Holy Sites of Heptonstall

Bank Holiday Monday, and I was supposed to be in County Durham, visiting my friend and fellow-pilgrim Dan. My handbrake was playing up, so Dan set out to visit me in Hebden Bridge instead, arriving a little after lunch with Molly the sheepdog. We ate burritos in the park then followed the wooded valley of Hebden Breck towards Heptonstall. This village sits on a hilltop above Hebden Bridge and was the larger settlement until the Industrial revolution, when the bottom of the valley offered water to power mills.

Walking through the woodland along the river, it is easy to overlook how the water has been domesticated. Massive stone walls channel the route, but they are so old and moss-covered that it’s easy to think of them as natural. Dan stopped to point out a chopped tree that had been transformed with the addition of two figures. One was a white china rabbit holding a drum that nestled among the moss where a trunk had been severed. Above it, slightly smaller, was a statue of a gnome, with a faded yellow smock and a pale blue hat. We didn’t disturb them in case they were important to someone. An offering to the woods, maybe.

There are numerous paths to Heptonstall. The road up from the town is a long tarmac slog, but various footpaths tangle on the hillsides, some offering easier walks. The blackberry bushes were heavy with fruit, some of them pale-tasting, others vivid and sour. We picked our route by taking whichever path looked most interesting, finally emerging near the cafe, whose keeper was proud of the Biscotti Cheesecake that Dan ordered. We ate on a bench, while a nervous cat watched Molly.

Heptonstall has two churches standing side-by-side. The original, dedicated to the English martyr Thomas a Becket, was damaged in a gale in 1847 and now stands as a ruin, the bones of a building. The new church was built in the old church’s grounds, and dedicated to a different Thomas, the apostle who doubted the resurrection. It seemed strange to have the same name for the church while changing who it referred to, and I wondered why Thomas a Becket was out of favour. We wandered through the ruin with Molly, who was visiting her first church. In a small recess someone had placed a painted rock, a memorial to the slaughter in Dunblane, 25 years ago, when a gunman took seventeen lives. Between the ruin and the new church is a flagstone graveyard, the floor tiled with flat black markers, each detailing one of the dead, all made slightly uneven by time. It was here we encountered our first Heptonstall shrine.

David Hartley, also known as King David, was the leader of a notorious group of counterfeiters, the Cragg Vale Coiners. They would take coins and shave metal from them to be used in casting new coins. The gang were violent men, eventually hunted down for murder, but they are remembered as icons of resistance. They are the subject of a Chumbawumba song (“deliver us kicking from our pokes and sacks to the hills of Hebden, hell and Halifax”) as well as Ben Myer’s book The Gallows Pole which has been filmed for release in the Autumn. Hartley was hanged in York in 1770.

King David’s grave stands out. It lies in the shadow of a tree, and offerings have been placed on the stone’s smooth black surface. A couple of red roses, and a scattering of coins – it’s become a custom to place money on King David’s grave. It’s an example of what folklorists refer to a ‘ritual litter’. Other examples would be the roadside shrines dedicated to accident victims, or the pieces of cloth tied to rag trees. In a nearby valley from King David’s grave is a coin tree, where passers-by have pushed coins into a fallen rotting trunk. Dr Ceri Houlbrook has asked people why they participate in these rituals, and their explanations refer to luck, to wishes, and to imagined traditions. Whether it’s trainers thrown into a particular tree, coins cast into a fountain, or graves turned into shrines, we are eager to make the world holy.

Today, someone has arranged some of the coins into a plea: HELP. It’s August Bank Holiday, but Britain is looking at a grim winter. Along with the threat of covid mutations, strain on the NHS and an economy hobbled by Brexit, domestic fuel prices look like they will increase by 80%. For businesses, the situation is even worse, with care homes and schools facing the threat of bankruptcy. The country feels strained and exhausted. Rather than look for a solution, the government has been distracted by an endless leadership contest. Right now, pleading for help from counterfeiters, dead two-and-a-half centuries, seems more likely to bring help than the government.

We move on, past Thomas the Apostle church, crossing a track to reach another graveyard. This one is not as full as the other, with a strip of empty, unmown grass before the graves, which include the resting place of the poet, Sylvia Plath. It is the second of Heptonstall’s shrines. The grave is easy to find among the others, a cluster of people standing by it. We wait for our turn.

