Claas Kazzer: What is the Truth? Ted Hughes, Childhood, Memories and Stories (Part IV)

Fishing in the canal with nets made of curtain mesh was as much part of the boys' pastime as was hauling stones from the higher bank across the canal to hit the skylights of the defunct Empress Foundry on the other side, and they played in the foundry's "black sand." Derek remembers them going to the long canal tunnel under the main road to look for fish: "We used to go under there, and there were fish, I don't mean the little ones, there were some about that long [indicates 10–15 cm], I think they were roach." To get at the fish, "we used to feel them with his finger right in the cracks and they used to come out and you could catch them sometimes. […] They come out when you tickle them, and you could catch them with your hand." Then, "we put them in jam jars with water, but they always died. We used to think we could keep them like goldfish, but you couldn't."

From the age of five, Teddy went to Burnley Road Primary School in Mytholmroyd. "Three hours of mostly readin', writin' and arithmetic" in the morning, says Derek, taught by Susie Farrar. Then trooping home for lunch up the small path next to the canal, a period of 'sleep,' and more lessons till four p.m. in the afternoon.

From quite an early age, Ted's brother Gerald took him on outings and excursions, such as camping in the valley at the far end of Redacre. Gerald had developed the pastime of shooting over the hillsides on land whose owners he knew, often getting up at the crack of dawn to do so: "He was already an obsessive pursuer of birds and animals – hunting them, shooting them," remembered Ted. "There were rabbits, crows, and magpies. But he was absolutely alone in it." Shooting wasn't "a common sort of pastime among people he knew. He somehow just invented it himself. My father had no interest in it. Nor any of my relatives. Yet he was totally obsessed by that world." Ted entered that world at quite an early age, remembering that "from the age of two or three, I lived completely in the world of this fanatic. His hunting was getting up at 4 o'clock every morning to go up the hillside. Sometimes he'd take me with him" [my italics].[19]

With the adventures came Gerald's stories, stories of primitive hunters, clan chiefs and warriors, making for a truly magic experience. In another interview Ted said that his

early memories of being three and four are of going off with him, being his retriever. I became completely preoccupied by his world of hunting. He was also a very imaginative fellow; he mythologized his hunting world as North American Indian – paleolithic" [my italics].[20]

On two occasions they went into Redacre Wood to dig up or raise the ghost of an Ancient Briton allegedly buried there as described in "The Deadfall" and the poem "The Ancient Briton Lay Under His Rock." There are in fact two close contenders for the Briton's gravestone in Redacre, one massive, carved with graffiti near the brook (which Derek remembers, too), and another, smaller one now chucked halfway down the hillside.

Among the events that also stood out in Ted's memory was an outing with Gerald, camping in the 'happy valley,' as they called it, Hollins Valley up Crimsworth Dene – their campsite being a spot which apparently their mother's brothers had already had as a favourite before the First World War. The story "The Deadfall" memorably refers to this event and Ted would later write to Donald Crossley that he had had a dream there which became all his writing.

In September 1938, the Hughes' sold their house in Mytholmroyd. Edith Hughes had come into a small inheritance when her mother died, and Ted's parents had bought a newspaper and tobacconist's shop in Main Street in Mexborough, opposite St George's Church. Mexborough was a mining town very different from what they'd known. The children hated it so much that Olwyn remembers crying for a fortnight. Gerald left to work in Devon as assistant gamekeeper for a year, then moving on to do his service in the RAF. The move also ended the friendship between Ted and Derek, who told me: "I was in tears, when he left. I was lost, you know," – and they never saw each other again.

