Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Literary Pilgrimage

Today would have been Sylvia Plath's 78th birthday. I often think, had she lived, she would still be writing fantastic poetry and touring around the country, reading it, reaping all the accolades that have been bestowed upon her posthumously. There are so many great artists, entering their seventh decade of life on earth who are still producing and enjoying artistic creativity in a variety of ways.

What with it being Sylvia Plath's birthday, I am provided with a mirror opportunity - allowing me to document how I spent my birthday last March - where my friends and I undertook a pilgrimage to the village of Heptonstall, Yorkshire to visit her grave.

For any Plath fan hoping to undertake such a trip, I really would recommend it. The village of Heptonstall is very easy to get to, despite being in the middle of the English countryside. For my trip, I flew into Manchester city and my friends and I travelled by car. It took around one hour from Manchester city to arrive at the village. For those thinking about taking a trip but do not have the luxury of having a car (or a good friend to drive you!) although Heptonstall is not connected directly by train, the village of Hebden Bridge is the closest town to Heptonstall and approximately a 45 minute train journey from Manchester Picadilly. If you plan to come from London or Scotland, it should be relatively easy to plot your journey using the National Rail website.

Heptonstall itself is a tiny place (see picture below for evidence of the main street!). It has one street and residents only are permitted to park in the town. However, there are two designated car parks on the outskirts of the village and everything is within walking distance. If you have taken the train, Hebden Bridge is roughly three miles from Heptonstall and bus services run daily. The distance could be easily walked by the more outdoor-sy Plath fan and it also gives a great opportunity to see the landscapes that Plath was inspired by in writing 'The Colossus' and also to get an idea of what influenced Ted Hughes and where he came from. Personally I found the scenery to be quite beautiful, in an ugly way. The drive to the village is filled with moors and odd-shaped lakes as well as yellowed grass. However the village itself is much greener and hugely hilly. The hills in fact elicited quite a few exclamations of anger from my driving friend as to why I had dragged him to this particular part of England!

Once in Heptonstall, there are few amenities. So if you wish to bring flowers or a token, I would recommend purchasing it in Hebden Bridge or somewhere else beforehand. There is a small cafe that sells potted plants on the main street - fortunately there were some tulips for sale, which I purchased. Couldn't resist the poetic resonance. What may suprise visitors to the Plath grave site is that there are not any clear markers that Sylvia is buried in the graveyard. It is difficult to locate the grave, we finally found it because we knew what year she had died and followed the graves appropriately. There have been so many arguments over Plaths' grave: people chipping off the 'Hughes' surname, for example. So you can imagine my sadness upon finding the grave untended, dead flowers still lying on it.

Visiting the grave of Sylvia Plath raises a lot of questions - why is she buried here? Shouldn't someone be employed to at least tend to her grave? Shouldn't there at least be a sign signifying that one of the best writers of the twentieth century is buried here? There questions I feel, reflect an interesting trend in Plath analysis. Sifting through old newspaper clippings about Sylvia Plath as part of my PhD research, I found the majority of the articles are journalistic speculation mixed in with a few 'I was the secret lover of Ted Hughes' articles from gossipy tabloids.. It seems to me that the sensationalist free-for-all regarding the Plath legacy is part and parcel of overshadowing her actual work, and this is shown clearly in the state of her grave: people get invested in flimsy conversation pertaining to Plath but forget about the integral aspects - like her literary contribution. People find the time to scrape 'Hughes' from the gravestone but no-one picks off the dead flowers from a decidedly lonely grave of an American girl buried with no-one beside her in a distant country village which would, I believe, be a very dark and lonely place in the long winter nights.

That said, going to visit the grave of Sylvia Plath is worthwhile, for any fan. To be able to go there any pay respects and acknowledge that the words of Sylvia Plath affected you in your life, is important. I think it's important to the memory of Sylvia Plath as well. What was further, very interesting - we took a pub lunch in one of the two pubs in the village. The bartender (in his late 60s at least) who clearly knew that we were from out of town, quizzed us on why we were there. We replied that it was to visit the grave. He began to tell us about the day of her funeral, and all the people who attended, how sad a day it was. I thought it was amazing to get that kind of first-person account - allowing myself as a scholar to add it to the different accounts I have read so far about the surrounding facts on the day from correspondences and the like.

If you do plan to visit this area of England, the town of Hebden Bridge is a great place to stay over, which will allow you a lot of time to explore the surrounding area and take your time in viewing the grave and the village of Heptonstall. A list of various accommodations is provided here. Please don't hesitate to get in touch if you have any more questions about getting there!

**On a side-note, a special Plath Profiles supplement was released today in honour of Sylvia's birthday. For more information, please head over to Sylvia Plath Info for a description on the new articles and a link to the Journal. I found the 'Hidden in Plain Sight: On Sylvia Plath's Missing Journals' by David Trinidad especially an interesting read.


Carl Rollyson said...

I do plan to visit Plath's grave when I'm in England researching my biography of her, and I would like to meet you and learn more about your research. I don't yet know when I will be coming, but most likely next spring or summer.

The Plath Diaries said...

Hi Carl!

Any assistance I can provide, please let me know! I would love to find out more about your biography - what angle you are looking at the life of Plath from. I'm sure it must be daunting what with the towering Anne Stevenson and Jacqueline Rose biographies dominating the Plath universe so far!

Don't hesitate to dtop me and email on


Very interesting, Maeve. Thank you for sharing that. I would certainly love to go and shall keep it in mind for future trips.

Anonymous said...

I've made that pilgrimage too, in summer 2007. I also have a slightly grainy photograph of the grave (I thought it was just me who inherited my mother's quirk of photographing author's graves). < As you can see the grave wasn't in great shape then either.

There are actually quite a few emerging poets who make that trip. There is a writer's centre about 2 miles away in one of Ted Hughes' old houses - Lumb Bank - which runs courses throughout the year.

Anonymous said...

Part of my issue with Plath's grave is the prickly attitude of Frieda Hughes that occasionally comes to the fore in the media. On my infrequent trips to Heptonstall, I would quite happily clear off dead flowers and replace them with new, but I've got the impression from what I've read that FH resents people paying any attention to the grave, feels that they are purloining it, and so on. So would such care (an easy thing to offer, really) be angrily seen as an intrusion ?

Or should this matter ?

Rehan Qayoom said...

A fascinating and informative post. I planned to make the trek up a few years ago but was put off when told it was practically impossible to get to beyond Hebden bridge without a car. Also, it is great that you got to hear of the funeral first hand, it is hardly mentioned anywhere.