A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them-
Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England
Ted Hughes, ‘Pike’
I’d visited the town of Mexborough, situated between Rotherham and Sheffield in South Yorkshire, once before, to attend the inaugural Ted Hughes festival in July 2015. Over a few days during that summer poetry readings and events were held in and around the former Grammar School, now Mexborough Business Centre on College Road, which Hughes attended after he moved there with his family from the village of Mytholmroyd in the Calder valley. The move took place in 1938 when Hughes was just eight years old.
Steve Ely, poet and lecturer and author of a book on Hughes formative years, realised that despite Hughes living in the town until 1951, there had been “an almost total amnesia” about him in Mexborough – no statue, no trail, no festival, and that the widespread perception of Hughes’s time in here was of “a 13-year limbo period, in which he did little more than fish while waiting to go up to Cambridge”. Ely set out to change that perception, and with others began the Ted Hughes Project and annual festival, now in its fourth year.
On Friday I found myself back in Mexborough to read at the invitation of locally born poet and resident Ian Parks, who had also attended the Grammar school. Also reading were the brilliant young Yorkshire poet Laura Potts and publisher and poet Andy Croft, as well as members of Read to Write, a group started by Ian Parks with the intention of developing understanding and enjoyment of poetry and supporting writing within local communities.
In 1930, when Hughes family relocated here, it was a place of coal, iron and steel. The population of 20,000 were largely employed in the seven pits, the foundries, chemical works and power stations. No immediately obvious trace remains of the colliery spoil heaps, although recently the family home of my host Ian Parks shifted in the night and lost its chimney. Ian told me how bricks rained down on his bed, and of how he escaped while sixteen tons of bricks fell to the ground. Ian laughed at the irony of the fact that the house which had belonged to his father, a miner, had suffered subsidence caused by coal mining.
In the valley bellow is River Dearne, flowing fast between leafy banks.
The river flows roughly east for more than 19 miles from its source just inside West Yorkshire through Barnsley and Darfield before its confluence with the River Don at Mexborough.
Its main tributary is the River Dove, which joins it at Darfield. The river flows through the wonderful Yorkshire Sculpture Park at Bretton Hall, and Monk Bretton Priory. In June 2015, salmon were reported in the river for the first time in 150 years.
Grossly polluted by industry in the early nineteenth century, its fish populations died. Some (including pike) returned after efforts to clean the river up in the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, the Derne certainly did not look like this when Hughes lived here. Hughes remember it as ” more or less solid chemicals – bubbling, fuming, multi-coloured”.
The name of Mexborough combines the Old English suffix ‘burh’ meaning a fortified place, with an Old English or Old Norse personal name, which may be Meke, Muik, Meoc, or Mjukr. It lies at the north eastern end of a dyke known as the Roman Ridge, thought to have been constructed either by the Brigantian tribes in the 1st century AD as a defence against the Roman invasion of Britain, or possibly later to defend the British kingdom of Elmet from the Angles. The Domesday Book states that before the Norman conquest ‘Mechesburg’ had been controlled by the Saxon lords Wulfheah and Ulfkil.
Throughout the 18th, 19th and much of the 20th century the town’s economy was based around coal mining, quarrying, brickworks and the production of ceramics. Like many other industrial towns, a Cooperative Society was formed in Mexborough, its aim being to supply the necessary things of life. Membership quickly grew and by the 1890s there were ten shops in the town. One of Mexborough’s landmarks is the former Barnsley British Cooperative Society flour mill which stands on the north side of the River Don Navigation close to the Church of St John the Baptist. It started off as the “Don Roller Mills”.
During and after the industrial revolution the busy railway locomotive maintenance and stabling depot was a major employer. Locomotives transporting coal to and from the local collieries needed driving, firing, refuelling, maintenance and stabling.
From the late 20th century Mexborough suffered decades of decline as the industries collapsed and little was done to replace them. Like other former coalfield communities, it continues to face employment challenges and suffers from closure of services and amenities, lack of opportunity and poor health. It is evident on arrival in the town, with its many pound shops and boarded up buildings, that there is an ongoing necessity for social and economic regeneration. All neighbourhoods in the former coalfields are among the most deprived the country with long-term health problems and unemployment far higher than the national average and double the South East England. But I don’t want to give an entirely negative picture of the town; the people I met both on my last visit and on this one were friendly, helpful, polite and cheery. Bumping into an elderly man on a street corner I’m met with a spirted ‘al reet cock!’ and later a shirtless dog-walker offered a wink and, on this lovely sunny day, a conspiratorial ‘alrightpal.’
Pass an unlovely sixties modernist shopping centre with it’s blue plaque commemorating the birthplace of world champion motorcyclist and racing driver, Mike Hailwood, and you’ll find the former newsagent’s shop where Ted Hughes lived until 1951. Turn towards the river, cross the railway and canal and you’ll find yourself in an unexpectedly rural area. According to Steve Ely this side of the tracks became “a semi-private country retreat” for the boy more interested in nature and art and literature than in the prevailing working class culture of the town behind him where pubs, sport and dogs helped people through there daily trials and tribulations.
I leave the car outside the handsome red-brick Edwardian ex-grammar School, now a smart business centre and venue for tonight’s readings, and head down the valley. There’s a few hours before the event and I want to find a quite place to sit and select poems to read. It’s a hot summer’s day and it is treat to walk across the canal and along by the river. After half an hour I pass through a rusty metal kissing gate and into a field by what was once Manor Farm. Four handsome horses are circling each-other, raising a small whirlwind of dust. They glance over at the intruder before galloping off, muscles rippling.
I find a spot under the shade of a tree and look through my books and a slim file of new poems. I choose and read through poems aloud, practicing links and intros between them and timing the set to make sure it fits within my allotted twenty minutes. As usual
I prepare for around fifteen, not wanting to overstay my welcome.
On either side of the fence are golden fields of wheat. Gone are the explosives factory and pit tips, the view at the tops no longer of pit winches and steelworks stretching to Rotherham and Sheffield.
Between the ages of nine and fourteen Hughes would cross at the ferryboat Slipway using the old hand-pull ferry. Since my last visit a lovely wooden Totem pole, commissioned by the Ted Hughes Project, has been installed. Made by Shane Green, this lovely chainsaw sculpture is decorated with a range of animal totems arising from Hughes poetry.
Walking up the lane toward Hughes old stomping grounds of Manor Farm and beyond, I have that eerie feeling of being in a landscape that informed and shaped the sensibility of the young Hughes. No doubt visitors to the haunts of John Clare or Dylan Thomas also experience moments like this, where, away from crowds and alone in a moment of reverie, the lone walker might almost feel like they are accompanied by the pervading spirit of the poet. While I am thinking this an adder crosses at my feet, escaping from human threat and making for the grass on the other side of the lane where it vanishes from sight.