Who was Sylvia?

The acrid scent of turmeric prickles tourist noses, where once sooty coal smoke settled in workers’ lungs.

Grey clouds loom over lofty moors, threatening afternoon rain.

People mill through the lunching hours, questing quinoa, gorging on gluten-free cakes.

Hebden Bridge.

Stone terraced houses and cobbles. Car-lined, quaint narrow streets.

Shops selling crafts and candles and soaps. Garments of pastel-hued linen, to camouflage middle-aged-spread.

And underfoot, amid picnic benches and vegan crumbs, the dirty detritus of overfed birds.

A sign points to a clog mill.

But there’s nary a whippet, nor ferret, nor a homing-pigeon in sight.

Yes, I took against Hebden Bridge.

We plumped for a café beyond its pedestrianised streets.

‘Bulletproof Coffee,’ the board boasted, ‘blended with butter and coconut oil.’

Not for the clear-artery minded.

And as for Turmeric Latte…

We drank tea. Ate home-baked focaccia sandwiches, drowning our hunger in salty oil.

A false trail took us to Mytholmroyd – where I thought Sylvia Plath was buried.

She wasn’t.

Back t’other side of Hebden Bridge, a sharp turn took us up a steep, winding road. To a sign forbidding cars and motorcycles entry to Heptonstall, unless ‘for access.’

Were we entitled to ‘access’?

I drove by.  For miles.

Turning, at last, Ms Satnav pointed me down a grassy track, tipping over the hillside. I switched her off in disgust.

‘Abandon hope,’ we agreed.

But descending, in moods, that vertiginous road, another – unqualified – sign for the village appeared.

And in we drove to Heptonstall.

If the cobbled streets of Hebden were narrow, these were biblical-strait.

We halted on crunchy gravel in a social club’s vast, empty car park. Trudged up a weed-centred track.

And there, at the top, was the church.

Or rather, two churches.

And the graveyard.

Or rather, two graveyards.

We entered the more recent burial ground.

A cluster of humans, heads tilted, stood by the grave we sought.

As we approached, a couple left, smiling. Two men in t-shirts wandered away.

One man remained, perched on a gravestone, which I feared might give way any moment.

His right ear was bent beneath his tweed hat. Smartly dressed, with stripy tie, he also wore a camera.

Guardian of the grave. From Monday to Friday.

‘On Saturdays and Sundays I have other things to do,’ he vouchsafed.

We stood, staring at the headstone.

‘Sylvia Plath’ it read, and, scratched out but visible, ‘Hughes.’

The brown earth was fresh – compost brought by two Pennsylvania women. Small plants came from a poet.

A clean patch on the stone was the only reminder of graffiti removed by the guardian one night, with soap and water.

The name ‘Hughes’ enrages some fans, on Plath’s behalf.

Her husband, Ted Hughes, who decided to bury her here, was a native of nearby Mytholmroyd.

In the cleft of a steep valley, it’s not an intrinsically jolly place – especially in grim weather.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, when Sylvia visited, it would still have been wheezing smoke. Oozing engineering odours. Only dissipated by winds diving off the bleak moors, often bringing rain from Noah’s heights – pointed out by our local expert as afternoon drizzle duly arrived.

In her volume, ‘Colossus’ dedicated to Ted Hughes, Plath writes about nearby Hardcastle Crags:

…The whole landscape

Loomed absolute as the antique world was

Once, in its earlier sway of lymph and sap,

Unaltered by eyes,


Enough to snuff the quick

Of her small heat out, but before the weight

Of stones and hills of stones could break

Her down to mere quartz grit in that stony light

She turned back.


Other poems, November Graveyard, Wuthering Heights, for example, suggest the bleak impression Hughes’ home territory made on the fragile mind of Ted’s young wife.

So why bury her here? Family, perhaps?

I don’t know.

And reading his ‘Birthday Letters,’ I can’t feel the anger those scratchers-out feel, despite the ills he did her. Sylvia’s suicide, their tragedy, lived with him all his life.

Her grave – which in earlier times would not have been allowed in consecrated ground – is touchingly plain.

‘A lot of the visitors,’ says the guardian, ‘expect a marble monument.’

‘I don’t think she’d have liked that, do you?’ I say.

He smiles. We chat.

The guardian was a welder in Hebden Bridge until he retired. He and his 95- year-old sister (in London for her birthday) are the only original residents left in Heptonstall, where the family lived for seven centuries. The rest are incomers.

