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A Dark Water - remembering Sylvia Plath in Hebden Bridge


Rachel Pickering reflects on her brooding West Riding valley and how its two great poets might have fared in the town of today

This February sees the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath's death. We're proud in Hebden to host the final resting place of the great poet but I can't help wondering what she'd have made of the fact that she is stuck here for good. The Ted Hughes poem The Stubbing Wharfe is part of the Birthday Letters collection about their years together. It describes their visit to Hebden in the late 50s. This poem is worth a read if you think Hebden has always been the most Guardian-y place in Britain, or if you have forgotten that Zeitgeist was once Jeff the Barbers. Or if you never saw that weird shop on Market Street that sold giant granny knickers (now Organic House).

To someone prone to depression, a valley which is almost permanently dark may not, in mid winter, have seemed a joyous place to put down roots and start a family. Even as Ted Hughes tries to sell to her the idea of setting up home here, it's clear that he loathes the place too. It wasn't New England; it certainly wasn't literary London or even the slightly more temperate Devon where the couple eventually settled. It was small town Yorkshire, the original version, without lesbians (not official ones anyway), funky shops or cappuccino to soften the raw wind. Whatever glamour and success they'd known so far, it looked like Hebden was having none of it. In the gloom she quietly cries and he sips his Guinness: the place is claustrophobic and moribund.

Half way through the poem he has a kind of epiphany. Ironically, cheap housing is his trump card: "Elizabethan, marvellous, little kingdoms, going for next to nothing". But they were still a few years too early for the arrival of hippies in the late '60s, also drawn here by the cheap mill housing. Perhaps just ten years later the pair of them could have been part of some artist commune or done poetry readings on Open Mic Night just upstairs from the "gummy bar" where they sat.

Houses are a bit more expensive now, but anyone trying to persuade a reluctant partner to move here these days would have a whole arsenal of other attractions at their fingertips. An artist as well as poet, Sylvia Plath was made for contemporary Hebden Bridge. He could have nudged her towards the Handmade Parade or taken her to a Polish piano recital. If they had waited a few more years they could have avoided the Stubbing Wharf altogether and stopped off at the Trades Club for a bit of Cabaret Heaven.

Would any of this have helped? Samba bands in the ruined mills? Circle dancing in the abandoned chapels? Reiki? It's nice to think that now we could offer something more than a black nothing. But lately that old menace has started to creep back uninvited. Flood waters bubbling up from the drains, closing down cafes and wine bars, seem to be saying "stop showing off". Stinking mud is trying to put us back in our place, telling us to stop getting fancy ideas, like a bitter old relative stuck in their ways. Perhaps she could sense this as she sat weeping in the pub. You can dress the place up but some things never change.

Death is not far away throughout the poem. For Hughes, the place in the late 1950s had seen its best years and was nothing but a monument to the vibrant days of the industrial revolution. There is a haunting reference to what lies ahead for her: "A silent wing of your grave went over you" he writes of the moment she glances up towards the hilltops, to a future home. Not the dream house with acres of land that he had in mind, but the Heptonstall grave where she was buried 50 year ago.

Rachel Pickering lives in Hebden Bridge, works locally and has written previously for The Guardian.

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