Northern Poetry Train to Hebden Bridge
Driving to work among Monday’s morning rush hour, I happened to catch a reading on BBC Radio 4 which hailed the common book as the most powerful object of our time. A bold claim, I thought, until I considered the previous day where I had joined a literature trail in Hebden Bridge with others united by one common interest – a love of books. Old and young, press and public: it was all aboard the Northern Poetry Train to Hebden Bridge.
This is a paid collaborative post with Northern, the UK’s second largest rail operator.
I’ve always read for enjoyment. As a child I read voraciously, often getting into trouble for reading late into the night, my book lit with only the faintest glimmer of torchlight under the sheet. This passion for reading never left me and served me well in my teaching years. Time strapped, my reading choices were substituted for whole-class reading texts and poems read out in those fleeting moments between school and home time. Nowadays, I carve out time – an hour before sleep to immerse myself in a new world, remembering that childhood joy.
Recently, I was invited to journey to Hebden Bridge on Northern’s Poetry Train, a collaboration between Northern and the Manchester Literature Festival. Taking my seat among other invited guests, I waited patiently for the 11.15 train to trundle out from underneath Manchester Victoria’s shadow anticipation rising for award-winning poet in waiting, Helen Mort, to take her unusual stage in the train’s aisle.
Reciting her newly commissioned poem, ‘there and back’, Helen gave us a guided tour of the Manchester to Hebden Bridge line just with words -personifying stations and recounting childhood memories. Memories that gave us a glimmer of insight into Helen’s childhood visiting relatives on the humble train: from her grandad’s house crammed with pianos waiting to be repaired, to the repugnant scent of Middleton’s Sarson’s Vinegar Factory lingering in the air. Listening rapt with attention to those undulating northern tones, Helen’s vivid poetry resonated and forced me to imagine a dark, brooding county. Listening to ‘there and back’, it describes:
Victoria At ten, my globe was this tiled map atlas, crimson-black veins the neural pathways of Yorkshire, Lancashire. Here, it’s always evening…
In contrast, our entry to Yorkshire was bathed in sunlight as the green rolling hills came into sight, all whilst we were treated to the rest of ‘there and back’ from Helen – only pausing for station stops. Arriving at Hebden Bridge, we were greeted by the historic station. Historic but quaint. With traditional Yorkshire stone and monochromatic signs, it harks back to a bygone era and has served the town since 1840 – a real treat for the eye.
And it’s here where our two hour trail starts with a brief introduction to our literature guide, Anne, who is set the task of guiding us around through the town of Hebden Bridge. Leaving the station, we pass over a bridge to journey alongside the Rochdale Canal. A waterway which once worked hard to serve Hebden Bridge as an industrial area, but since the demise of carrying commercial goods along the waterway in the eighties, it now presents an attractive cruising zone. And it could be said it’s thanks to the opening of this canal that rooted the town’s fierce independent way of thinking, helping develop the eclectic spirit and reputation that it’s known for today.
Continuing on the trail, the next stop is the community owned Picture House. On the side, the building bears a marker of previous floods which serves as a powerful reminder of the power of nature against the town’s community spirit and grafting approach. It’s here we’re presented with a map of the South Pennines and Anne’s instils in us all the working mentality of the town, explaining its deep-rooted history in weaving. Do you know the difference between the warp and the weft? Because I do now.
Walking through the centre, we considered the vertiginous Packhorse Trail to Heptonstall, the small village and final resting place of Sylvia Plath. Take a wander through St Thomas’ Churchyard in to find her grave and that of the famous poet, Asa Benveniste. You’ll recognise Plath’s grave by the many pens left by visitors and Asa Benveniste’s, who settled in Hebden Bridge in the 1980s, by the inscription on his grave which reads, ‘Foolish enough to have been a poet’.
Our final stop on the literature trail, the Stubbing Wharf pub which inspired the Ted Hughes poem of the same name. We found no winter rain, nor a ‘gummy dark bar’ on the day we visited, but a pub bathed in sunlight with Sunday afternoon revellers watching the world pass by. The poem is part of the ‘Birthday Letters’ collection and describes Hughes and Plath’s visit to Hebden in the late 50s with a macabre sense of doom.
With two hours spent exploring Hebden’s literature history, it’s on to the aptly named ‘The Page’ for a well-deserved coffee and cake. Entering the small dwelling, we’re struck by the books that line the walls of this speciality coffee house with authors such as Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath almost springing out to greet us. The pictures do speak for themselves, but honestly, that flat white was one of the best cups of coffee I’ve ever had.
Location: 2 The Courtyard, Bridge Gate, Hebden Bridge
Experience the Literature Trail for Yourself
If my experience has inspired you to explore the poetry of the north, discover the historic landmarks around Hebden Bridge and immerse yourself in the rich literary heritage of the Calder Valley why not download your own map and start planning your journey. Don’t forget you can download Northern’s free mobile app to buy tickets from your smartphone and plan your journey. You can also read Helen Mort’s commissioned poem by visiting the Northern website.
Of course, no return trip to Hebden Bridge would be complete without me paying a visit to an independent shop, or two. Strolling in the late afternoon sun, I discovered Heart Gallery. Homed in The Arts Centre, Heart Gallery’s large, black door opens to is an inviting space showcasing contemporary art, unique craft and timeless jewellery. The perfect place for a Sunday afternoon Of course, when I spotted these playful versions of ‘The Observer’s Book of’ series, I couldn’t pass by without taking a photograph.
Location: The Arts Centre, 4a Market Street, Hebden Bridge