So we found the end of our journey,
So we stood alive in the river of light,
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.
Ted Hughes. That Morning.
An end is different from a destination. It is a marker of a complete journey. A lifetime, from start to finish, and everything in between.With this in mind, I start at the end. Standing in a desert of moorland at the final resting place of the Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes. His grave marked by a simple granite stone a top a peat mound. His ashes scattered to the four winds.
This spot is also a birthplace. At the foot of his hillock laying the marsh from which three mighty rivers spring. The distance between their headwaters, to quote Ted, being measured in paces rather than miles.The three beautiful sisters, The Dart, The Teign and The Taw.
Having found, like Ted, the end of our journey, I reflect on the path. Setting out four hours, and seven miles, earlier, in the uneasy footsteps of a poet. Hoping to track down the ghost of Ted Hughes, who lived in the nearby village of North Tawnton for over thirty years, regularly walking these moors for reflection and inspiration.
The general advice on ghost hunting is to have the correct equipment. A film camera (apparently the chemicals in film are more adapt at capturing ghosts that the electronic sensors of a digital camera) night vision equipment, electric magnetic field detectors, thermometers, and perhaps, most importantly, wind chimes. Consensus being that, a wind chime is a sure fire method of detecting a ghost.
Throwing caution to the wind, I set out on my own hunt rather short handed. My paranormal instruments comprising a pork pie, a scribbled notebook of Ted Hughes poems, a jam sandwich, and a stick. Striding to the roof of the moors, my head full of metaphors, and discovering that contrary to popular wisdom, Dartmoor does experience clear days. The skirt of her mist lifting a little, throwing of the sleet and rain to reveal the true majesty, and height, of her craggy hilltops.
Belstone Tor, the fire stone, is as spectacular as any. The name itself being poetic, attributed to the Celtic sun god Bel, or Baal, the brilliant. A holy place where magnificent fires would once have been lit to honour the sun at the high spots of the years cycle.
Standing here, my whole journey is mapped out before me, huddled around the compass points. South, army observation huts sit like sleeping sentinels on each Tor head. First, Stepperton and beyond, on the horizon, Hangingstone. East, its burial cairn a button protruding from its giant pregnant belly, Cosdon Beacon.
Beyond which, I see the tipping point between man and nature. The line where the ordered green fields of the countryside, including the village of Ted’s Dartmoor home, sit in contrast to the barren golden moors before me. A world cut in two.
West, like castles in the sky, the dark mountains of Dartmoor. Yes Tor, and to its south, High Willhays, six hundred and twenty-one meters high. North, miraculously, in a gap on the horizon, I glimpse the faintest tear of sea, a tiny slither of blue flesh pressing through the torn trousers of Exmoor’s knee. The very spot where the river Taw, the salmon highway, whose source sits beside the Ted Hughes memorial, joins the Atlantic Ocean, at Barnstable Bay.
I walk on, and today, like most on the high moors, I am alone. Catching only half-sights of other solitary figures, mere ants, stalking across the emptiness. Knowing that each person on the moors is thinking the same thought. Keep moving, do not wait for me. Let me alone with the land and sky and god.
Descending into the narrow slit of Stepperton gorge, I know Ted is getting close now, and I wonder about what he thought, wrote, of this land. Did he tread these very spots to escape the world, the sadness and vilification following the suicides of his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, and that of his partner Assia Wevill and her child, Shua? Are these the streams, the lost moorland trees, that loom up in his own works?
And the Dart, her shaggy horde coming down,
Astride bareback ponies, with a cry,
loosening sheepskin banners, bumping the granite,
Flattening rowans and frightening oaks.
Ted Hughes. Rain Charm for the Duchy.
Lost, I am startled by a furious pounding of feet, followed by the devil’s call of a Hound of the Baskervilles. A lost dog running endlessly over the moors, desperately searching for its master. Legs flailing, ears flopping, dropping in to my thoughts from the page of another story of Dartmoor.
Then, I see it. The Ted Hughes memorial stone. Progress slows, the ground boggy, but here, that is good. The slowness assisting contemplation of something holier than a poet. The birthplace of a river. Of life.
Crossing a brook so small that I walk on water, a dream of a river, I stand at the end once more. Ted Hughes spirt still alive in the four elements of the moors, the earth, water, wind and sky. The silence only broken by the singing of the golden grass, as time stops and the sun breaks through the clouds, pinpointing a lone buzzard soaring across the sky.
I read Ted a poem. The River. And as reach the final line, my hunt is over. I see Ted Hughes, as clear as the waters of a moorland stream, beside me, reciting each line of his poem in chorus with my tongue.
it is a god, and inviolable. Immortal.
And will wash itself of all deaths
Ted Hughes. The River
In that moment I realize that, like the river, Ted is everywhere on the moors. That his true presence is something rather more than his own ghost. It is poetry. Metaphors, that live out here in the wildness, in the land and the sky, in each step of the journey.
In that thought, I truly find Ted Hughes. Seeing how, even from beyond the grave, he has led me to another place. How that path in turn leads me to a sacred spot. The wellspring of a river. Which, above all the words, and books, critics and quotations, is what a poet is for. To guide you along the roads of life. To ease your soul.