Thursday, 27 July 2017

At Hardcastle Crags

Despite having lived for five and a half years within a few miles of Hardcastle Crags, my first visit to the wooded Pennine valley immortalized in Sylvia Plath's poem of the same name and now owned and managed by the National Trust, for five and a half years, comes only this summer, when on a sultry July afternoon I find myself trekking north of Hebden Bridge, beyond the ruins of the 12th Century St Thomas' church, beside the graveyard where Plath was buried in 1962, and for once instead of looping back towards the familiarity of the town, descending into the ferny green lushness  

Sylvia Plath's Hardcastle Crags is a brooding, melancholy, haunting poem, in which the vulnerability of the human is cast against the might of a wild landscape, described by Brita Lindberg-Seyerstedt a harsh view of a human being alone and defenseless in an unresponsive, 'absolute' landscape. The poem derives its power from a very detailed, realistic picture of fields and animals, stones and hills.

In the woods beneath the looming absolute of Hardcastle Crags, a haven for red squirrels, it is easier to become lost in the intricacies of  an overhanging green canopy than to feel dwarfed by hills or rocks.  Only as you continue heading through its fern-bestrewn puzzles of pine and silver birch, do you start to find the terrain growing stonier and steeper.

The pathway peters out into a thin jumble of stones and roots, until my view ahead is hazed over by a clustering bulge of trees.  Erect and cylindrical they stand, like impenetrable columns of soldiers, or seeming to tilt ever so slightly, a chess board of giants.


Or hunched and gnarled like inflated, psychotic leprechauns, jerking out of beechy overgrowth, morphing into the twisting poises of manic witch-doctors, their wrinkled tentacles like fat wands of wicked magic


Or else they stand stark and white, thin bodies pocked by bulbous galls, like totem poles carved out of bone

I am ensconced by Plath's sway of lymph and sap, a landscape looming absolute as the Antique world was once, and marooned in a world of trees, alone among them and entirely at their mercy.

Opening out to water, the sunshine over the valley illuminates Hebden Water in a cool early evening glow, its silver ripples tinted in the candy-pink glow of rosebay willowherb, dangling on the banks like flighty girls at teenage discos, glittering in ear-rings and bangles.


and before long, the valley is awash with  water, trickling over stones and tearing down through rocks

The sunlit communion of acidy soils and regular rainfall makes for a diverse range of flora


and a tantalizing gallery of insects!




Pressing on beneath banks of wildflowers, I am watched quietly by suspicious locals:

and intrigued to see what looks like a hidden gingerbread house:


until discovering again, a world transposed to water.

Gibson Mill was a water-powered,19th century cotton mill, which has since been renovated to demonstrate renewable energy, running on a combination of photo voltaic panels, turbines, a wood burning boiler, a wood burning ceramic stove and locally-sourced reclaimed material.  Its softly shaded brick, woodland surroundings and quaint mill pond give it rather a look of some friendly, over-sized Wendy House, than a former industrial powerhouse,and reaching the mill I have a sense of achievement, as if a milestone of sorts has been surpassed.

Winding my way along the stony inclines, I find my energy levels rising, and before I know it I am jogging over the bumpy terrain, jumping stones and running up through a tangled corridor of nettles and heather.  The rocks along my way see to be growing gradually, some like secret grottoes:

others like odd works of Stone Age art:

until finally I have ascended the summit of the Crags, a valley bursting with growth and vitality spread out below like the fantastical fan of some celestial peacock, the air humming with bees and birdsong:

In Sylvia Plath's poem, the altitudinous grandeur of the Crags is balanced against the steely street of the stone built town from which the protagonist has escaped, as her footsteps strike

A firework of echoes from wall
To wall of the dark, dwarfed cottages.
But the echoes died at her back as the walls
Gave way to fields and the incessant seethe of grasses
Riding in the full

Of the moon, manes to the wind,
Tireless, tied, as a moon-bound sea
Moves on its root

But Plath's setting delivers no rustic liberation, as

The long wind, paring her person down
To a pinch of flame, blew its burdened whistle
In the whorl of her ear, and like a scooped-out pumpkin crown
Her head cupped the babel.

All the night gave her, in return
For the paltry gift of her bulk and the beat
Of her heart was the humped indifferent iron
Of its hills, and its pastures bordered by black stone set
On black stone.

As the poem climbs towards a desolate, or reflectively positive, conclusion, we are provided, unstintingly, with Plath's characteristic juxtaposing of the human will tested by an oblivious, passive Universe.  Hardcastle Crags is a beautiful, but raw, harsh environment.  My summer saunter ought not to blind me to its bleak and brutal dangers, its rock-hewn roughness, and its sweeping declines which promise sheer, bone-breaking descents.  I imagine the split-second slip on on sleet-smeared stone, or tripping on a straggle of gorse along the ridges of these jagged crags, the tumble towards concussion or a mangled death, and before the weight of nightfall might enfold this primeval place and leave me adrift among its stones and hills of stones, I turn back.


  1. Thrillingly haunting and reverently glorious ...not only Plath, but S.Z.'s depth of exploration, poetic kinship, and ability to illuminate the present.