‘Would you mind if I took your picture?’ I asked, wanting to capture his smile.

‘If I can take yours in return,’ he beamed.

And so we exchanged the recording of memories.

‘I still use old fashioned film,’ he explained. ‘The best quality is cheap now, two rolls for £7.99. I go into Bradford to have it processed, pay £1 extra for the one hour service so I can bring the pictures home.’

I ask his name, he asks mine.

‘Earnshaw, that’s a good local name,’ he approves, ‘I knew a Fred Earnshaw. A baker, very rotund he was.’

‘That’s the way a baker should be,’ I say. He chuckles.

Did he know Ted Hughes?

‘I didn’t know him myself, though I must have seen him around.’

He flits his perch.

‘Would you like to see where his mum and dad are buried,’ he says, ‘I knew them.’

We tread softly through rows of resting souls.

‘He ran a sweetshop, was a travel agent. He sent me to Switzerland in 1969. Very good it was.’

He glances past us. More pilgrims arriving.

I shake his hand, thank him.

We turn to the village. To ruins, legacies, black cats.

Timeless, now, the old church


From above, the old church (the new was dull Victorian, not worth snapping imo)

Odd pillars – three rows, each row different in design

Impossible to traverse the old graveyard and reach the ruins of the old church without stepping on souls

A poignant, more recent memorial on a windowsill of the ruined old church


Now this one is all black – I’m used to Lancashire and the idea of witch’s familiars, so perhaps Yorkshire has adopted the red rose county’s ways…

See the next image for the explanation of the name over and beside the door

We wend our way back to our lodgings in an old cotton mill.

Pour wine. Share smiles at new memories.

A man in a tweed hat.

And those …

But that’s for the next instalment.


For the guardian: if you see this, I am sorry I didn’t write down your name, I think it was Stewart or Stuart and Burn or Byrne, but rather than get it wrong, I left it out.

And the poet who planted flowers was called Laurence, I think Jess? Note to self: pay attention!

This entry was posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then, Yorkshire and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Who was Sylvia?

  1. Ardys says:

    Reading your post feels like I’ve been transported to England before our plane leaves on Wednesday! Underscoring it all, for me, is the idea that a family could have resided in the same area for centuries. I cannot imagine, given that my own family roots do not even extend for one century in the same country! The gentleman had a lovely smile! xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beautiful smile! And, yes, as a frequent mover, I find it interesting how many people still live near places of the same name – so the family of a local friend called Westhead still live in nearby Westhead!
      Travel well, Ardys – and if you are anywhere near-ish with any spare time … I’ll DM you my contact details on Twitter. xx

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ann says:

    Glad you made Heptonstall after a detour but the traffic limitations help residents get a bit of peace and quiet. Hebden Bridge is a bit chaotic and had changed much since the seventies, hope the clog factory is still operating. They made them to measure once-over. Did you get to Harecastle Crags? It’s a left turn off the Hebden to Oxenhope Road and nice for walking

    Liked by 1 person

    • We were getting quite grumpy after not liking Hebden Bridge. I wanted to do Hardcastle Crags, having been there as a child a few times (I lived in Bradford from the age of 7) , but the day was waning, we’d had along walk in the morning – and it was raining. I am glad there are restrictions on traffic, the village is way too small and narrow-streeted for much traffic. Good that only those who persevere get there! And you never know, Ms Satnav may have been bribed by the local residents!


  3. jilldennison says:

    I do love joining you on your journeys and adventures! This one was peaceful (much needed) and eduational (always welcome!). Thank you, Mary, for sharing your adventure with me!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve realised what I love most -beyond vicarious enjoyment of your wanderings and exploration- is your conversational tone. We could have been sharing a cup of tea while you recounted your ventures… although I would have had a turmeric latte and quite possibly a Bulletproof Coffee to go ☕

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Who was Sylvia? | By the Mighty Mumford

  6. Lyndsey Rolfe says:

    The guardian is my great uncle – Stuart Burn. Still going strong!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lyndsey, how exciting that you found this, I am so glad. Do you live nearby too? I so enjoyed the encounter. We had planned to go again in March when we were going to stay in the same mill again – but you know what happened then, don’t we all? Thank you for popping by. Mary


  7. Pingback: Following Her Steps… parte I – Heptonstall – Sylvia Plath Italy

  8. Owen says:

    Thank you for writingg this


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