A poet's Yorkshire retreat
Adrian Mourby lets himself into the house where Yorkshire's most celebrated poet was born, now a holiday cottage-cum-writer's retreat – and hopes for inspiration.
Sunday 31 August 2008
Iovershot at first, missing the turn into Zion Terrace entirely and zooming up past the clog factory. Prevented by high stone walls from turning round, I soon found myself on top of Yorkshire moorland, iridescent green in the afternoon sun. So this was where Gerald Hughes took his younger brother camping, smoking out weasels and shooting rabbits. I executed a cautious turn and swung back down the tree-lined lane into the narrow cotton town of Mytholmroyd.
Zion Terrace led to Aspinall Place, and on the corner I saw a light blue plaque recording the fact that the Poet Laureate Ted Hughes was born at No 1, recently opened as a writers' retreat. Here I met Eric, the curator of Ted Hughes's birthplace. He was a solid, softly spoken man who, throughout our tour of the small millstone grit end-terrace, referred to the late poet as "Ted".
I was fascinated to see what lay behind the lilac half-glazed door. Would this be a painstaking re-creation of the kind of house lived in by a joiner, his wife, two sons and daughter in the 1930s? I really didn't fancy pulling up a tin bath in front of the fire that evening. But what I found was much more National Trust holiday cottage than National Trust heritage site. A leather sofa and armchair sat on a neutral Berber twist carpet, facing a flame-effect fireplace that was more 1930s Mayfair than 1930s Mytholmroyd.
"We've tried to nod in the direction of the 1930s without turning it into a museum," said Eric. Only the dining table and chairs did I recognise from a childhood of visiting great-aunts. Aunties Mary, Zoe and Millie all purchased leafed tables like that between the wars. A few sepia photos were dotted around, including one on the mantel of "Ted 1938" in V-neck school sweater, possibly the last time he ever smiled for a photo.
Eric showed me the new kitchen – fully fitted with gorgeous black marble work surfaces and pointed out where the tin bath used to be kept. (It's now the built-in washing machine.) He then took me up the steep stairs to the bathroom (formerly the bedroom of Ted's sister Olwen) and the main bedroom where Ted was born. Like the rest of the house it had that smell of Ikea newness. The bed was a Victorian brass reproduction, but there was also one of those awful vanity units made of thin polished plywood and tall bevelled mirrors. My mother inherited one, a comparatively gorgeous thing that allowed me to see myself from three angles simultaneously and thereby create a triptych to adolescent self-absorption.
This conversion by Zoe Holmes had got the tone of place about right given the nearly impossible brief: create a holiday cottage-cum-shrine-cum-writers' retreat. As soon as Eric had gone, I moved the family photos aside and unpacked my laptop. I had a few hours before a dinner party that evening. I could start work on the novel which I had thought finished a year ago but which has been waking me up in the wee small hours demanding rewrites ever since. Here, without phone, wife or Wi-Fi to distract me, I hoped I could finally get to grips with it. I might also get some help from the ghost of young Ted.
It took a while to unearth the various Word documents, by which time I was feeling tired from the long drive. I sat down on the huge leather sofa, and when I woke it was to a tap on the front door. Sheila from the Elmet Trust had arrived, bringing with her the poet Glyn Hughes, no relation but a friend of Ted's, who was guest speaker at the dinner that night. I had arrived on the poet's birthday, hence the dinner.
The trust wants to promote the local connection with Ted Hughes through ventures such as the writers' retreat. They chose the name Elmet because, in his later years, Ted insisted that Calderdale was part of Elmet, the last Celtic kingdom in England. As I went upstairs, I heard Glyn expressing reservations about 1 Aspinall Street. He remembered it as boxlike and unprepossessing. "There was nothing organic about that house."
While Glyn and his wife took the car, Sheila and I walked down together to the church hall where the Elmet Trust dinner was being held. As we passed over the Rochdale Canal, Sheila pointed out where young "Teddy" Hughes and his friends used to smash the windows of an empty factory, an act he commemorated in the poem "Under the World's Wild Rims".
