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Mapping Elmet – the childhood and family roots of Ted Hughes
Report of talk given by Ruth Crossley on 25 September 2019

Fishing under the ‘navvie brig’ near his home in Aspinall Street, Mytholmroyd, was just one of the memories of Mytholmroyd that found its way into the poetry of Ted Hughes. Ruth Crossley drew on these powerful images of the landscape of the Upper Calder Valley when she spoke to the Hebden Bridge Local History Society at the first lecture of the new season.

Ruth is the daughter of Donald Crossley, a childhood friend of Ted Hughes. She is Head of Geography at Stoneyhurst College and is currently engaged on a Ph D thesis, digitally mapping Ted Hughes’ poems on the landscape of the Upper Calder Valley.

Donald Crossley died in 2014 leaving an archive of letters from Ted and his brother Gerald in which they reminisced about ‘Elmet’. Elmet is the name given to an ancient Celtic kingdom thought to have been located in West Yorkshire, but Ted regarded his Elmet as a more specific area centred on Heptonstall, characterised by a harsh climate and landscape populated with ‘untamed people hewn out of stone’. The poems in ‘Remains of Elmet’ and the later ‘Elmet’ explore this idea. It was Gerald, ten years older than Ted, who introduced Ted to this outdoor world taking him on adventures, camping, fishing and hunting often using Ted as a ‘retriever’.

Ruth showed digital maps with three layers of locations for the poems, those specific to family locations, those dealing with boyhood memories, largely around Mytholmroyd, and those featuring more adult memories. She talked about some of poems which featured specific locations, including ‘Six Young Men’, ‘Two’ and ‘The Ancient Briton Lay under his Rock’ amongst others. The latter is located in Redacre Wood and relates how Ted and his companions tried without success to raise the stone which was supposed to mark the grave of the Ancient Briton.

Mount Zion

Memories of fishing with homemade nets in the canal in Mytholmroyd gave rise to ‘The Long Tunnel Ceiling’ which was the bridge under Pismire Hill and ‘Drowning Black’ which was the old ‘navvie-brig’ near Aspinall Street. The young lads would catch fish and take them home in jam jars. The fish would be dead by the next day and the boys would throw them over the wall into the canal which ran beside Mount Zion Methodist Chapel. The poem ‘Mount Zion’ refers to the this chapel; it faced Ted’s bedroom window and seemed to him to possess a menacing power.

All this came to a sudden end when Ted Hughes’ family moved to Mexborough in South Yorkshire and not long after Gerald left home to go to war. Ted was only seven years old when he left Mytholmroyd but always maintained that those years of his early boyhood left a lasting mark on him and his memories of the landscape of the Calder Valley remained crystal clear for the rest of his life.

Ted Hughes’ connection to the landscape of the Upper Calder Valley has been preserved and enhanced by the Elmet Trust. Donald was a founder member of the Trust formed in 2006 to celebrate the life and work of Ted Hughes and to ensure that his literary legacy will last. The trust has a biennial Ted Hughes festival, a birthday dinner and it runs a poetry competition. It works with local schools, Huddersfield University and a variety of other bodies. Number 1 Aspinall Street, where Ted lived for the first seven years of his life, has become a writers’ retreat visited by various well-known poets.

The Hebden Bridge Local History Society meets at Hebden Royd Methodist Church on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Talks to come include a look at the 70 year history of the Local History Society on 23rd October, and Memories of Foster Mill on 13th November. Talks start at 7.30 and visitors are very welcome (£3).

Details of all the Society’s activities can be found on its website and you can also follow the Facebook page.

With thanks to Hilary Fellows for this report

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