Wodwo on Dartmoor
The air was still warm, but wetter than it had been at Stover. Dartmoor was lurking in its blanket of clouds, hibernating, but down near the village of Belstone the birds were filling the air with their shouting matches. Robins, mostly, by the sound of it, but also a blackbird and a pair of pigeons. They were all hidden away, out of sight in the branches of trees and gorse bushes. If I let my imagination wander, I could persuade myself that it was the plants singing. There was a wedding going on in Belstone church, and the pealing of the bells combined with the trumpeting horns and the barking of the hunt that had assembled on the green. In the fields around the village, young lambs were learning to skip. I felt as though I had stumbled into W.H.Hudson’s early twentieth century England, and made a hasty exit uphill, towards the clouds.
I walked further up the Taw valley, following a lane onto the moor, where tarmac gave way to cobbles. The mist seemed to be rising as I climbed, and by the time I was out of sight of the village I could see the whole of the Taw marsh, a basin surrounded by Tors and ridges, a natural amphitheatre. I’d never been to Dartmoor on such a still day. When I stopped walking I could hear that kind of silence that is full of distant sound. Skylarks, as invisible as the robins, flooded the basin with their gurgling song. Crow called to one another, their cawing sinister on the leafless moor. And there were many many people. Mostly they were walking in noisy groups of four, carrying large rucksacks, leading me to believe they must have been teenagers training for the Ten Tors challenge or their Duke of Edinburgh award. In the stillness I could hear snatches of arguments, complaints and jokes from over a mile away. Like the skylarks, their babble was unceasing.
I followed the Taw through the basin and up a steep gorge under the shadow of Steeperton Tor, passing multicoloured sheep, stocky Dartmoor ponies and the first frogspawn I’d seen this year. The gorge led me to a hanging valley, the floor of which was covered with mounds. At first sight they looked like drumlins, but this isn’t a glacial valley. They’re tumuli, Iron Age burial mounds, and probably piles of mining spoil. Footpaths, sheep tracks and an army access track criss-crossed the valley, heading in all directions. A little way up the side of the valley were the ruins of an old miner’s hut, where I sat, getting my breath back after the climb. Around here is where Ted Hughes’ ashes are scattered, and somewhere amongst those tumuli a granite boulder has been inscribed with his name as hidden memorial.
Up here the clouds hadn’t properly cleared, and now the wind was rising to a breeze, bringing with it a fine mist of rain. On the opposite side of the valley, near the ridge at its top, someone else was sitting alone on a half-sheltered stone. The figure was wrapped up in waterproofs, and too far away for me even to make out whether it was a man or a woman. But for a moment I was sure it was Ted Hughes’ ghost. Perhaps he’d come to hear me read his poems. This put the pressure on somewhat, and I decided I’d better refuel with a Thermos coffee before I began. After a few minutes, just as I began to read, the figure left.
Wodwo is made of three sections – two groups of poems and a series of short stories and prose pieces. Hughes intended them to be read together, as part of a single work. Some tie together closely, like the story of the rat-fighting and the poem ‘Song of a Rat’, which seems to retell the story in more abstract language from the rat’s perspective. Others are connected in ways I couldn’t make out, at least not from my perch in the ruins. It seemed as though the hanging valley added a forth layer. Reading the poems here does something. Sometimes the connection is easy, as with ‘Skylarks’ when a couple of real skylarks did come flying by to ‘sing inwards as well as outwards/Like a breaker of ocean milling the shingle’, their song ‘incomprehensibly both ways -/Joy! Help! Joy! Help!’ And sometimes the connection was deeper, harder to fathom.
I read the poems out loud, and the sound of them mingled with the bubbling of the young Taw.
Out through the dark archway of earth, under the ancient lintel overwritten with roots,
Out between the granite jambs, gallops the hooded horseman of iron.
Out of the wound-gash in the earth, the horseman mounts, shaking his plumes clear of dark soil.
Out of the blood-dark womb, gallops bowed the horseman or iron.
The blood-crossed Knight, the Holy Warrior, hooded with iron, the seraph of the bleak edge.
Gallops along the world’s ridge in moonlight.
(‘Gog’, part III, p.151)
It was as if the trees and the woods suddenly had their secret meaning laid bare, and, as in ‘Ballad from a Fairy Tale’ (p.167),
I could have reached and touched it
But I was standing in a valley
Deeper than any dream.
And again it passed from my sight.
As I read the clouds began to clear. Weather changes quickly on the moors, and today it was changing for the better. I read almost all the poems to the rocks, the skylarks and the Taw, and as the words left my lips I imagined the wind whisking them off to add to the peaty compost of the valley floor. After a while I got up to search for the memorial stone itself, but with no luck. I had printed off detailed instructions of how to find it from the internet, but left them at home. It didn’t matter. The stone was there somewhere. Perhaps by then it had been hidden under moss and lichen, become dissolved into the moor, into the soil, and into the water. ‘And, among them, the fern
Dances gravely, like the plume
Of a warrior returning under the low hills,
Into his own kingdom.
I was reading a beautiful first edition of Wodwo, on loan from Barnstaple library (though I was sorely tempted to keep it and face their wrath), published by Faber and Faber in 1967, which had only been borrowed fifteen times between 1971 and 2012.