.

  6. are in for an amazing treat if you are not familar with Ted Hughes. I envy you if it means discovering some of his work for the first time. I have loved it since I was much much younger, but living in the very place that he and Sylvia spent time got me interested in their story...such a sad one. By the way, I have spent the last couple of hours checking out what I thought were crows nests in the trees near my house, in case they are witch's brooms. J x ( I am pretty sure they are nests though ! )

  7. Hello Janice:
    This is a beguiling post in which you have used the language of Ted Hughes together with your own thoughts and ideas to capture the essence of this most striking of landscapes. This part of England we always think to be somewhat of a chameleon in its ability to be both captivating and yet unforgiving, rather like the relationship between Hughes and Plath themselves. This is a most memorable and thought provoking post.

    Thank you so much for the comment which you left on our recent post and to which we have made reply..

  8. Thanks Jane and Lance...really good to hear from you. I have to admit to having become fascinated by this new ( to me ) world of blogging. Having conversations,across the globe, with people I have discovered through their writing, photography, and general ponderings is a glorious experience. Hope all remains well with you. J

  9. Hi there,
    I just came across your lovely blog and I am looking forward to seeing more. Have a wonderful weekend...Heidi

  10. Good to meet you Heidi, thanks for your comments...hope you have a good weekend too. J.

  11. Just found this excellent post while sitting indulging in some homesickness for Yorkshire. Was sitting in the Stubbing Wharfe and walking up the Buttress to visit Sylvia Plath's grave this May, a month before the flood. Can't wait to come back! Trying to find a cunning plan to split our lives between Hebden Bridge and our home here in the US, admire the way you've managed to pull your living arrangement off. We're English and lived in Bradford during the 70s and early 80s. Never thought back then that Yorkshire would be the part of England I'd miss the most.....

    1. Thanks so much for your generous comments Jill. I love Hebden Bridge, and know that although I am loving living in the south of France, having a home base here in Yorkshire is really important. I dont know where you are in the US. but I am pretty sure that wherever it is, the call of Yorkshire can still be strong. I hope you managed to find Sylvia Plath's is hidden away, and not easy to track down unless you know exactly where to look. Anyway, thanks for "dropping by". very best wishes, Janice.

    2. Yes, we did find her grave despite Heptonstall keeping it as obscure as possible! We were with a friend from Hebden who knew someone who lives at the end of the row of cottages right by the graveyard and she led us to it. She says people are often to be seen wandering hopelessly around, useless guide book in hand. Lovely walk down through the woods afterwards, I love that view across to Stoodley Pike.

      Thanks for checking out my blog too..... best wishes, Jill