Ted Hughes' "happy hunting" ground...
Donald Crossley grew up in Mytholmroyd just along the street from poet Ted Hughes and as boys they played together. Since Hughes' death Donald has been discovering just how much of the poet laureate's writing was rooted here in the Calder Valley.
Donald Crossley with Wadsworth Banks behind
"We were boys together in Banksfield to 1938 when Ted and the family moved to Mexborough. We played as boys up there. Ted was born in Number One Aspinall Street and I was three or four doors away in Number Nine. There were four boys. There was Derek Robertshaw, Brian Seymour, Donald Crossley and Teddy Hughes. To his pals he was Teddy Hughes and we roamed those streets. The main draw for boys in those days was Redacre Wood where we played Cowboys and Indians and all the rest of it. Ted was really close to nature right from the start. We would go up to the fields looking for birds' nests. There would be frogs. We went looking for foxes. He had that extra link, shall we say, with nature, more so than we other three."
Ted Hughes left Mytholmroyd for Mexborough. From there he went on to Cambridge and to great success as a writer, ending up as poet laureate. Although he returned briefly to live in the Calder Valley, Ted made his home in Devon. But Donald still lives in Mytholmroyd within sight of Redacre Wood and he's not surprised he has such clear memories of his childhood friend: "He had this charisma and this magnetism. You loved to be with Ted. Oh, you did."
Ted Hughes and his wife Carol
Like Ted, Donald remembers that, although these were happy times, the houses in Aspinall Street seemed to be very closed in, particularly by the now demolished Mount Zion chapel: "We went there as boys. Our house - it was very dark. They faced north. On a very wet day in Aspinall Street it was very dark. The front rooms never got any sun whatsoever. [Ted] writes about Mount Zion and Scout Rock blocking things out in Mytholmroyd. He writes later from that feeling from being a boy, but they were good hardworking families and a lot in Bankfield did go to Mount Zion chapel."
The two men renewed their acquaintance when Hughes was named Poet Laureate in 1984 and Donald sent him his congratulations. There were letters, poetry books through the post and visits to Devon for Donald and his family. The poet has inscribed one of his books with the words, "When thee and me played in the muck, little we did know our marvellous luck." Donald still has an old photo which shows the street in the days when he played there with Ted - the surface of the street is yet to be made up, there are no trees and no cars.
It is perhaps in a letter to Donald written in 1985 that we discover the roots of Hughes' poetry. Thinking back to his childhood years in Mytholmroyd, Hughes writes: "I think a lot about those days. I can even remember odd bits of things we said and scores of little happenings." In the same letter he talks about a camping trip with his brother Gerald: "It was in Crimsworth Dean, camping on that level first. Beside what's now a council stone dump under a little cliff beside the lane going up, in around 1937 or earlier, that I had the dream that turned later into all my writing. A sacred space for me."
Although the letters came to an end when Hughes died in 1998 it was attending the Memorial Service for the poet at Westminster Abbey that set Donald off on his own very special quest. He re-read Remains of Elmet and discovered not only that many of the poems were set around Mytholmroyd but that "there's poems that have Derek, Brian and me in them." Reading from a poem, The Canal's Drowning Black, Donald adds: "This is all about the canal up there over the wall from our house. That's where we went and played as boys." He and his pals used to fish for tiddlers with a net, putting their catch in jam jars: "If a loach came that was magic...We used to go back to the wall which is still there. The chapel is gone, the bridge has been altered twice. The Co-op where we took our jam jars back from sweets, that's gone. But the wall that we threw them over into the canal is still there, I'm glad to say."
Scout Rock from Mytholmroyd Station
For the last few years Donald has become a literary detective, tramping the Calder Valley looking for the places Hughes mentions in his poems. In this he's been helped by Ted's brother, Gerald, who now lives in Australia. Ten years older than Ted, it was Gerald who took his brother camping and showed him the countryside. Donald says: "Gerald has sent me the most valuable information on what they did as boys - where he taught him to shoot, where he taught him to light fires, where he taught him to camp. There's a spot up on that hillside where Ted shot a rat with Gerald's rifle. He talked about it for days on end. [Donald points up to the moors that can be seen through his front window.] That was their happy hunting ground, the Wadsworth Banks as they are called. He's the one who sent him off on that rapport with nature. Here is where it began. Donald reads from one of Gerald's letters: "Wherever we were, whatever we did, that lovely valley remained our true home. I know that this was where his heart was. These early years at One Aspinall Street anchored both of us up there for life."
There is one poem, Two, in Hughes' Elmet collection which Donald thinks sums up "all that early tutoring with Gerald, hunting, camping, shooting, fishing, it's all wrapped up here." Donald points to the path through the woods which is mentioned in the poem.
Aspinall Street where Donald and Ted played
As anyone who has read The Iron Man will know, Hughes also wrote prose. Gerald has told Donald how Ted once found a great slab of rock in the wood: "It was what is known as a deadfall and this deadfall was a trap to catch a fox. The gamekeeper would put a dead pigeon in it and then when the fox came and burrowed in to get it, down it came." Next day they found the dead fox but at the spot where Gerald buried it Ted found a little ivory fox which his widow still has. Years later Ted would write a short ghost story called The Deadfall.
But Gerald couldn't help Donald when it came to identifying the location of one particular poem, inspired by a photo taken in 1913 or 1914 of Six Young Men who would shortly go off to fight in the First World War and never return. It took Donald more than six months to find the spot where the collected water of seven streams fall. This was Lumb Falls in Crimsworth Dean and a plaque in memory of those six young men who, in Donald's words "gave their lives for you and I" now marks the spot.
Lumb Falls: "They gave your lives for you and me"
"He was a great writer, a tremendous writer," says Donald but Ted Hughes was also his childhood pal and, later, a generous friend and now Hughes' poetry plays a very important part in his own life as he leads walkers around the Calder Valley, showing them the countryside that inspired the poetry - it's his "way of letting people know."
Many of the places and incidents referred to here can be found in the booklet The Ted Hughes Trail in Crimsworth Dean, published by the Elmet Trust and based on Donald Crossley's research. Ted Hughes' Elmet, published by Faber & Faber, is the best starting point for his poems in and around the Calder Valley. The Elmet Trust, based in Mytholmroyd, is a charitable trust set up to celebrate Hughes' poetry and holds regular festivals in his memory, including The Ted Hughes Birthday Festival which takes place between Saturday 15 and Monday 17 August, 2009.
If you're passionate about the poetry of Ted Hughes, you can have your say in the BBC's vote to find the Nation's Favourite Poet. The shortlist was compiled in consultation with The Poetry Society and The Arts Council. Click on the link below to vote now!
last updated: 04/08/2009 at 16:20
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