Heptonstall is a little village on a steep hill in the Yorkshire Calder Valley 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ted Hughes hailed from down the road in Mytholmroyd 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 those 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
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.