A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Remains Of Elmet

Broad track on the open moor.

Encouraged by one or two others (thanks George and Ruth!) I've decided to try to put together a collection of short travel essays on my experience of walking the Camino. I intend using some of my former blog posts as a starting point, then reshaping and extending them. I'll also be adding completely new pieces. Leafing through some of my old writings today, I came across this account of a walk I did in Yorkshire's Calder Valley. I hadn't seen it for ages, so I thought I'd give it another airing.  

Remains Of Elmet

The Calder Valley in the South Pennines forms part of the old Celtic kingdom of Elmet. It's the birthplace of Ted Hughes, and the place to which he returned constantly throughout his life. Read anything from his collection, Remains Of Elmet, and you are immediately transported to this land of sodden moorlands and ancient trackways, bubbling curlews and blackened gritstone; a harsh, brooding landscape littered with deserted cotton mills and abandoned hill farms.

Heptonstall hunkers down on the high buttress above Hebden Bridge. It was here I began my walk one cold and misty February morning. But not before exploring Heptonstall itself — an authentic example of a hand-weaving village from the pre-industrial era. Much like a mini-Haworth, in fact, but without the tourists and the commercial tat. Terraced rows of houses, faced with blackened stone blocks, slope down to a churchyard wrapped in peaceful, Gothic gloom and paved with gravestones laid end-to-end like a mosaic. There are two churches almost side-by-side: the Victorian New Parish Church of St Thomas the Apostle, and the atmospheric ruin of the earlier Church of St Thomas à Becket — built around 1260, destroyed by storm in 1847 and condemned by the itinerant preacher, John Wesley, as 'the ugliest church I know'. However, even in its derelict state, it's still a lot prettier than the octagonal Methodist Chapel (designed by Wesley in 1764) which lies marooned in the architectural warp and weft of numerous gritstone weavers' cottages. Before leaving, I sought out the grave (second row in the new churchyard) of the neurasthenic poetic genius, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963. The headstone, inscribed by her husband, Ted Hughes, reads:

  Even Amidst Fierce Flames The Golden Lotus Can Be Planted.

Sylvia Plath's grave.

Pondering this quotation from the great, allegorical Chinese folk novel, Monkey, written in the sixteenth century by Wu Ch'Eng-en, and delighting in the wonderful strangeness of its setting among the scores of conventional Christian epitaphs, I turned my back on the village and scampered down a steep, rocky bridleway (the Calderdale Way) to a stone packhorse bridge spanning Hebden Water. On the eastern bank an entertaining riverside path followed a frothy, rust-coloured and dipper-haunted stream, which was enlivened by weirs now and then, and pacified by mill ponds. The next landmark was Gibson Mill. This was a cotton mill — built by Abraham Gibson in 1800 — which employed mainly women and children. Despite the installation of a steam engine, boiler and chimney in the 1860s, manufacturing ceased in the 1890s due to unreliable water flow and competition from much larger mills in the Calder Valley. After the mill, a short woodland stretch rose to Hardcastle Crags, a beauty spot popular with Victorian excursionists.

Gibson Mill near Hardcastle Crags.

Emerging from the trees, a remote lane wound over a culvert where a beck tumbled down into Rowshaw Clough. Just before Walshaw Farm the call of birds suddenly filled the silence. Finches twittered and swooped, and a party of fieldfares flew off chacking madly, their grey rumps prominent. From the moorland above a solitary grouse croaked loudly. Close by the farm I made a right-angled turn up a muddy walled track and headed through tussocky intake fields towards higher ground. I contoured round Shackleton Knoll alongside an enclosing stone wall until a gate led on to the moor itself. This was the high point of the walk in every sense. The sun was now out, illuminating high mooorland and intake pastures, and burning off the tendrils of mist which still lingered in the valley of Crimsworth Dean beyond. I rested a while on this soggy bump between the two valleys, and enjoyed the sun, the view, the silvery gleam of Gorple Lower Reservoir to the west. There are many places higher, many places more remote, many places more obviously spiritual; but for me, today, this was a contemplative viewpoint of space and freedom.

