Heptonstall, Yorkshire: Rest in Peace, Sylvia Plath and an 18th century counterfeiting conspiracy

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Heptonstall is a little village on a steep hill overlooking the lively, Bohemian town of Hebden Bridge. The ascent from Hebden valley is not for the faint-hearted; from the comfort of my seat on the bus I watched with admiration as we overtook those who rose to the occasion and ascended on foot. I reflected with a mixture of pity and awe on how the pack horses of yesteryear must have faced that steep climb to the weavers’ cottages before the arrival of the waterwheels which would later power the multitude of mills which sprang up in the region.

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The middle of the village still has its original cobbled streets. The old cottages are quirky; artistic flair oozes out of the very mortar. Like Hebden Bridge in the valley below, Heptonstall has reinvented itself, with many residents having moved there to live the rural idyll in an ancient stone cottage . On the periphery of the village are newer, more affordable housing developments. Old village in the new; new village in the old. This is a reinterpreted 21st century English village with a lot of history.

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Just off Northgate is the octagonal Methodist chapel, famed as the oldest in the world in continuous use. It is a venue for social occasions and arts events as well as religious worship. A plaque proudly announces that Rev John Wesley, the founder of Wesleyan Methodism, preached there in 1786. Nobody was around when I visited, so I sat for a while enjoying the view of the valley.

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The old former grammar school has been turned into a small but interesting museum which houses some fascinating items such as the headmaster’s desk and tables etched with the names of naughty school boys who sat in that classroom 200 years earlier, now probably old bones in the adjacent graveyard.

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Heptonstall has two parish churches: the original, dedicated to St. Thomas a Becket, was built in the 13th century. During a ferocious storm in 1847, part of the building was badly damaged, and although repairs were made it was decided that a new church would be built.   The present church of St. Thomas the Apostle stands just metres away at the other side of the graveyard. The shell of the old church is a special place for me; a peaceful spot where I love to sit and listen to the gentle sounds of life and experience a sense of timelessness amongst the pillars and glassless windows. The clock face was removed and reinstalled in the new church; here time stands still.

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Ancient tomb stones, crooked and with inscriptions now faded, stretch out between the old church and the new. One marks the grave of ‘King David’ Hartley, the leader of the infamous ‘Coiners’, a gang of counterfeiters who outsmarted the authorities for years. The Coiners supplemented their incomes as weavers through a dodgy scheme which involved scraping tiny amounts of gold from around the edges of genuine coins then milling the edges again and returning the coins to general circulation. When they had enough gold shavings they would produce fake coins in their own moulds and embellish them with usually Portuguese designs which apparently were accepted as legal tender in England at the time. After many failed attempts to capture the gang, a public official bribed a member to give up the leaders. ‘King David’ was hanged. The Cragg Vale Coiners, as they were known, are a big part of local popular culture.

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The newer part of the church yard is the reason for so many visitors here; it is the resting place of celebrated American poet, Sylvia Plath, who tragically took her own life in 1963, aged just 30. Sylvia struggled against depression for most of her life and made several suicide attempts, finally succeeding after her husband, former poet laureate Ted Hughes, left her.

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Ted and Sylvia in happier times

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Ted Hughes hailed from down the road in Mytholmroyd village, and the couple lived in the area for a short time. ‘Heptonstall – Black village of grave stones’ has been immortalised in Hughes’ poem. A similar bleakness is portrayed in Sylvia Plath’s ‘November Graveyard’, where she conjures a morose scene of ‘skinflint trees’ that ‘hoard last year’s leaves’. For sure, dark winter could move the soul to melancholy here, but on this May day the sun is strong, and branches are adorned with lush leaves and pink blossom.

Heptonstall church yard has become something of a pilgrimage site for Sylvia Plath’s global admirers who come to pay their respects to one of the 20th century’s greatest poets. Over the years there have been attempts to chip off the name Hughes by admirers who blame her husband for Sylvia’s suicide. The grave does not stand out amongst its neighbours or announce its celebrity status. The epitaph reads:

                               Even amongst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted

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Chosen by Ted Hughes, these words are open to interpretation. Many think they refer to Sylvia’s struggle to thrive and bloom amongst the destructive force of her mental illness. The words are taken from one of the most celebrated Chinese works of literature, Monkey: Journey to the West and originate in a passage from the Hindu holy scripture, the Bhagavid Gita.

