Notes from the Tuning Fork, Ted Hughes and the Calder Valley – part 3.

Path and Reservoir. Lumbutts, Yorkshire, 1977.  Photograph: Fay Godwin.

Path and Reservoir. Lumbutts, Yorkshire, 1977. Photograph: Fay Godwin.


Keith Sagar aptly described the moors above the Calder Valley as both ‘bleak’ and ‘exhilarating’.  Since the ‘tops’ round here offer almost no shelter from the elements, the experience of being up there is very dependent upon weather conditions, which sometimes change dramatically and quickly.  Ted Hughes thought of the land as a huge animal, harnessed by dry stone walls, but now gently shaking herself free of walls, chimneys, chapels, mills, and houses.  On the moorland tops the spirit of this place can be felt, heard, and because of the clarity of light, seen, most clearly.  In Hughes’ account, people, stone, and what he called ‘the mothers’, the sustaining elements of earth, air, fire, and water, have all been conscripted as economic resources.  We should not be surprised that someone born in 1930 used a military metaphor.  Sagar concludes his essay on Ted Hughes and the Calder Valley by echoing his friend’s call for a process of healing and rededication, so that humans can once again approach Nature with respect and humility, ‘for purposes, one hopes, rather more natural, sane and worthily human than the enslavement of body and spirit which has characterized Protestantism and capitalism in England’.(10)

In the poem Moors, the landscape belongs to primal other-than-human powers.  Humans are inconsequential interlopers who would be well advised to retreat before nightfall.  Local folklore confirms this sense of the land being strangely alive.  It is said that whenever a stone was dislodged from the cairn that occupied the site on which Stoodley Pike now stands, flames would emerge from the ground.  Some say that a light can still be seen there when the way to the otherworld is open.(11).  The moors in Fay Godwin’s photograph became a ‘picadilly circus’ for U.F.O’s in the early 1980’s.  Two friends who went up there on a full Moon night got more than they bargained for.  They ended up running as fast as they could, followed by a strange oval light that then shot away across the valley.  Paul Devereux linked such phenomena with seismic activity in the Craven fault, and called them earthlights.(12)

Other poems in Remains of Elmet -Where the Mothers, These Grasses of Light, Open to Huge Light, Long Screams, Curlews in April, Curlew Lift, The Big Animal of Rock, High Sea Light, Bridestones, Where the Millstone of Sky, and Spring Dusk- have a visionary quality that is sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes delicately celebratory.  Ann Skea finds traces of Blake, Poryphry, alchemy, and neo-Platonic cosmology, in their imagery of incarnating light (soul).(13)  Most contemporary animists, however, come from an earth-centred rather than transcendental perspective, so -like Hughes himself, I suspect- would want to ensure that any symbolic reading of more-than-human worlds doesn’t lessen our appreciation of the living material reality, the personhood**, of land, trees, and birds, in their own right.  Ted Hughes was, of course, deeply concerned with materially real trout, curlew, and snipe.

The moors to the left of this image are part of an area designated as internationally important for its moorland bird populations. Some species, such as raven and peregrine falcon have returned quite recently, the latter thanks to the protective vigilance of local conservationists and birders.  Others, such as the curlew, evoked so beautifully in several Elmet poems, are now in precipitous decline in the U.K.  These moors are also the closest thing to wild land that’s reasonably accessible to several million people living in nearby conurbations.  They’re not originary ‘natural’ wilderness however.  The hills overlooking the Calder Valley were covered in mixed woodland during the mesolithic era, would have been deforested during the bronze and iron ages, and have probably only been open moorland since Roman times.(14)  The stone paved causey -a former packhorse track- in Fay Godwin’s image, reminds us that there’s more to their cultural history than hill farming and grouse shooting.  This was the route taken by workers walking over from Cragg Vale, four miles away, in all weathers, for an early morning start at the mill powered by those dams close to the right hand margin of her photograph.

John Fielden's Todmorden, with Alfred W. Bayes 'Chartist Meeting at the Basin Stone 1840'.

John Fielden’s Todmorden, with Alfred W. Bayes ‘Chartist Meeting at the Basin Stone 1842’.

My main reservation about Remains of Elmet has been that it overlooked a significant history of political activism during the Industrial Revolution era that was strongly associated with these hilltops. Evocative accounts can be found in the writings of E. P. Thompson, and local historian Linda Croft.(15)  Alfred W. Bayes’ dramatic painting A Chartist Meeting, Basin Stone, Todmorden, 1842, depicts a mass meeting held on the moors above Walsden on 18th August 1842.  The location of this iconic event is just over the darkened horizon in Fay Godwin’s pictureIn the first half of the 19th Century the Calder Valley was a hive of working class organisation and agitation, with friendly societies, proto trade unions, Owenite co-operatives, working men’s associations, and riots against the New Poor Law of 1834 that ended out-relief in order to incarcerate paupers in large workhouses (a ‘reform’ that Todmorden resisted for more than forty years).  Against a backdrop of economic depression and considerable hardship, the Plug Riots of August 1842 saw between 15,000 and 20,000 people, armed with ‘thick hedge stakes’, pour into Todmorden from Rochdale and Bacup. The next day, a procession heading for Halifax took two hours to pass a given point.  In rioting that ensued one protester was killed and others seriously wounded by Hussars. Returning from Halifax, the Todmorden strikers met at the Basin stone, and were urged not to go back to work ‘until the Charter be got’.

