The Ghost of Ted Hughes

Posted on April 21, 2012


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’s 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. The spot unmarked on any map and found by word of mouth and faith alone.

This chosen spot is also a birthplace. At the foot of this hillock lays the marsh from which three mighty rivers spring. The three beautiful sisters Dart, Teign and Taw. The distance between their headwaters, to quote Hughes, being measured in paces rather than miles.

Having found, like Ted, the end of my 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 Hughes who lived in the nearby village of North Tawnton for over thirty years and regularly seen 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. I stride to the roof of the moors my head full of metaphors and discover 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 of her craggy hilltops.

Belstone Tor, the fire stone, is as spectacular as any. The name itself  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. Allegedly accompanied by human sacrifice.

Standing on the Tor my journey ahead is mapped out before me, huddled around the compass points. South, army observation huts sit within the firing range like sleeping sentinels on each hill head. First Stepperton,  and beyond on the horizon, Hangingstone.

East, its burial cairn a button protruding from its giant pregnant belly,  sleeps Cosdon Beacon. Beyond which I can see the tipping point between man and nature. The line where the ordered green fields of the managed countryside, including the village of Hughes’ Dartmoor home, sit in stark contrast to the barren golden moors before me. A world cut in two.

West, like castles in the sky, lay 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 cross the Taw by Knack Mine and feel the spirit ofTed Hughes closing in. I wonder about what he thought, wrote, of this land. Did he tread these desolate tracks 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 in the landscape of memory , I am startled by a furious pounding of feet followed immediately by the devil’s call of a Hound of the Baskervilles. A lost dog is running endlessly over the moors, desperately searching for its master. Legs flailing, ears flopping, the dog dropping in to my thoughts from the page of another story of Dartmoor.

The page turns and then I see it. The Ted Hughes memorial stone is now almost within touching distance. Progress slows, the ground too boggy for swift progress, but here, that is good. The slowness of my passage serving to assist the contemplation of something holier than the soul of a poet. The birthplace of a river. Of life.

Crossing the T of the Taw’s head, the river so small here that I walk on water, treading softly on the dream of a river, I stand at the end once more. Ted Hughes’ spirit very much alive in the four elements of the moors, the earth, water, wind and sky. The silence broken only by the singing of the golden grass as time stops and the sun breaks through the clouds  to pinpoint 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 standing beside me, reciting each line of his poem in chorus with my own tongue.

The River

Fallen from heaven, lies across

The lap of his mother, broken by world.

But water will go on

Issuing from heaven

In dumbness uttering spirit brightness

Through its broken mouth.

Scattered in a million pieces and buried

Its dry tombs will split, at a sign in the sky,

At a rending of veils.

it will rise, in a time after times,

After swallowing death and the pit

It will return stainless

For the delivery of this world.

So the river is god

Knee-deep among reeds, watching men,

Or hung by the heels down  the door of a dam

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. I see how, even from beyond the grave he has led me to another place. How that path in turn led me here 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 your life; to ease your soul.