15 March 2014

Sightseeing Sylvia Plath's England

Over four days in February, from the 8th to the 11th, I conducted a tour to three Americans of Sylvia Plath sites in England. While I have given dozens of tours of Massachusetts Plath-sites to people from the US, Canada, England, Wales, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, and France, this was a first. It was an opportunity that seemed too good to be true: an expenses paid trip to England! To make a long story short, I thought about it for a few days after it was offered and decided I had to do it. As I have no idea if this could turn into something I might more regularly do (please inquire if you are interested for terms), many of the details below will remain vague.

The group consisted of Jeff, Suzanne, and Diane, and featured two guest appearances by Gail Crowther. I was put at ease by Jeff's comment that I had "already forgotten more about Sylvia Plath than they will ever know". While that might not necessarily be true, the chance to bring people to Plath sites and present them in a way that was meaningful to me made this the opportunity of a lifetime. I have long found that by seeing the places where Plath lived and about which she wrote has a profound and deep impact on my understanding her of life, journals and letters, and creative works. Throughout the tour we were able to read selected Plath poems which were about a specific place. Overall the aim was to bring Plath's England to life through the words she wrote in poetry, prose, letters, and her journals. Was it successful? They did not ask for a refund so I hope so!

Rainbow over London
On Saturday the 8th we "did" Plath's London. Now, London is massive and Plath's travelings around it from 1955-1957 and 1959-1963 was rather far reaching, so I spent several months reading primary sources, her creative works, and biographies to come up with a nice, tight and cohesive walking tour.

The first day of the tour lasted from about 11:30 to 5:30 and included lunch and a pint at The Lamb, a pub near 18 Rubgy Street, and a pint at the French House (formerly the York Minster Pub) on Dean Street, where we were able to both drink to The Colossus and escape a downpour of rain. During that downpour, my wife captured the rainbow above, spanning London and the River Thames.

Gail, the tour guide, Diane &
Suzanne outside of The Lamb
photograph by Jeff
Gail joined us for the first hour or so of the tour, which was wonderful as she and I were able to field questions together. Two minds are better than one, especially when one of those minds is as limited as mine. Of course we saw the "big" sites like 18 Rugby Street, the Church of St. George the Martyr (whose doors were open so we went in and then were promptly, politely, kicked out), 3 Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill, and 23 Fitzroy Road). But we saw oh so much more of Plath's London in and around Bloomsbury, Soho, Marylebone and Regent's Park.

Jeff and Gail inside St. George-the-Martyr
Queen Square, London
photograph by Peter K Steinberg
Enjoying drinks at the French House,
forrmerly the York Minster Pub, Dean Street
photograph by Jeff
23 Fitzroy Road, London
photograph by Peter K Steinberg

On Sunday the 9th, we took a taxi to Heathrow and picked up a rental car (driving in Central London was not an appealing option, even on a quiet, winter's Sunday morning). We drove from there to North Tawton through some of the most horrendous weather, particularly near Bristol. The bright side to this was the number of rainbows we saw as the sun and precipitation were in constant battle. However, by the time we approached the A30 at Exeter, the skies were bright and the sun out.

The tour guide, aka Baldilocks,
eating a glove outside Nancy Axworthy's
house Fore Street, North Tawton
photograph by Jeff
Upon arriving in North Tawton, we went and had lunch at the White Hart on Fore Street, who whilst only serving Sunday roast accommodated my vegetarianism and presented me a colossal plate of delicious chips. The White Hart was a pub Plath would have known, especially as she likely knew the people that ran it. In her story "Mothers", the main character Esther attends the mothers union meeting with "Mrs. Nolan, the wife of the pub-keeper at the White Hart" (Johnny Panic 2008, 11). After lunch, the weather got bad for a few minutes before turning fair again, we went down to the River Taw and then back up into the town centre to see the church, Court Green, and a lot more.

Plath vividly captures the people she inhabited North Tawton with in her journals and it is like stepping back in time in some ways, having Plath's words, knowing where she went, and seeing that much is unchanged. In a letter to her brother, Plath described their life in the early days at Court Green as "primitive", and throughout the spring she discusses the weeding and planting that she and Hughes were doing. The property now is so lovely, and while she had only such a short amount of time there, I like to think she paved the way for its current appearance. We stayed the night at the ancient Oxenham Arms in nearby South Zeal in Dartmoor, which is a very fine inn with comfortable rooms, excellent food, drink and staff, and in a stunning Devon setting.

Jeff, Suzanne, and Diane in Devon
photograph by Peter K Steinberg
Headstones underneath the Yew Tree
photograph by Peter K Steinberg

The Yew Tree with the moon rising
(look just above the power lines)
photograph by Peter K Steinberg
Perhaps the most wonderful things happened in North Tawton. While I was disappointed the church was locked up (I have heard a rumor that "inside the saints will all be blue"), when we were leaving the churchyard through the Lych Gate, we happened to look toward Court Green and saw that the moon had risen and was quite visible above the Yew tree. I thought of Plath's "The eyes lift after it and find the moon." Of course the context of us standing on Market Street looking east was all wrong. Plath's study windows look west towards the Yew tree and south towards Dartmoor (she could probably see the elm trees in the southeasterly), so in the poem she sees the moon setting, rather than rising as it was when we saw it; but it was still terrific to see the moon and the yew tree together. There was also a rainbow over Court Green during the afternoon, too, but none of us were able to get cameras out to capture it.

