Heptonstall - Cobblestones, Churches and Sylvia Plath's Grave

Scuba Scribe @raj808
· September 2019 · 8 min read · United Kingdom · #poetry


The village of Heptonstall sits just above Hebdon Bridge in Yorkshire in the UK. Famous as the place of Sylvia Plath's burial, this quaint village has remained virtually unchanged in 200 years. There are no supermarkets cinemas or clubs, and there is only one village shop/post office and two pubs.1 The most recent addition is a cafe where you can get a decent coffee and the quintessential 'fry up' English breakfast.

There are relatively few tourists visiting Heptonstall, partly due to the very steep road up to the village. We took the number 596 bus up to the village from Hebden Bridge, and at times I wasn't sure the bus would make it up the hill. For those who want to brave the drive, there is a car park near to the center of the village, tucked out of view. The village gives an impression of timelessness. As you walk around the winding streets it feels like you're in medieval times. I found myself imagining the sound of blacksmiths hammering, the smell of horses laboring up the hills and the bustle of weavers carrying cloth down 'the Buttress' to the Calder valley below.

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Heptonstalls earliest appearance in written record dates to 1253 and the village was famous for the industry of hand-loom weaving. The cottages of Heptonstall show evidence of this industry in their larger than normal downstairs windows, perfect for letting light in to work by before electricity.2

The village also attracts many visitors due to its literary heritage. Former poet laureate, Ted Hughes was born and raised in nearby Mytholmroyd and his parents later moved to Heptonstall where they lived out their retirement. Both his parents and his american poet wife, Sylvia Plath were buried in the church graveyard.

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During the spring of 1957 Ted and Sylvia stayed in Heptonstall with Hughes’ parents before departing for America in June of the same year. In a letter to his brother Hughes wrote of the ‘happy life Sylvia and I lead’, and of how when they became bored of writing and critiquing each other’s work, they'd walk out into the country and sit for hours watching things’.3

I own books of poetry by both Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and wrote part of my dissertation as a literary analysis of one of Sylvia Plath's poems. It is easy to see the influence of his Yorkshire upbringing in Ted Hughes poetry.

These stars are the fleshed forebearers
Of these dark hills, bowed like labourers,

And of my blood.

The death of the gnat is a star's mouth: its skin
Like Mary's or Semele's, thin

As the skin of fire:
A star fell on her, a sun devoured her.

Excerpt from Fire-Eater by Ted Hughes

I can imagine a young Hughes staring up at the 'fire-bright' stars from those dark hills. Nature runs through his poetry, along with a dour undercurrent reflecting the sometimes grey Yorkshire character and weather.

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Black village of gravestones

The hill's collapsed skull
Whose dreams die back
Where they were born.

Skull of a sheep
Whose meat melts
Under its own rafters.

Excerpt from Heptonstall by Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath had a tempestuous relationship, with infidelity on Ted's side and deep unhappiness in Sylvia's life. Sylvia documents her decent into clinical depression in her 1963 novel The Bell Jar. Later that year she committed suicide by placing her head in an oven and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning. Ted Hughes later stated that he buried Sylvia at Heptonstall as this was the place of their happiest memories together.

It was a place of force —
The wind gagging my mouth with my own blown hair,
Tearing off my voice, and the sea
Blinding me with its lights, the lives of the dead
Unreeling in it, spreading like oil.

I tasted the malignity of the gorse,
Its black spikes,
The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers.
They had an efficiency, a great beauty,
And were extravagant, like torture.

Excerpt from The Rabbit Catcher by Sylvia Plath

Although not set in Yorkshire, the imagery in Plath's poem The Rabbit Catcher expresses the elemental force and cruelty of nature so well. I would like to think that she was partly inspired by gagging wind and lashing rain of the Yorkshire countryside. The tragic tale of this poet doesn't retract from the charm of the village for me, rather it adds a mystique, and as a published poet myself, I found myself inspired. Although my efforts are woefully inadequate to be placed next to such literary greats, I will nonetheless share what came to me wandering around Heptonstall that day.

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Saint Thomas' church bones scattered,
granite collar shattered by errant gales,
fallen like angels feral on the carcase,
shriven in night's embrace.

Graves grazed by sheep,
stone licked clean of salt -
bleached ash grey
by the day's sun-shower.

Lightening strikes

the bell tolls,
calling the faithful
to witness new birth;
and the death of the old.

© Rowan Joyce, all rights reserved.

The old church (pictured above) was damaged by a gale in 1847 and never repaired due to the extent of the damage. However, a new church was built opposite the old one giving the graveyard a really Gothic feel.

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The new church was struck by lightening in 1875, but thankfully no more disasters have befallen the church and graveyard since.

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The village of Heptonstall is a wonderful place for a writer to visit. As you meander through small streets and twisting passageways, its easy to get lost in flights of fancy.

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The feel of the place conjures thoughts of smugglers or highwaymen, and in the graveyard you can find the headstone of infamous counterfeiter, 'King David'.

A local man, David Hartly, was leader of a notorious band of counterfeit coin makers called the Cragg Vale Coiners (check out my last post for more on Cragg Vale). These industrious criminals produced so many high quality fakes, that they nearly succeeded in destabilizing the UK currency. David Hartly, AKA 'King David' was finally caught and hanged by the neck in York in 1770.

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Heptonstall really is a hidden gem of England. So much rich history abounds, and for creative people the various stories inspire the imagination. But it is also a revelation for those of a religious lean. As we were walking back to the bus stop, I spotted a curious building at the lower end of the village.

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This is the oldest Methodist chapel in continual use in the world. Founded in 1742 by Willam Darney, the chapel is modest but beautiful both inside and out.

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I'm not religious myself, but I find the quiet atmosphere of churches and temples fascinating. It's almost as if the centuries of prayer and contemplation have sunk into the bedrock. This small chapel was no exception. It was a perfect end to a busy day wandering to just sit and meditate in this tranquil space, and it was in this atmosphere that I wrote the first draft of the poem in this post.

All in all, I would recommend Heptonstall to any tourist or traveler and especially to those with literary interests. Around every corner there is a new story, down each cobbled street a secret spot to excite and inspire.

All writing in this article is original but I have used some sources to fact check. These sources are linked in the text with numbers and I would like to credit them here for easy reference.

1: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bradford/sense_of_place/heptonstall_1.shtml
2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heptonstall
3: https://heptonstall.org/ted-hughes/


All pictures used in this post are my own property. If you have enjoyed this jaunt around the village of Heptonstall and would like to experience a hike on the peaks of the Yorkshire moors, please do check out my last post - Peaking my Head Above the Clouds.

I would like to tag a few people in this section who I know are poets and are interested in poetry in general. Hopefully they won't see this as spamming as I've known all of these people a while, they all write poetry themselves, and I genuinely think it will interest them. @geke @sunravelme @josediccus @warpedpoetic @poetrybyjeremy @riverflows.

I will be writing another article in this series about interesting places and walks around the area of Hebden Bridge. If you have enjoyed this travel/literature article, I hope you will check out my upcoming work on my homepage @raj808. Thanks for reading.

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Topics: POETRYHISTORYLITERATURE

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