Thursday, 7 October 2010

Autumn on Wuthering Heights

There are still wild places left in the north of England. These bare uplands on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire were once home to a large population of small farmers, who began to move in at the end of the last ice age. They burned the trees, drained the peat, introduced sheep, and enclosed the land in walls of grey limestone. A hundred and fifty years ago, in the face of bitter winters, falling prices and the 19th century rise of the cotton and woollen mills, they began to abandon these bleak, wind-scoured heights for a more comfortable life in the lowland townships. It’s a process that is still going on.

The walls are still there, though many are fallen now, and the farmsteads lie in ruins, while the land gradually becomes feral.


On an autumn day with sun and cloud chasing each other across the landscape it’s a good place to be. A couple of crows are hang-gliding in the wind above a copse of trees. There’s water everywhere - seeping out of the limestone through cracks and breaches in the rock.


A few rowan trees are growing on the edge of a natural gorge where the water spills out. It’s the colour of Yorkshire tea, stained by the peat on the moors above. There’s still some here, despite centuries of drainage, and there are schemes to preserve it because the peat has, over thousands of years, locked carbon dioxide away in its fibrous layers.



As I walk up, they’re gathering the sheep for the autumn ‘tupping’. Fell sheep are mated quite late so that the lambs are born after the worst of the winter weather.


Apart from the farmer and his dogs there’s no one else in the landscape, and as I walk down, it's beginning to get dark.  The cloudscape is amazing.  It reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Wuthering Heights’ - ‘the wind/pours by like destiny, bending/everything in one direction’ and ‘hollow doorsteps go from grass to grass’. But these same solitudes that unsettled Sylvia Plath, are home to me, since I was born and brought up on a remote farm in a similar location.  Wuthering Heights was my favourite novel at 16.


When I come home and switch on the television, there’s a moment of shock. Ted Hughes’ newly released poem about Plath’s death ‘Last Letter’ is being read on Channel 4. It is brutal and unbearably tragic, since it was written in the 1970s with the knowledge not only of Plath’s suicide and the guilt of Hughes’ emotional involvement, but also the suicide of his second wife, Assia Wevill, who also killed their child. More grief than anyone should have to deal with. It makes a sombre ending for what had been a particularly beautiful day.

Stone, Wood, Water.

1 comment:

  1. this is all too beautiful - and yes, the Hughes poem is all too sad... his collected letters (ed. Chris Reid) are astonishing

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