Jeff in South Zeal, before driving to Heptonstall
photograph by Peter K Steinberg
Monday the 10th, we left South Devon after a filling breakfast and drove to Heptonstall in Yorkshire, though first we stopped at our lodgings in Hebden Bridge to drop our bags and collect Gail Crowther. The dichotomy of scenery between Devon and Yorkshire is sharp; an ocular culture shock. The weather was again fine and sunny, so we went up to Heptonstall immediately as the forecast for the 11th was less friendly. The group was completely flexible to my whims and decisions based on things we could not control such as the weather, traffic, and the like. It was a good thing we went up when we did as the forecast held true.

We walked through the old church of St. Thomas à Becket, saw Plath's grave and stayed there for a while, and then passed through the village to see The Beacon, and then retired to the Cross Inn for pints and to soak up the heat from their warm fire.
Diane, Gail, the tour guide, and Suzanne
at the foot of Sylvia Plath's grave
photograph by Jeff
Jeff, Gail, Diane and Suzanne
in the ruins of Heptonstall's old church
photograph by Peter K Steinberg
Gail in Heptonstall
photograph by Jeff

Sylvia Plath's grave
11 February 2014
photograph by Peter K Steinberg
On Tuesday the 11th of February the weather was pretty foul. We went up to the grave in the cold, miserable rain to pay our respects. Afterwards, we drove to Haworth, a town which Plath visited a few times on visit to the area. The moor top drive was quite dramatic, as we rose and rose in elevation the temperature collapsed and rain turned to snow, which made for stunning scenery. The Brontë Parsonage and gift shop were both close for renovations, which was poor timing -- on their part! However, we were able to walk around the St. Michael & All Angels Church and visited several local shops. We read Plath's "November Graveyard" as this was the churchyard she writes about in that poem (early typescripts called the poem "November Graveyard, Haworth"). After this, we drove Gail back to Hebden Bridge, had lunch, and then began the long drive back to return the rental car. A fantastic dinner that night at Manna on Erskine Road in Primrose Hill concluded a successful tour.

Gail and the tour guide in the rain
photograph by Jeff
The cemetery that inspired Plath's poem
"November Graveyard" in Haworth
photograph by Peter K Steinberg

St. Michael & All Angels Church, Haworth
photo by Peter K Steinberg
This was an aggressive tour and sadly did not include Cambridge, which may be the only other place with a really deep Plathian connection other than satellite places she visited for an afternoon or a day such as Oxford, Stonehenge, Hartland, Cheltenham, Whitby, and Bangor, Wales, among others.

All photographs are copyrighted by the photographer and may not be used without their permission.

12 comments :

Maddy said...

This is amazing. Saw Chalcot Square, Fitzroy Rd and Primrose Hill while in London (and went to the wrong St George the Martyr!), but never made it out of London.
I hope someday!

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

What fun! How lucky you were to have a trip paid for, and companions who are interested in Plath! My husband has been the best of sports over our last two trips, but he will never look at a scene and quote a line from one of her poems the way that we Plathies do. ;-)

I have not yet made it to Devon (as an adult--I was there as a child). That's next on the list. Happy to say that I did get to spend a good long time both in Heptonstall and Cambridge (both places were absolute heaven to me), as well as all the London sites. You were fortunate to get into St. George the Martyr's Church! So glad you got a photo.

And how brave of you to rent a car and drive! We are too scared of slipping into our American ways and running everyone off the road, a la Kevin Kline's character in A Fish Called Wanda.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

P.S. Maddy, on my first trip, I too went to the wrong St. George the Martyr! But that was a lovely church, too.

Nick Smart said...

A great write-up, Peter. Great to hear descriptions and see photos of places which are now more familiar to me, yet clearly there is much I have yet to learn. I may have to book you for a tour!

Nick Smart said...

Also good to see Fitzroy Rd sans scaffolding at last. Did it appear inhabited?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks Nick! I'd be glad to chat sometime! And, yes, the flat is inhabited ("by a cry. / Nightly it flaps out / Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.")


Maddy! I'm glad that you saw those places. Have you seen any of the Mass. sites?

pks

Anonymous said...

Giving tours is a great idea, Peter! I still vividly remember the tour around Boston & other nearby sites that you took me on at our first meeting I still have the Star Fish from the 'Egg Rock' beach - its a bit withered now but still a poignant reminde of that day Kim

Peter K Steinberg said...

Kim! I remember that tour very clearly too. It was really snow-covered still in Wellesley. I loved greeting you at the airport with a Valet Sign and everything. Miss you!

pks

Right Mind Matters said...

Great post, Peter! Almost like being there! I only remembered recently that when I lived in London (1992-5) I had a friend who actually lived in Sylvia Plath's house on Chalcot Square. At the time, I wasn't a Plathian/poet scholar; I was following up on my matriarchal myth dissertation and visiting the stone circles for inspiration. Since I lived in St John's Wood, I passed the Yeats House all the time, remarking the blue plaque with interest. It would all be so much more present to me now. Yet, I'm returning to prehistory in the opening chapter of my book on dissociative creativity in poets to explain how hyperrealistic cave art became symbolic and vertically linear, based on hemispheric dominance changes.

Maddy said...

Yes! Saw her house in Wellesley, went to the cemetary where Aurelia and her parents are. I've also been to Northampton- Child's Park, Smith and walked by her home there. So so awesome!

suki said...

I walked all over London in 1986 looking for Primrose Hill... Got the wrong bus in the rain... In the middle if January... Maps aren't quite the same as Google
Know how cold it was

Jessica McCort said...

I love the November Graveyard part most of all! Thanks for sharing.

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