The stone is simple, and small rocks border the soil surface of the grave-bed. Green plants with veiny leaves cover most of the surface – possibly alkanet – and a small child’s windmill stands above them. Among the plants you can see pens that have been placed into the soil. Are they left as offerings? Or do people come back to retrieve them, having charged their pen in the famous writer’s grave?

The headstone bears her name, her dates (1932 to 1963) and a quotation: “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted“. Plath is named as ‘Sylvia Plath Hughes’, and the name she got from her Poet Laureate husband has been scratched, as if visitors have attempted to erase any claim Hughes has – Plath’s letters detail shocking physical abuse by him. On top of the gravestone, there rest a line of small stones, some of them holding down folded paper. Among them rests a small piece of violet heather.

Of course, I’m curious about what people have written on these pieces of paper – pleas, or tributes or even poems, perhaps. But I would not touch them – offerings in a holy place seem like something that should be allowed to be private. We head on, taking a path down by Hell Hole Rocks back to my house, away from the shrines of Heptonstall.

Sending out my writing

A while back, I wrote about how my writing has developed through reading Chuck Palahniuk’s discussions of technique. An even bigger change over the last year has been to focus on publication, in whatever form that takes.

Anxiety over sharing my work has long been a problem. It wasn’t the simple ‘fear of success’ that some people talk about, rather a ridiculous fear of negative effects from publication. At the same time, I’ve been driven to write stories since I could first write a sentence, and these two drives have been in conflict. Sometimes I’ve thought I should quit writing stories and focus more on other parts of my life – but quitting didn’t work for me either, so I needed to find another way through.

Since moving to Yorkshire, I’ve put more effort into sending work out. A lot of my old work was written with little thought of an audience. It was fun, and some of that work was great, but you lose rigour if you don’t define yourself against any external standards. I wrote some good stories that I have no idea what to do with. An example of this is a story I wrote called Richey Edwards vs Godzilla, a mash-up of indie music and kaijus. It’s a great piece of writing, but almost wilfully obscure.

Change is a strange thing – it can take years but feel sudden. I’ve been toying with ways to put my work in public for a while. Part of this was attending a 2018 Arvon course with Tania Hershman and Nuala O’Connor, which provoked me into one flurry of submissions. The South Downs Way zine project has been an interesting way to explore publication, and putting recent volumes onto etsy has worked well. In 2022, I have become more consistent with submissions (41 so far this year) and it feels like a significant change.

It’s not as if I am now writing things only so they can be published. I have a huge number of ideas and it is more about working on the ones I feel I can find a home for.

Recently I thought about writing a folk horror piece about offices. It was interesting, in that it took the elements of folk horror and transposed them to a corporate setting. But, at the same time, it was mostly a cover version of The Wicker Man. If I’d worked on this, it would have been competent, but I couldn’t imagine being enthusiastic about submitting it. Long stories take a lot of time, and need to be worth spending so much energy on. In the end, I stripped out the elements of the piece I liked, and it will emerge as a smaller, stranger piece than it would otherwise. I’ve spent too long writing solely for myself, and I need to make up for lost time.

Monthnotes: September 2022

September felt like a transitional month. I was still settling in the house, and slowly moving things into the right places. There’s a lot to do, and I was grateful to my sister and her husband for coming by to strip down the ivy and creepers. The old flat in Halifax had to be cleaned and handed back. I also wound up my job with Mindera, which I finished on the last day of the month.

Along with all this, I went out hiking for a week on Coast-to-Coast with my brother-in-law. Katharine came to visit and, inspired by a guardian article, we took a hike in Bradford, which turned out to be a little underwhelming. I did get to see an original Lowry painting, though. I think we had a copy in the house when I was small, and the original turned out to be much larger than I expected. I did local sections of the Pennine Way with James Spratt, including my first wild swim in Gaddings Dam reservoir. Vicky brought her greyhound Libby to visit and I discovered that greyhounds are weird creatures, nothing like other dogs. I was surprised to learn that they chatter their teeth to express joy.