Whether ‘the west’ be India, the destination of the magical characters in the Chinese novel; a little church yard in the west of Yorkshire, or a goal at the end of a more personal journey, it is also where the sun sets at the end of each day, and what a perfect place to see it dip, below the Calder valley.

Hebden Bridge

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Hebden Bridge is one of my favourite places and I’m not alone. I have never met any visitor who has not been absolutely charmed by this quirky, cool little market town in west Yorkshire. Hebden Bridge sits in the upper Calder valley, 8 miles to the west of Halifax. It grew up around the pack horse route from Burnley to Halifax where it passed through the valley and over the bridge that crossed Hebden Water. Fast flowing water, lots of Yorkshire rain and a plentiful supply of wool from ample local flocks meant that the region was ideal for weaving, first by hand loom workers in their cottages and later in the many water-powered mills which sprung up.

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For centuries, textiles and farming used to put the food on most people’s tables in this region, but times change and both industries have declined, completely in the case of weaving.  The area became very run down in the second part of the 20th century, with parts of it being bulldozed. Row upon row of houses stood derelict, but paradoxically it was this availability of housing in a beautiful part of the world which led to a second lease of life. In the 1960s and 70s, hippies, artists, writers and poets moved to Hebden Bridge in large numbers, giving it the label of the Shangri-la of the north, a paradise for creative types. Alternative lifestyles flourished, and the area was transformed and regenerated.

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Whilst the streets of Hebden don’t actually smell of Nag Champa, the aroma of liberality is definitely detected on the breeze, especially on Market Street, where the vendors of the accoutrements of alternative living have their abodes. Artisans are plentiful, and bespoke hand-crafted items of great beauty fill many of the shops.

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Organic dishes made from locally-sourced produce and colourful and healthy-sounding snacks and smoothies are served in stone courtyards or cosy corners of chic cafes. Tourism is important to the local economy, and there are a lot of pubs, restaurants and cafes for a town of Hebden’s size, many of them catering for diverse tastes and offering healthy and novel choices.

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It can be difficult to find a table at busy times (such as today and most Saturdays) and yet again my plan to feast at the Vegan Kitchen was thwarted by those who got there first. So popular is this newish funky eatery that I have not yet managed to get through the door. That can only be a good sign!

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My other regular spots were also full, and I was all but ready to pop into the Co-op for a sandwich when I decided to try the organic bakery which I had walked past dozens of times but never gone inside. I am so glad I did!

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As well as the bread I went in for, I came away with a supply of vegan cakes and croissants and a meat-free ‘Hebden Cornish’ pasty, which I devoured in the fresh air whilst listening to folk musicians giving it their all in a pub garden. Very tasty it was too! That’s the pasty, not the singers of sea shanties.

Such entertainments are not commonly available, but this weekend is special. Every year, the second weekend in May plays host to the Hebden Grass and Roots Folk Festival. Folk music takes over many of the town’s venues, and Morris dancers and musicians perform for the public.

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I particularly liked this troupe of local ladies in their colourful vintage-style attire.

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Those ’60s hippies and artists – now getting on in years if still youthful in spirit – have stayed on in Hebden Bridge and made their mark, but the demographic has evolved once again to include a more recent influx of professionals who can afford some fresh country air. Leeds and Manchester are both very accessible. They are looking for a place to live a different kind of life. It’s a near-perfect compromise for many: a rural location away from the hustle, bustle, grime and crime of urban sprawl, but a new rurality which embraces 21st century-thinking; an intellectual kind of country life:  organic, fair-trade, open-minded. This is the pull for the creative, artistic, ecologically-inclined, forward-thinking souls who have followed in the footsteps of the 60s pioneers and made the old weavers’ cottages their own.

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Old meets new – and new age. Tradition and innovation seem to meld into this 21st century concept: the happy blending of old place and new lifestyle. This is a very different country life to that which might be found in the more traditional settings of deepest Cumbria, where the land is still the living, where there is no place for sentiment, and ‘organic’ and ‘free range’ are still new-fangled concepts which meet with some derision.