And so I went down again into the Vale, as go down we must, and met the first walkers of the day, who were struggling up the hill I now descended. The route back led through Crimsworth Dean and past a stand of tall Scots Pine trees, which clung to the steep slopes above the beck. I remembered how Lord Savile had given this woodland to the National Trust in 1951; and how, a few years later, he and the local people had scuppered plans to flood this valley and turn it into a reservoir. Eventually, after taking a minor road by Spring Wood, then following a lovely riverine path strewn with moss-covered stumps and stones, I reached another packhorse bridge and, finally, the delightfully scruffy backstreets of Hebden Bridge. These were lined with factories and new developments — and also with tiny, terraced houses, dark inside, but on the outside hung with wind chimes and festooned with plant pots placed on old, rescued, treadle-driven spinning machines. This textile town has a claustrophobic, gritty charm: rough, unmodernised pubs, sixties-style signage, no McDonalds — thankfully — in sight. But the relentless economic decline over the years has been oddly reversed by a kind of latter-day New Age flowering. The shops are chock-full of candles, tarot decks and occult books; and artistically printed cards in newsagents' windows advertise courses in reiki, shiatsu and meditation.

Reluctantly tearing myself away from this hippie settlement, with its stone setts and its Little Theatre, its shabby Rochdale Canal (where Ted Hughes used to net loach as a boy) and its grey wagtails bobbing on the now non-poisonous River Calder, I returned by bus up the steep hill to Heptonstall in the mid-afternoon sun, and looked down through the bus window at Hebden Bridge in the valley below. I saw rows and rows of terraced houses striating the hillside, home-factories (three, four, five-storied and many-windowed for maximum light) in which women used to turn wool into the yarn and cloth that was conveyed originally by packhorse, then later by canal boat, to the merchants in the piece halls of Halifax. At least I could see the place — a hundred years ago it would have been hidden by a vast, toxic pall of smoke generated by the cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution.

Five hours had passed and I was sitting once more on a wooden bench in Heptonstall's old churchyard and listening to the chattering jackdaws, thinking about literary and industrial heritage, and of what Ted Hughes had written about this very spot:

A great bird landed here.
Its song drew men out of rock,
Living men out of bog and heather.

Its song put a light in the valleys
And harness on the long moors.

Its song brought a crystal from space
And set it in men's heads.

Then the bird died.

Its giant bones
Blackened and became a mystery.

The crystal in men's heads
Blackened and fell to pieces.

The valleys went out.
The moorland broke loose.

Heptonstall Old Church from Remains Of Elmet by Ted Hughes.

Heptonstall Old Church.

(All images sourced from Wikimedia Commons)


George said...

Beautifully written, Robert, and throughly enjoyable, especially for those of us who love to see landscape and poetry dance with one another. I think you've found a worthy entry for the beginning of your new collection of travel essays.

Ruth said...

This is rich and melodic, a perfect start out the door. Exciting! Now I have another request: Include photos in the collection, even if they are small. I love how you described everything, and the references to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath are moving. I'm very touched by the photo of her grave, and the epitaph. That tub of pens! I imagine that it is for writers who have been inspired by Plath to contribute their own pens, a gorgeous bouquet. But even if you don't include photographs, your descriptions are more than vivid enough, with history, culture, and your own thoughts and feelings to color the landscape. Just wonderful.

Dominic Rivron said...

It says something about living in West Yorkshire (well, about what I felt about living there) that a trip to Sylvia Plath's grave was considered a fun afternoon out.

Bill said...

Jackdaws are my favourite bird -the crow family are really clever. There are loads of them in Hebden Bridge for some reason.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

Dominic — try visiting Heptonstall and that graveyard when it's raining. Now, that's a really fun day out!