This time last week I was deeply immersed in a poetry and book art retreat at the Ted Hughes Arvon Centre, Lumb Bank in West Yorkshire.
It’s a place I’ve longed to visit ever since I first heard about it, and now finally, I have.
On arrival, the house was steeped in autumn sunshine; the leaves and flowers in the garden offering up their secrets and magic. I couldn’t stop taking photographs.
Even this simple pattern of leaves arranged on the grate speaks volumes about the collective creativity of the week. (See more ‘foraged street art‘ by Sarah.)
What I didn’t anticipate was the opportunity to visit Sylvia Plath’s grave. I had no idea she was buried in the small village of Heptonstall, about 10 minutes walk from Lumb Bank.
On my first free afternoon I slipped away to find her.
I passed the house that belonged to Ted’s parents, taking in the burnt-away colours of the trees and leaves. It was so quiet and peaceful, the narrow streets in the village quaintly cobbled.
There were so many gorgeous leaves and I wanted to collect then all, but I allowed myself only a few.
Sylvia didn’t ever live in the house at Lumb Bank, the house that is now the Arvon Centre, but it feels like her fate was being metered out when she first lived up the hill with Ted’s parents; visiting as a willing lamb, not knowing she would one day return and never leave.
I had been allocated a room in ‘the barn’, the solid lintel of the window framing my view of the garden, and Ted’s image – his eyes, his ghost – seeming to follow me everywhere; heavy with history and the tragedy of Sylvia taking her own life. I couldn’t stop thinking of them together: writing, talking, arguing. I also thought of Assia.
Feminists have been ‘blamed’ for defacing Sylvia’s headstone on multiple occasions, scratching away the lead-lettering of ‘Hughes’ to avoid it tainting her name any further, but I don’t think Ted can be held solely to blame for what happened. I don’t blame the feminists either (and count myself a feminist).
While searching for Sylvia’s grave, I first walked around the older part of the graveyard. It felt quietly alive with the shadows of afternoon and not for the first time I felt like I was being watched by unseen eyes.
The rustle of fallen leaves on the path did nothing to assuage that feeling.
I found Sylvia eventually, in the newer part of the graveyard.
Only two lines of poetry (written by Ted) decorate her small headstone:
“Even amidst fierce flames
The golden lotus can be planted.”
“A little rosebush grows on it, and some modest wreaths and cut flowers lie about. Crows and magpies fly above.”
I felt so close to her as I stood there, the memory of reading her journals and her poetry flooding my mind with the time in my life when I became obsessed with her work, her world, as though she was a dear friend I’d simply lost touch with over the years. Words can do that. Especially words written in a diary or journal.
I had imagined her grave being better kept with a big memorial, the grass neat and well-tended, though perhaps it’s fitting this is not the case.
I liked that people had left notes and pens and coins, and wanted to leave a pen but it didn’t seem entirely right – and the pen I had with me wasn’t particularly special.
Instead I wrote a note, folding it tightly and burying it in the earth at the head of Sylvia’s ‘grave-garden’. I hope my words echo down to her, somehow.
The angel/cherub was a nice touch, and I recognised heather, lavender, primrose and rose amongst other offerings – a respite from the weeds – yet still I couldn’t help but imagine Sylvia hiding under the floorboards that time, the desire that burnt more brightly than any other, finally, fatefully achieved in the winter of 1963.
What would she choose if she had her time again?
It makes me so sad to think that a woman so alive with thoughts and words and emotion can be so-long buried and alone, no family to visit her grave. I know so many people do and will end up this way, but that only compounds the sadness.
I hope she felt at least a moment of freedom.