09 June 2012

"There is no life higher than the grasstops": A Walk to Withens

The following is a guest blog post by Gail Crowther on visiting Haworth and Top Withens, Yorks, England. Thank you Gail!

Haworth and Top Withens feature in a number of Plath's poems, letters and journal entries along with pieces of published and unpublished prose. Most of her writing stresses the lonely and blustering nature of the place – blackened gravestones paving the ground in front of the Brontë Parsonage, withered trees, open moors of heather and sheep, a tumble-down building clinging to the moor side at Top Withens. In an account of a Withens walk published in The Christian Science Monitor on 6 June 1959 (12), Plath describes there being "as many ways to get to Withens as there are compass points" (12). Yet she had just tried two approaches – one from the town of Haworth and another across the moors from Heptonstall. Last weekend, I walked to Withens from Haworth. No dour skies or lonely howling winds accompanied us as we trecked from town to moor, but rather a blistering sun and a warm wind that took the edge off the May heat-wave. I have been to Withens twice before, both in much sterner weather more fitting for the supposed inspiration of Wuthering Heights. It is always an odd experience as I feel myself following the traces of two women writers years apart – Plath following Emily Brontë and me following Plath following Emily Brontë. Much is unchanged – the beginning of the moor spreads away from Haworth behind Penistone Hill gradually becoming browner and increasingly bare. The "grandmotherly" sheep still graze amongst grass and heather. Staring into their eyes is still like "being mailed into space."

Not so far along the stony path from town to moor is the Brontë waterfall and bridge. Plath describes this bridge in "A Walk to Withens" as "a wooden footbridge" (12). Today it has undergone some changes. At some stage the wooden bridge became a stone bridge which was washed away in a flash flood in 1989. Rebuilt in 1990 it is now a humpbacked, slabby path over the river resting on the remains of the older stone bridge beneath.

It is at this point according to Plath that the "sheep are separated from the goats" (12); meaning the walk becomes tougher, more lonely, a little more challenging. The trees become sparser and up a slight slope I see a sign which I suspect would not have been present when Plath walked these moors: directions to Top Withens in both English and Japanese.

Soon after this point, you get your first glimpse of the remains of the house at Top Withens, the only building in sight on the moor flanked by two tall trees. For readers of Wuthering Heights, this small, stony house bears no relation to the sprawling mansion Emily Brontë describes so vividly. A plaque on the side of the building acknowledges it is most likely the place that inspired her, not the house. Plath too felt this discrepancy and yet there was some thread of recognition, a feeling or atmosphere perhaps that led her to write "And yet so strong were my impressions of the book, I felt at Withens that presence which endows places long loved and lived in with a radiance subject to no alteration or ruining by wind and rain." (12)

The house itself at Top Withens is a ruin, yet it has clearly been cleaned and tidied, the stone no longer black or really showing much signs of weathering. The foundation and outline of each room is still visible, window arches look out across purple slopes and the remains of fireplaces and chimneys are now grown over with tufts of brown, scratchy moor grass. Plath writes: "Two sizeable trees rise like natural pillars before the house, oddly tall in the lee of the windswept hill where nothing else grows higher than a gorse bush." In the poem "Wuthering Heights" which Hughes includes in Birthday Letters, he describes Plath sitting in the crook of one of these trees sketching the ruin at Top Withens. Now somewhat taller in the fifty years that have passed, I wonder if this is the crook in which Plath sat and drew?

As Plath surveys the scene at Top Withens, she writes that suddenly lines from Dylan Thomas spring to mind: "the bracken kitchens rust" (from "In the White Giant's Thigh"). Indeed, she states, rust coloured bracken grows everywhere "where housewives of a century ago tended their kettles and roasts over fires bright as today's grouse and rabbit-peopled hills" (12). As I stand surveying the scene, suddenly lines from Plath spring to my mind: "There is no life higher than the grasstops" – and indeed there is not as the moors wuther away and the heat ripples amongst the gorse and the grass.

Again, thank you Gail. The drawing of "Wuthering Heights" by Plath was recently sold in the Mayor Gallery's exhibit "Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings," and can be seen both below an in the "Biographical Note" in the back of American editions of Plath's novel The Bell Jar.


Melanie Smith said...

Thank you very much for this post. I loved being able to follow your thoughtful retracing of Plath's walk and am very grateful for the photographs. The images and your linking of your trek back to Plath and Hughes' own writing helped bring the site to life for me having never been to England, let alone its moors. Thank you again.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Melanie, I agree. Gail has got a way of writing that strongly evokes a place, both textually and visually. I have been to Top Withens, in a rain storm no less, and I was transported back to 1995(!) with Gail's post.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Ah! I am just back from London and Heptonstall, but had no time for Withens. :-( Next time.

I have made my photographs of Heptonstall, Hebden Bridge, Lumb Bank, and her homes in London public on my Facebook, if anyone would like to see them.

Peter K Steinberg said...


Hope that you had a nice time! The walk to Withens is stunning, as is evident in Gail's wonderful photographs. But I truly feel like I was there in reading her words.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.