A village of myths that dreams of the 'Teddy' Hughes Experience

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The Independent Online

In the West Yorkshire village of Mytholmroyd, it is something of a legend that the local boy who became poet laureate once put a live frog down Betty Lumb's back.

In the West Yorkshire village of Mytholmroyd, it is something of a legend that the local boy who became poet laureate once put a live frog down Betty Lumb's back.

Villages with a richer cultural past will consider the story to be of little consequence. Ted Hughes, or Teddy as his schoolmates knew him, found the frog on the banks of the Rochdale Canal, and Betty, who still lives in the village, now aged 70, was an obvious recipient, because only she was brave enough to throw stones back.

Yet to Donald Crossley, another 70-year-old of their peer group, the story has become a parable of Hughes's intimate link with the village where he was born in 1930. He spent his first eight years and frequently returned to it. "Of course, it was Teddy who had that frog in the first place," said Mr Crossley. "Not me, not Brian, not Betty. From the word go he was different from the rest of us. He had a thing with nature. It all started here."

The fading memories of Mr Hughes's generation and an unremarkable plaque placed a few years ago on the wall of 1 Aspinall Street, the terraced house where Hughes was born, are all the village has to show for Hughes.

But his death last year appears to have changed that, setting Mytholmroyd off in hectic pursuit of the riches of its cultural heritage. After years of contractual wrangling, aboarded-up former railway station is about to be secured as the site for a £200,000 Ted Hughes heritage centre. A local upholstery firm is buying the once elegant, three-storey Victorian property in which the railway pioneer George Steph-enson had an architectural hand. The local library and a bookseller both want to move in.

The heritage lottery fund is understood to like the idea, and money has been raised for a feasibility study. Hughes's widow, Carol, and the universities of Leeds and Cambridge have been engaged in debate on the subject.

Mytholmroyd, which Calderdale council admits has been "passed by" and is in "a bit of a time warp" after the closure of the poultry and textiles firms that were employing hundreds 30 years ago, needs to cash in before others do. Nearby Halifax was feting Hughes last night as his final work, Alcestis, was given its world premiere at the Viaduct Theatre. It was directed by Barrie Rutter, who turned down offers from acouple of international festivals so that he could unveil the piece in the poet's native West Yorkshire.

"My tuning fork is the Calder Valley," the poet told him, a fact to which Mr Rutter attributes the "pithy muscularity" of Hughes's verse.

This is also the county where Hughes buried his first wife, the American-born poet Sylvia Plath, after her suicide in London in 1963. Her grave in the churchyard at Heptonstall is regularly attacked by devotees who have blamed him for her death and hack her married surname off the headstone.

Mr Crossley, who had a more modest 40-year career as a sewing machine mechanic, appears to be a ready-made guide for a Teddy Hughes heritage trail, which will take in the Rochdale Canal tunnel, where the two used curtain nets to fish together, in perpetual fear of pike, the faint outline of a skull and bones that Hughes etched as a boy, and - Mr Crossley's favourite - the site of the Mount Zion Methodist chapel, which Hughes, from his bedroom window, looked out on, and inspired his poem, Mount Zion:

"Blackness Was a building blocking the moors/Darkening the sun of every day/Right to the eleventh hour."

"I can see it all, as if it were yesterday," mused Mr Crossley. "If only other folk would go and talk a look."

Mr Crossley does concede that the obscurities of the former laureate - who "was often above our 'eads in Mytholmroyd" - mean he will not quicken the pulse of every villager. But a consortium of local businessmen, known as Royd Regeneration, is looking beyond this and planning to tap into the army of Americans who visit Howarth, home of the Brontës, 13 miles away. If anything, the grave of Sylvia Plath may be even more of an attraction to the Americans.

"We can't afford to miss this," said Alan Brooks, one of the consortium, who has run a picture-framing business in the village for 20 years. "The centre will recognise an internationally renowned son of the village and help us transform a building which has become an eyesore."

Calderdale council agrees that the "germ of an idea" could work. "The library would like to move in on the ground floor and that could make all the difference as these [heritage] places don't tend to make much money on their own," said a spokesman.

And the newsagent Audrey Adams insists that there are "a lot of arty people in the valley", though she frowns at mention of Hebden Bridge, the artsy, rather delightful town a mile away where money and the tourists have found their way in abundance, leaving Mytholmroyd with a less sophisticated reputation. It is home only to the world dock leaf pudding championships.

Though there did not appear to be an exodus of Mytholmroyd folk up the A646 to Halifax for the premiere of Alcestis last night, local pride in their lad appears to have reached nearly emotional proportions.

"A room was a better place with Ted in it," said Mr Crossley. "The lad didn't know it but he had this presence. He once said to me: "Donald, those first years in Mytholmroyd framed the rest of my life."

And if the consortium succeeds, the poet may posthumously be about to return the favour. In the future this could be Hughes Country in every sense of the words.

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