Some random ravings about Heptonstall, with photos by Layla Bert Smith.
After reading Ted Hughes' Remains of Elmet and being inspired by Fay Godwin's beautiful photograph of the church, radiant amidst sun and mist, it was decided that we had to take a trip to Heptonstall. Walking up through Hebden Bridge, past the Hell Hole, ruddy crags and a towering wall of gritstone forced from the bowels of the earth, we found it, just beyond an estate of new housing on top of the ridge.
Prior to entering the church grounds curiosity took us to Sylvia Plath's grave in the adjoining churchyard. Biros and pencils are to be found in prodigious quantities. Ritual offerings to a chthonic muse, perhaps?
Walking round the perimeter of the new church I remarked how some of the carved figures looked as though they were dragging themselves out from the fabric of the building. It was later, having returned home, that I noted a similar image in Ted Hughes' poem Heptonstall Old Church:
A great bird landed here.
Its song drew men out of rock,
Living men out of bog and heather.
Recently in Northern Earth (Issue 123), Brian Taylor wrote a piece about Ted Hughes' poetry and the relation between poetic imagination and shamanism, and while writing this I have just discovered Ann Skea's amazing resource on Ted Hughes, magic, cabala, tarot and the bardic tradition. I know next to nothing about Hughes, although I appreciate the bleakness of his vision of the fall of the ancient kingdom of Elmet, Calder industry and its ultimate, apocalyptic redemption. However, the image is of the great bird is striking. Skea associates the bird with the illuminating spiritual song of the earth. That which once “put a light in the valley” is now forgotten:
The valleys went out.
The moorland broke loose.
Its giant bones
Blackened and became a mystery.
The crystal in men's heads
Blackened and fell to pieces.
Later to be transformed into an angel:
[...]And it was a swan the size of a city!
Far too heavy for the air, it pounded towards me,
Low over Hathershelf.
And it was no swan.
It was an angel made of smoking snow.
Within the Old Church itself the seat of the genius loci would have to be found not at the altar (still consecrated and used on occasion), but within the peculiar medieval sculpture of a lion's head to its immediate left. Not blackened, but green from the tincture of time, the beast gazes across nave and transept, a silent guardian. Here is a place of green lions, dark swans, smoking angels: players in a shamanic, alchemical and imaginative drama...
Any audience is incidental.