In June this year, I finally had the opportunity to visit a place I had long wished to see: Sylvia Plath's grave at Heptonstall in Yorkshire. Like many other Plathians, I hold a strange fascination for places associated with Plath and have previously visited many of the 'sites', both in the UK and the US (including a lovely and much appreciated tour around the Boston area with Peter in 2008). For someone who doesn't live in the UK, Heptonstall is a bit 'off', though, which is probably why it's taken me so long to get there.
Referring to Plath's grave as a 'site' feels a bit disrespectful to me, because it is a grave. I couldn't help but feel that visiting this grave felt a little like trespassing on somebody else's tragedy. Death is personal, after all. At the same, though, I wanted to visit Plath's grave because her writing has meant so much to me – more, perhaps, than any other writer. I wanted to pay my respects. (And, I should confess, I'm an avid literary tourist – my Yorkshire holiday also included two visits to Haworth, one to the house in Manchester where Charlotte Brontë began Jane Eyre, and one to Elizabeth Gaskell's home, also in Manchester. I love literary tourism – this was my dream vacation!)
Once in Yorkshire, getting to Heptonstall was easy. We were staying in Leeds for a couple of days – where I was supposed to be attending a conference about Virginia Woolf but mostly played hooky, because, well, Plath! Brontë! – and from there, we took the train to Hebden Bridge where we changed to a small bus, which drove us up the hill. On a poster, Hebden Bridge described itself as a place where you could 'soak up the cosmopolitan atmosphere and be part of [a] trendy café society'. Tempting as that sounded – especially for someone as obsessed with coffee as I am – we didn't look around except what we saw from the bus. It was very picturesque and the train station looked like it belonged in a costume drama set in the early twentieth century (the current station house was apparently built in the 1890s). The village itself felt exclusive, with lots of jewelry shops and other expensive-looking locations (my husband thought it had more of a new-age vibe – maybe we were looking out on opposite sides of the bus).
Heptonstall was very close to Hebden Bridge – about ten minutes on the small bus. It was situated on a hill and some of its streets were quite steep. Heptonstall, too, was very picturesque but not as touristy. There was no problem finding the churches – there are two, but one is in ruins. The 'new' one is from the middle of the nineteenth century. Plath's grave, likewise, is in the 'new' graveyard: an extension to the earlier graveyard, which, I suppose, filled up at some point.
Finding the actual grave took some time and resulted in two pairs of wet shoes – the grass was high and the whole cemetery somewhat overgrown. The grave itself was beautiful, though, and I kind of liked that we really had to look for it. It had more flowers growing on it than the other graves - mostly blue and pink flowers. The blue flowers, especially, caught my eye. They were intensely blue – the picture doesn't do them justice – and somehow fit so perfectly with the epitaph that Hughes chose for the stone: 'Even midst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted'.
I'm not quite sure what I expected from this visit. Standing at Plath's grave, I didn't feel much, except perhaps a sense of sadness and waste that she died so young. It felt a bit odd that a young American woman would end up in a churchyard on a hill in the middle of Yorkshire. At the same time, Heptonstall and the surrounding landscape – the moors – were striking in their raw beauty – an extreme kind of beauty that felt very fitting to Plath.
After returning with the mini-bus to Hebden Bridge, we took another bus that drove over the moors towards Haworth and that way we got to see more of the stunning landscape, which is what I'll remember most from this visit. 'The horizons ring me like faggots,/ Tilted and disparate, and always unstable'. Yes, indeed.