Mexborough has half a dozen roads named after poets. There’s Byron Road, Tennyson Avenue, Chaucer Road, roads honouring Dryden, Cowper and Herbert. But no Hughes Road. Not as yet.
Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998, spent 13 years of his childhood and adolescence in this once heavily industrial South Yorkshire town. It was a formative influence on him, as Steve Ely, author of a fascinating new study of him, is telling me as we retrace part of the young Ted’s paper round.
He’s recalling a key moment in the genesis of the book, Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made in Mexborough. It was four years ago, and Ely, himself an award-winning poet, was in Mytholmroyd, the West Yorkshire town between Halifax and Hebden Bridge, where Hughes was born in 1930.
The town hosts an annual Hughes festival and it was during a lecture at the 2011 one that Ely started to feel restless.
“The lecture was about how Mytholmroyd had formed Hughes,” he says. “And I was getting more and more frustrated. Eventually I whispered: ‘We’re in the wrong place!’ Hughes is regarded as ‘Mytholmroyd’s Poet Laureate’ – the Heathcliffian bard of the windswept moor – but it was Mexborough that made him a poet.”
Ted and his family moved to Mexborough in 1938, when his father took over a newsagent’s shop. He lived there until 1951, and the countryside around the town inspired many of his earliest nature-based poems.
But, as Ely, points out, there’s been “an almost total amnesia” about him in Mexborough – no statue, no trail, no festival. The widespread perception of Hughes’s time in Mexborough is, he says, of “a 13-year limbo period, in which he did little more than fish while waiting to go up to Cambridge”.
Ely, a Huddersfield University lecturer and former headteacher based at Upton near Pontefract, has set out to change that perception – to reclaim Hughes for Mexborough and South Yorkshire and, if you like, to take the myth out of Mytholmroyd. He chairs the Ted Hughes Project, which aims to celebrate the poet’s local roots and ran an inaugural Hughes festival in Mexborough in July. And next Saturday, he will be giving a paper and leading a tour exploring the poet’s South Yorkshire haunts at a four-day Hughes conference being held at Sheffield University, which will draw delegates from all over the world.
For the moment, though, he’s guiding me up unexpectedly rural hills and along expectedly urban streets to sample the Poet Laureate’s paper round. We start at his old home, over the former newsagent’s shop in the town centre. It’s now part of a furniture store, Home Interiors (“The Home of Fine Furnishings”). High on the front wall is a blue plaque sponsored by a group of Yorkshire-based Hughes enthusiasts including Ely, sculptor Graham Ibbeson, artist Ashley Jackson, poet Jack Brown and Peter Davies, former Mayor of Doncaster.
“This is where the family moved to and this is where they were in culture shock,” says Ely. “It was the bustle and the noise and the busyness. They’d moved from a small industrial town of perhaps 2,000 people nestling in a valley to a town of 20,000 people.”
Mexborough in the 1930s was a place of coal, iron and steel with seven pits within a three-mile radius, foundries, chemical works and power stations. The landscape was blighted by colliery spoil heaps, coal was heaped high in the back yards of terrace houses, and the River Don was, Hughes later recalled, “more or less solid chemicals – bubbling, fuming, multi-coloured”. It was a “filthy” place, with “crumbs of soot blowing along the pavement” and a coking plant that left “the biting taste of sulphur in your throat”.
Given the blue plaque, do Hughes groupies turn up regularly at Home Interiors on poetic pilgrimages? No, says manager Khassid Hussain, and goes on to ask a question that may be common in Mexborough: “Who was Ted Hughes?” Ely is quick with his reply: “Possibly one of the top five or six poets in the English language.”
We drive up a steep road to the red-brick Edwardian building that used to house Mexborough Grammar School, where Hughes was a pupil – “a relatively average scholar in the context of a highly competitive school, always halfway down the class; very, very bright but not motivated... But this was the place that made him.”
We sit in the balconied main hall of what’s now a smart business centre and Ely explains his passion for Hughes’s poetry. “I first encountered him when I was doing O Level English Literature,” he says. “He was the first poet I became interested in independently. It was the virility of the language, its vividness and power, that can make you feel viscerally part of a scene.
“Hughes said that people characterised his early work as being the poetry of violence, but he would talk about energy rather than violence, about the elemental forces of the universe. The natural world is full of preying predators. ‘It’s not a pleasant world,’ he would say. ‘It’s just the world.’”
These were poems without what Ely calls “the dinner-party character” of some other poetry of the time. It was the work of a radical outsider.
Hughes, married to fellow-poet Sylvia Plath from 1956 until her suicide seven years later, had an ambivalent attitude to Mexborough. He had a lingering fondness for it and reckoned the move there from Mytholmroyd was “the best thing that ever happened to me”.
But he had little interest in its dominant working class culture, what Ely calls “the mass culture of sport and going to the pub and to the dogs”. And after leaving for Cambridge, he came back only to visit John Fisher, the teacher who most inspired him and raised his game.
“He wanted art and literature and the countryside,”says Ely, whose book repositions Hughes’s life and work. Rigorously researched, impressively academic, but accessible and highly readable, it was, he says, “based on a few nuggets of information and intuition, so it was good to find there was the evidence”.
It contrasts the Hughes legacy in West and South Yorkshire. Mytholmroyd and the Upper Calder Valley have an “artistic and tourist infrastructure” with countryside of a “desolate beauty” that lures visitors.
Not so Mexborough – “never a pretty town, and one that has in recent years suffered as badly from brutalist town and highway planning as it has from the post-industrial decline that continues to blight it”. It’s not, Ely writes, “a natural tourist destination... Rucksacked literary types in fleeces and hiking boots are unlikely to find a visit to Mexborough the same aesthetically edifying experience as a walk across Mytholmroyd’s high tops.”
All the same, as we stand at the former school’s front door and gaze over the rooftops, the Old Denaby area a mile or so away offers a green backdrop of hills, farms and woods. Hughes’s paper round took him there and it became, says Ely, “a semi-private country retreat for him”, a sort of Garden of Eden where he spent time fishing, trapping and shooting.
We drive to it and follow the paper-round walk. We cross bridges over a well-tended canal, the River Don and a railway line, pass an avenue of swanky new executive homes, and reach one of the poet’s favourite retreats, Manor Farm, now a pub and restaurant in a lyrical rural setting. “People have a stereotype of Mexborough as a giant slag heap,” says Ely. “They’re amazed to come here.”
Up the hill, we gaze across wheat fields. “Over there would have been an explosives factory and Denaby Main pit tips. And over there it would have been pits and steelworks stretching to Rotherham and Sheffield.”
He points out places where incidents inspired poems – “you can track 20 of them to South Yorkshire” – and talks of the way they imbued animals with a sort of mystical significance.
On cue, a bird of prey hovers in the middle distance. “There’s a kestrel,” says Ely. “How Hughesian is that?”
• Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made in Mexborough, Palgrave Macmillan, £55. Steve Ely is taking part in the international conference on the author at Sheffield University which runs from September 9 to 12. As part of the event he will be leading a walk round Ted Hughes sites around Mexborough. For more details visit www.sheffield.ac.uk/english/tedhughes