With the long hike included, I walked 536,907 steps in September, with a maximum of 46,870 on the second day’s walking on the Coast to Coast. This means a daily average of 17,896, which is the highest for some time. My weight continues to float gently downwards, although only by a pound and a half, despite a sometimes poor diet.

The Guardian’s Bradford hike

My writing has been a little slower this month, with only six submissions, and one new story finished but not sent out (James Joyce’s Ulysses as a Cursed Object). For the first time, I had all of my current stories submitted at the same time (11 in total). I withdrew a couple of stories from submission (Wreckage and The Leech Catchers) as I didn’t feel they were as instantly appealing as my other pieces, but they might emerge somewhere eventually. The month ended with a flurry of rejections, bringing my stats for the year so far to 41 submitted, 7 accepted, 29 rejected. I’m more excited about writing than ever, and looking forward to playing with some ideas before I start the new job. Three stories were published:

I’ve been reading some great books this month, although in a disordered way, switching between them. Of the books I finished, three were non-fiction books about music – it’s as if reading about music has replaced getting into new bands. Curious about how the Beatles went on to make Abbey Road after the finality of Let It be, I read Ken McNab’s And in the End. There is a lot in the book about business dealings, shareholdings and corporate takeovers, but I guess that is a reflection of where the Beatles had found themselves. Nicholas Soulsby’s Dark Slivers focussed on Nirvana’s Incesticide, and produced a surprising number of fresh insights and revelations about Kurt Cobain. The book-length Nick Cave interview Faith, Hope and Carnage discussed Cave’s creative process and spirituality, as well as being a provocative engagement with grief.

Grief was also a substantial theme of Ru Callender’s memoir What Remains?. I’d expected this to be good, but I was surprised by how good. I discussed this a little on Twitter, but plan to write more soon. Storyland by Amy Jeffs managed to be more engaging than most books of myths, and contained many I’d not read before. I was inspired to read No Country for Old Men by the movie, and loved the grit of the language. Olivia Laing’s Everybody was another triumph – less cohesive than The Lonely City maybe, but it brought together people including William Reich, de Sade, Malcolm X and Nina Simone. There was also an amazing section on Ana Mendieta, an artist I couldn’t believe I’d missed out on. I also read a novel about music, David Keenan’s This is Memorial Device, which I think I need to revisit, as I don’t think I gave it as much attention as it deserved. It seems a book that would be better suited to physical form than on a Kindle. Finally, Sally Jenkinson’s new pamphlet Pantomime Horse, Russian Doll, Egg was released (for sale here), and it was a powerful and moving work. September’s reading might have been disordered, but I read some amazing books.

I didn’t manage much TV, although I finished watching Better Call Saul with Kate Shields. It was a great show, but I’m not sure what story it wanted to tell. And maybe telling its story alongside the events of Breaking Bad harmed it in the end. I saw several movies. Everything Everywhere All At Once was delightful, and as good as everyone promised. Kes was an interesting period piece. I watched The Return (2005) with James Spratt and it was somewhat disappointing. Withnail and I was quotable but the alcoholism just felt sad. I also made two trips to the cinema. The Forgiven was great, and I enjoyed watching a drama with no CGI, spaceships or superheroes. Nope was more my usual fare and was excellently constructed, although it didn’t grab me as tightly as I would have liked.

It’s been weird having such a long time between accepting the new job and finishing the old one. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into some new challenges. In the meantime, I’ve updated my programming blog with some missing content that was only on linked in. I also reviewed Dave Farley’s Modern Software Engineering book, which was excellent. I’ve got a couple of weeks off between the two jobs and I’m hoping to play with a few tech things in that time.

It’s been another battering month for the UK politically. Liz Truss came into power then a few days later the queen died. This meant that politics was out on hold despite the ongoing crisis. I was away for the mourning period, although this meant I caught a few TV screens where the BBC news seemed to be doing nothing more than interviewing people in the queue. When politics returned, Truss failed to solve the energy crisis for many people then unleashed the worst budget of my lifetime. Along with the nuclear posturing over Ukraine, this continues to be an anxious time.

Something musical I’ve enjoyed recently – Alison Rose’s acoustic version of the Nevermind album. Acoustic covers can be a cheap trick, but this album draws out how good the originals were.