This was not an isolated event. Many large Chartist meetings were held on hilltops across the South and West Pennine moors.  As Katrina Navickas puts it ‘the routes and topography of the moors and fields became as symbolic as the torn flags of Peterloo or the tunes played by brass bands’.  The Pennine moors were liminal spaces that afforded a degree of protection (they were not vulnerable to surprise cavalry attack), and with their panoramic views over nearby towns, no doubt gave desperate people a sense of the possibility of excercising collective power over their daily lives.  The Basin Stone served as a natural podium, and the surrounding landscape ‘contributed to the sense of spectacle, and the extraordinary, experienced by participants’. Many of the Chartist events were held on holidays and wakes, and had a festival like atmosphere.  The sense of exhilaration widely experienced at such places no doubt contributed to the spiritual dimension of protests at which Hymns with an overt political message were often sung.(16)

The Hudsonite Chartists held annual meetings at the Basin Stone on Spaw Sunday -the first Sunday in May-  a date associated with well dressings and labour politics.  They wore green, and satirised organised religion, by, for example, riding donkeys decked with ribbons at weddings.  James Hudson declared that ‘all the land in the world belonged to all the people in it’, and wanted to cultivate the ‘uncultured’ land around the Basin Stone.  Another speaker at one of their meetings declared that no man had the right to live on another man’s labour.  They have, therefore, been regarded as ‘anarchist-radicals in the classic Digger tradition’.(17)  One of Terry Gifford’s criteria for post-pastoral poetry is that it challenges the link between exploitation of our planet and exploitation of human minorities.  We should not, perhaps, expect all poetry of place to work politically, but, once again, readers might wonder whether the references to slavery in Remains suffice. In the re-arranged 1994 collection, Elmet, Hughes himself protests, in Climbing into Heptonstall,that mill-hands and agitators are being erased from collective memory.(18)

The Basin Stone, Walsden Moor.

The Basin Stone, Walsden Moor.

The problem surfaces again in the short poem For Billy Holt, and the image opposite, that, taken together, appear to reduce the subject of the poem to the status of a local ‘character’, a representative of his tribe.  Readers would have no idea that Billy Holt had been imprisoned for his opposition to the means test, or that he had reported from Soviet Russia and the Spanish Civil War.  Interestingly, he regarded the First World War as heaven-sent opportunity to get out of the valley(!), even finding beauty, of a sort, in the trenches, where he managed to facilitate a brief cease-fire for the collection of wounded men and dead bodies.  He was eventually injured, – falling out of a window at Baliol College, Oxford (where he was attending an officer training course), whilst celebrating the Armistice.  As well as being a self taught artist and writer, Billy Holt expounded a religious vision of utopian communism at a public meeting at the Basin Stone in the 1920’s.  He ends his autobiography ‘trapped by the world’, back in a weaving shed, but his mind wanders to visions of ‘free vegetation recovering a fantasy of a devastated world, flowering over smokeless ruins in the sun, releasing new life on heaps of sunbathed masonry in pure air’.(19) In later life he would come into town with Trigger, the abused horse he had rescued and travelled round Europe with. They were inseparable.

Repeatedly then, there is a sense of the land, the high moorland tops, eliciting a broader and deeper vision.  Sylvia Plath found this landscape to be the next best thing to being by the sea.  The astrologer in me thinks of the dreaming depths and ultimately unitive vision of Neptune.  What happens up there can be profound, but difficult to articulate.

Continued in Part 4


** The term Other-than-human persons was coined by the anthroplogist Irving Hallowell to express his Ojibwe friends’ and informants’ perception and acknowledgement of the personhood of non-human animals, stones, thunder, or ancestral presences. It has been quite widely adopted in contemporary animist discourse. See Graham Harvey, Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst, 1995.

10) Keith Sagar, Ted Hughes and the Calder Valley 2012. (accessed 29/11/13).

11) John Billingsley, What is Folklore? Hebden Bridge Local History Society website, 2007.

12) Paul Devereux, et al, Earth Lights Revelation, Blandford, 1989.

13) Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, the Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994.

14)  I.G. Simmons, The Moorlands of England and Wales, An Environmental History 8,000 B.C. to 2000 A.D, Edinburgh University Press, 2003.

15) E.P.Thompson, Op Cit. Linda Croft, John Fielden’s Todmorden, Tygerfoot Press, 1994.

16) Katrina Navickas, Moors, Fields, and Popular Protest in South Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire 1800-1848, University of Ediniburgh, 2009.

17) Linda Croft, Op Cit.

18) Terry Gifford, Pastoral, Anti-Pastoral, and Post-Pastoral as Reading Strategies, in Scott Slovic (ed.),Critical Insights: Nature and Environment, pp. 42-61, Ipswich: Salam Press, 2012.

19) William Holt, I Haven’t Unpacked, Pan Books, 1939/1966.


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