When Ted wrote about his childhood in Mytholmroyd, he frequently referred to it as a crucial time. The loss of that world was traumatic, and I'm sure that memory served in dealing with it all. The valley became a haven, a paradise lost, the pleasures and adventures, the freedom – precious almost beyond compare. Sealing it off, as he called it, it became a source, a refuge, somewhere he could return to and something he could later turn into stories and poems. The powerful link to this childhood world goes right down to the level of language. An interviewer once asked him about the special dialect from where he grew up, the language of West Yorkshire:

Which I don't speak any more really, you see it disappeared somewhere. But writing verse, it's what I hear. And, maybe because it has disappeared and maybe because it isn't the language of English culture, maybe it's enabled me to keep hold of what was associated with it in the beginning. […] those first things – that I can hang onto in verse, and make something of in verse […] were sealed off and so stayed out of it, were unaffected – as if they were a different language, I suppose."[21]

In Mexborough, Ted soon enough found new 'secret' places with magic all of their own. The most important for his first few years there was Manor Farm, Old Denaby, where, he remembers, he spent every spare moment of his life between 1939 and 1944. He also mentioned in 1992, that this was a piece of land that he knew better than anywhere on earth.[22]

Manor Farm, today a fancy restaurant, lay across the river from Mexborough and became the setting for the stories "The Rain Horse" and "The Harvesting." It was a place where one could roam, shoot an air rifle, stalk animals by the river and in strips of light forest.

My whole free time, except for after school in the evenings, when I played with kids in town, was getting away to these places for shooting and fishing. […] I've got diaries that I kept when I was 11 and day after day I'm killing wagtails and robins and wrens and grass snakes – everything that moved. It was a total obsession, worse than Darwin or Audubon.[23]

Ted also recalled that on Manor Farm, "I used to trap mice. I had a trapline for mice throughout a big farm. I used to skin these mice and cure the skins. I'd keep them under the lid of my desk at school and sell them for a penny and maybe tuppence for a good one [laughs]." Later he "evolved to gin traps" for "stoats, weasels and water rats – for their skins. This went on until I was 14 or 15. I was obsessed by shooting first, and then gradually fishing came into it. I'd always fished, but gradually the pike fishing took over. That went on really until I went to university."

When Ted was 13 or 14 he met John Wholey through Olwyn (they were in the same class), and John's sister Edna, three years older than Ted. They were the children of the Head Gardener of Crookhill Estate several miles off. Crookhill had a walled garden (now a golf course) of about three acres, with a pond and ancient trees and land of around 100 acres in total. The Head Gardener's house, The Lodge (now demolished), stood by the gate, next to the drive to the main house (torn down for safety reasons). At the time, Crookhill was a terminal tuberculosis hospital. "There were patients within the [main] building and then a row of about 14 wooden chalets and two beds in each chalet, because fresh air is said to be the cure … The people who came there never went away alive, because it was a terminal place," remembers Edna. "But we used to … Ted used to shout poetry to them, Shakespeare. To which they used to …: 'All right lad,' in their broad York …: 'All right lad! […] That's fine! Let's hear some more!'"[24]

[»Click here to read Part V


[19] Ted Hughes and Tom Pero, "So Quickly It's Over," Wild Steelhead & Salmon, 5 (Winter 1999), 54.

[20] Ted Hughes and Drue Heinz, "The Art of Poetry: LXXI," The Paris Review, 37:134 [Spring 1995], 59.

[21] Ted Hughes, Stan Corey and Robyn Routledge, Interview for Lateline, unpublished, ABC (No. 525) 8 July 1976, transcript by Ann Skea.

[22] Referred to in Ted Hughes, Box 115-27. Notes on published Works, TS, March 1992. Ted Hughes papers, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University. He had apparently returned in 1982, when Manor Farm had become mostly ploughland.

[23] This and the following from Ted Hughes and Tom Pero, "So Quickly It's Over," Wild Steelhead & Salmon, 5 (Winter 1999), 54.

[24] This and the following quotes of Edna Chilton from an interview with Edna and Joe Chilton, 2 August 2002.

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About the Author

Claas Kazzer is a German independent scholar formerly associated with the University of Leipzig, Germany. He lives in Leipzig, where he works chiefly as translator and webworker.

His work on Ted Hughes includes "'Earth-Moon': Ted Hughes's Books For Children (And Adults)" (in Moulin (ed.) Ted Hughes: Alternative Horizons) and several essays published on this site. Website:

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Elmet, Faber & Faber 1994, is the title of the revised edition of Hughes's collection of poems Remains of Elmet (1979). The book is a celebration of the area where Ted Hughes spent the first seven years of his childhood. Many of its poems reflect on the region's landscape and its people who, Hughes claims, live in the remains of the Celtic kingdom of Elmet [more].

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