Ted Hughes and Heptonstall: ‘Only the rain never tires’.
By Dr Diane Fare
In his introduction to Elmet (1994), Ted Hughes writes of coming ‘to consciousness’ in the Calder Valley in the 1930s, and the poems that accompany Fay Godwin’s haunting photographs of the valley evoke the ‘spectacular desolation’, and the ‘grim sort of beauty’ that captivated the young Ted Hughes. Hughes was born on 17 August 1930 in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, and spent the first eight years of his life there, before the family moved to Mexborough, South Yorkshire. In 1952, whilst studying at Cambridge University, his parents moved back to the Calder Valley, to The Beacon, a house situated at the top of Heptonstall village. Hughes returned to Heptonstall to stay with his parents throughout the 50s, taking his wife Sylvia Plath to visit, after their marriage in 1956. In autumn 1956, Hughes was living with his parents in Heptonstall, and writing to Plath, who was studying for her MA in Cambridge. His letters detail his attempts at writing a TV play, poems, and contain critiques of Plath’s poetry, but they also afford the reader a glimpse of his life in Heptonstall. He describes walks in Hardcastle wood, reading Yeats on the moor, and the ‘spectacle’ of the weather, which becomes a theme in his many letters to Plath: ‘Its been raining and blowing and sunning all at once, all day, with the most incredible huge crowded brilliant skies’. In another letter he writes: ‘It is strange here just now – bright sunlight on all the fields and yet heavy rain hammering the windows’. More than twenty years later, this fascination with the brooding landscape and the unsettled weather of the Calder Valley manifested itself magnificently in Hughes’ poetic responses to Godwin’s black and white photographs of the Calder Valley.
Hughes returned to Cambridge in November 1956, where he lived with Plath until the end of her exams in Spring 1957. The couple then stayed at The Beacon with Hughes’ parents until their departure for America in June 1957. In a letter to his brother, dated May 1957, Hughes writes of the ‘happy life Sylvia and I lead’, and of how when they become ‘fed up’ of writing and critiquing each other’s work, they ‘walk out into the country and sit for hours watching things’. The couple remained in the States until 1960, and upon returning to England settled in London, where their first child, Frieda, was born in April 1960. The family visited The Beacon in August 1960 for what Hughes called ‘A necessary holiday’ in a letter to Plath’s mother and stepfather. He describes enjoying the ‘enormous blissful silence’ of this ‘most beautiful spot in England’. ‘The silence here is overpowering – because the hills seem to embody it – you can see it – everything is spellbound by it’.
Hughes and Plath moved from London to Devon in 1961, and in January 1962 their son, Nicholas, was born. By the end of the year they were separated, and on 11th February 1963 Plath committed suicide in her London flat. She was buried in Heptonstall graveyard on 18th February. The site of, and inscription on, Plath’s gravestone has proved controversial over the years. In a letter printed in the Guardian in April 1989, two academics complained that Plath’s grave was hard to find and poorly looked after, and suggested that the Plath Estate had been neglecting its duty of care. Hughes responded angrily, explaining that the gravestone had been vandalised four times, by people levering the name Hughes off the gravestone and removing pebbles and shells brought from Devon. It would appear that no attempts have been made to remove the name Hughes from Plath’s gravestone for a number of years. The publication of Birthday Letters, in 1998, just nine months before his death, helped counter some of the Hughes-Plath mythology that emerged in the years following Plath’s suicide.
Hughes spent the years following Plath’s death in Devon and Ireland. By Spring 1967 his parents were more or less permanent residents in Devon due to his mother’s ill-health. In March 1969, his lover Assia Wevill killed herself and their four year old daughter, and two months later, Hughes’ mother, Edith, died on 13 May 1969. On the day of his mother’s funeral, Hughes made a successful offer to buy Lumb Bank, a large property on the hillside just below his parents’ house. He moved in with his children Frieda and Nicholas, and his lover Brenda Hedden and her children, but Hughes failed to settle at Lumb Bank and returned to Devon with Heddon in 1970. Hughes married Carol Orchard, the daughter of a Devon farmer in August 1970. In January 1974 he began to renovate Lumb Bank in order to lease it to the Arvon Foundation, a creative writing organisation that he had been involved with almost from its start in 1968. Lumb Bank became Arvon’s second centre (the first was in Devon) in 1975.
Whilst the leasing of Lumb Bank, and the sale of his parents’ house in 1975, marked the end of Hughes’ residency in Heptonstall, the Calder Valley remained a source of fascination and poetic inspiration. In a letter to the photographer Fay Godwin, dated July 1976, he articulates his desire to capture a sense of the Calder Valley he grew up in, and he describes how what fascinates him is ‘The collision of the pathos of the early industrial revolution – that valley was the cradle of it – with the wildness of the place.’ He also recognises the legacy of the First World War on the Calder Valley and its inhabitants: ‘I grew up with the feeling that all those buildings were monuments to a great age and a great generation which was somehow in the past … And as that generation finally died off … the whole region just fell to bits, the buildings collapsed, the walls collapsed, the chapels were sold for scrap and demolished, likewise the mills … But that only makes what there still remains even more poignant for me’. This poignancy is beautifully realised in Hughes’ collaborative project with Godwin, Remains of Elmet (1979). The book, revised and republished as Elmet in 1994, celebrates the landscape, and its ‘survivors’. These ‘survivors’ are commemorated in the poem ‘Crown Point Pensioners’. Crown Point is the very top of Heptonstall village, where two benches are situated on a small mound of earth, and as such affords stunning views of the valley below, and across to Stoodley Pike. The Beacon is the first house one encounters after Crown Point, and thus it is not difficult to imagine that the view one gazes upon is the same view that captivated a young Ted Hughes in the 1950s. Here, on the benches, sit the ‘Crown Point Pensioners’, with their ‘Old faces, old roots./Indigenous memories/. … Singers of a lost kingdom.’
All correspondence is quoted from Letters of Ted Hughes, ed. Christopher Reid, London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2007.
Elmet, London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1994.
The Elmet Trust celebrates the life and work of Ted Hughes. Visit theelmettrust.co.uk
See also John Billingsley’s A Laureate’s Landscape: Walks around Ted Hughes’ Mytholmroyd, Northern Earth, 2007.