The dinner was a jolly occasion. I found myself seated next to Donald Crossley who had been in the gang of four boys who had smashed the factory windows. The two men had remained in touch. Glyn gave a great speech, readily admitting how much he had been influenced by what he called Ted's "Pennine gloom". Poetry for Ted was not a profession. It was a vocation. "Ted would never have given an after-dinner speech," Glyn told us with a twinkle in his eye. ""He would see it as too frivolous a waste of literary energy".
As the wine flowed I was emboldened to ask what Hughes's friends thought of Daniel Craig's performance in the film Sylvia. There were some sharp remarks about Craig's mispronunciation of Mytholmroyd (say: MY-thom-roid), then Donald fixed me with his unsteady eye.
"You know what I thought? Nothing. There is only one man who can play Ted, only one man who looks like him and can read his poetry like him and that is ... Simon Armitage."
The meal broke up only when the designated drivers had had enough. The rest of us were having a great time. I woke up the next morning with a dry throat as the refuse cart beeped a series of victory laps around "the plot", a recreation area in front of Aspinall Place.
There was very little for breakfast apart from chocolate chip cookies and instant coffee (I'd forgotten this was a self-catering cottage), so I switched on my laptop and decided to go for a short walk before settling down and editing the magnum opus. I was just out of the door when Donald rang me on my mobile to check that we were still on to look at Ted Hughes sights around the village that afternoon. I had forgotten our late-night undertaking but thanked him nevertheless.
My walk started in light drizzle. Scout Rock had disappeared into the mist. I passed Wakeleys, the UK's biggest clog manufacturer, a large industrial building in millstone grit and urgent need of restoration. Next to it stood Sutcliffe Farrar, a company that still produces men's trousers. Ted's mother, Edith Farrar, was a seamstress and a relation of the owner'. The en-suite shower off my bedroom used to be her workroom.
Returning to 1 Aspinall, I once again approached my laptop. Sylvia Plath once wrote: "I wonder if, shut in a room, I could write for a year." All I had to do, relieved of the pressures of domestic life and company, was to write for one day at a time. However, it struck me that first I really ought to log on and check that there were no editors demanding to know where the hell I was. So I pulled on my waterproof again and went into town in search of the only local internet connection. Rumour had it that there was Wi-Fi at the Dusty Miller pub, but this was shut. By now it was raining heavily so I picked up a takeaway lunch from the tiny local Sainsbury's and marched back against the brewing storm. Rain was overwhelming the gutters and a lorry moving at speed sent a spray of grey water over me and my little orange plastic bag.
No wonder Ted moved away, I muttered to myself.
In the afternoon, however, things improved. Just as I was faced with no choice but to get down to work, Donald arrived in shorts ready to take me round the village and up to The Heights, a road that runs at the top of the surrounding hills. Since his retirement from a local clothing factory, Donald has devoted himself to tracking down every local reference in Ted Hughes's poetry. "There are 27 poems set in Mytholmroyd alone," he explained as we walked down Zion Place. "All of them this side of the river."
Donald has been corresponding with Gerald, Ted's older brother, who now lives in Australia. Together they have worked out the exact geographical location of just about every reference in the early poems. Donald carries detailed maps with him that show where the Hughes boys camped, where Ted shot his first rat in a pig oile (pigsty) and where the Bessie House (a sweet shop) stood. He could even demonstrate the exact geographical meaning of every line in the very personal poem "Two". Emory University in the United States, which owns all the Hughes manuscripts, should buy Donald B Crossley and spend some time downloading him into their literary database.
And now the sun came out at last and I began to understand why this landscape meant so much to Ted Hughes. As we descended from The Heights, Donald pointed to a kestrel hawk paused over the landscape. "That's Ted, watching over us. I hoped he'd be here."
I came back to 1 Aspinall Place refreshed and keen to read more Hughes. I even felt I was ready now to finish the revisions on that novel – after writing this piece for The Independent on Sunday, of course.
How to get there
1 Aspinall Place can be booked through Yorkshire Cottages (01228 406701; yorkshire-cottages.info). "Ted's House" (cottage reference: 212144) costs from £250 per week.
The Ted Hughes Festival takes place in Mytholmroyd 22-28 October. For tickets and information go to theelmettrust.com
Hebden Bridge Visitor Centre (01422 843831). Or visit yorkshire.com.
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