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Hebden Arts Festival is at the end of June – I’ll be back for that! Two years ago, as part of that event the community launched its blue plaque project whereby locals were encouraged to find out who lived in their houses 100 years earlier in 1916. It is so interesting to see some of the ‘plaques’ in the windows of shops and houses, celebrating residents of yesteryear.

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I wonder what those folks would make of the town now….

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Roundhey Park, Leeds – and hurrah! Monty’s back!

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There is always something special about Friday nights. Unless I am out and about, I spend the evening at home, unwinding and easing into the weekend, usually with music, my favourite candles, my favourite incense, my favourite red wine, and a good book or film.

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You will have noticed the word favourite cropping up a few times, and that’s because Friday nights are a celebration: a veil between the frenetic world of work where I spend most of my waking hours on somebody else’s clock, and those two long days which are mine and when I can (usually) do exactly as I please. The perfect end to a Friday night is falling into my bed and NOT setting the alarm. Bliss!

For about half of the year another little bit of magic is woven into the Friday night mix, and this week it returned after its winter absence. I’m writing here about Mr Monty Don and Gardeners’ World.monty 2

Like most people, I love a nice garden and am lucky enough to have a little green spot of my own, though I’m no Carol Klein, and mother nature herself is head gardener at my place!

I had no interest in gardening programmes until about two years ago when one Friday evening (of course!) I found myself so relaxed on the sofa that I didn’t want to move to change the TV channel when Gardeners’ World started. A very strange and wonderful thing happened: I found myself completely absorbed in a very sensory way into the programme: the melodic and soothing voices of the presenters; the vibrant colours of the flowers; the lush foliage; birdsong; the camera focusing on the minutiae of the humming pond insects, bees and the butterflies, not to mention Nell and Nigel, Monty’s gorgeous golden retrievers padding along the ornate paving at Long Meadow. It was like a mental massage! I found myself switching on every week, not to learn about herbaceous borders or pruning, but to be soothed into the weekend by this horticultural answer to whale sounds! You may laugh, but I love it!

My own garden shows few signs of the arrival of spring after another week of snow and frost, but Monty is back, so spring is official, and Friday nights now have that extra added treat. Last night Monty took shelter from the snow in his potting shed and told us about some of his plans for the months ahead. One of his grand botanical designs is for a paradise garden which immediately brought to mind one of my own favourite northern gardens. In anticipation of a hopefully glorious summer, and in defiance of the clinging on of winter, I’d like to share some photographs of  Roundhey Park in Leeds, a lovely bit of Yorkshire.

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Roundhey Park is just a few minutes’ drive outside the centre of Leeds. It is well known as an open air concert venue, but I know it best as a gorgeous green space that I like to spend time in whenever I visit a friend who lives nearby.

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Roundhey has several themed gardens and these change year on year. I love this, as it means there is always something new to see on every visit. One of my favourites is the canal garden, a permanent feature.

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I live along the route of the Leeds Liverpool Canal and have a great interest in our former industrial waterways. Here, the Canal runs through Roundhey Park and has been turned into a serene water feature. I have enjoyed many a picnic on one of those benches.

The waterwheel is not original but is the centrepiece of another area of the gardens.

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I love wildflowers and Roundhey does not disappoint!

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Probably my favourite garden is the Alhambra, and I was very excited to learn that Monty is planning something very similar at Long Meadow.

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The world is a warmer and more hospitable place today than earlier this week, and Monty’s arrival on my screen has inspired me to get out into my little garden this weekend, if only to tidy up and prepare for new beginnings. Fare thee well cold winter! The wheel has turned again…

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Bronte Country – Haworth, Yorkshire

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The moors seen at a distance, broken into cool, dusky dells, but close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze.” Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte.

The first time I read Wuthering Heights I was thirteen years old. It was unlike anything else I had read before, and I was mesmerised. It was not an easy read, containing many scenes of brutality and unlikable characters. Brooding northern skies and foreboding moorland are the backdrop to this celebrated story of intense love which survives death. My thirteen-year-old self was captivated by the character of Heathcliff: wronged, maligned; the victim child turned vengeful man and romantic hero. I read it again a decade later and my take on it changed somewhat: the woman saw Heathcliff’s brutality, raw, and minus the romanticised notions of the teenaged girl. I have read Wuthering Heights maybe five times in my life, and on each occasion I have read a different story: time – and living in the world – changes our responses as readers, and language resonates in new ways. One thing that has remained constant, reading after reading, is my sense of the great beauty and power present in the descriptions of the landscape.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420‘My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath.’

”I shall never be there but once more when I die…..and shall remain there forever.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

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‘In summer, Miss Catherine delighted to climb along these trunks, and sit in the branches.’  Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

The Bronte sisters, Emily, Charlotte and Anne, are amongst the best-known authors in English literature. They lived for most of their lives in Haworth, west Yorkshire, where their father was vicar of the parish church. The parsonage was the place where Wuthering Heights was written, and it is clear to see how the surrounding moors and heathland inspired such a dark, gothic and intense story of passion and extremes.

This is not a blog about English literature or even about history; it is, like my others, me sharing with you an experience and my impressions. The Bronte sisters are fascinating characters as writers and as women, and their personal stories hold their own tragedies which are equal to those of some of their characters. The name of Bronte is synonymous with Haworth, but the place has charms of its own to recommend it to visitors.

‘Bronte Country’, as Haworth and its environs is known, has not changed much in appearance since the time of its most well-known residents. It goes without saying that the literary connection attracts visitors from all over the globe; another notable attraction is the restored railway with operational steam trains which pulls in hundreds of 1940s vintage enthusiasts every year (more about them in a future diary entry).

Haworth’s main street (it is actually called Main Street) is home to some lovely shops, amongst them a vendor of occult services, a lovely tea room and various arts and crafts gift shops. The Cookhouse is a friendly attractive café which offers a good range of veggie/vegan/gluten free lunch options. It can be hard to get in anywhere at busy times as Haworth is essentially a one-street village; it can be a bit frustrating, but better that than sacrificing its character on the altar of commerce.

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The cobbled length of Main Street rises at a fairly steep gradient towards the Parish Church of St Michael and All Angels. This newer building has replaced the original church where Reverend Bronte presided. I was a tad disappointed when I realised that it was not possible to see the Bronte tomb. A plaque indicates the place where the family lies buried below this newer building, which was raised above the level of the old . Anne Bronte is buried not with her sisters at Haworth Church, but at Scarborough, where she died whilst on holiday, hoping that the sea air would  restore good health. The tragedy of it all………. You couldn’t make it up! (OK, you could.)

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Haworth parsonage is situated close to the church and now serves as the Bronte Museum. Sadly, I can’t show any photographs of the interior or exhibits, as photography is not allowed and this rule is strictly enforced by the vigilant staff there. Some of the family’s original furniture has been purchased by the Museum (at great expense) and has been set up as it was thought to have been when the family lived there. The couch upon which Emily died is in situ in the front parlour, which is where the sisters are said to have shared their ideas and written their novels at the table. Some of the exhibits are fascinating, including several items of the sisters’ clothing which demonstrates how tiny they were. The place is well worth a visit.

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A narrow path between the museum and church took me to a public footpath leading out into the fields and from there to open moorland. On a windy day beneath a heavy grey sky it is very easy to make a connection to the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. This is a harsh place where the forces of nature rule.

On the way back, I met a beautiful horse whose name I didn’t quite catch when she introduced her splendid teeth to my arm. It was only a slight graze, so no harm done, and it was entirely my own fault for not offering her a treat of some kind – or so I was advised by a fascinating local woman who witnessed the equine assault. Apparently, the horse is usually very sweet. I am certain this is true and that her out-of-character behaviour was the result of the powerful energies of the landscape. After all, even Heathcliff was sweet once………..

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‘On one side of the road rose a high, rough bank, where hazels and stunted oaks, with their roots half exposed, held uncertain tenure.’

‘I wish you were a mile or two up those hills. The air blows so sweetly.’

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte