The Ted Hughes Poetry Festival returned to Mexborough between the 18-26 June. Last July saw the inaugural festival. This year’s program drew heavily on Hughes’ history in Mexborough whilst also promoting the current literary culture of South Yorkshire.
Ted Hughes is one of England’s most famed poets, having served as Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. He was the husband of poet Sylvia Plath.
The festival was organised by Mexborough-based community group, The Ted Hughes Project (THP) which is funded by Arts Council England.
“The project has a threefold aim: to develop an annual poetry festival in Mexborough; to develop a Ted Hughes Trail in and around Mexborough; and to develop creative writing and arts within the community at Mexborough”, said Steve Ely, a poet involved in organising the festival.
The THP was formed in late 2014 with their first project being the organisation of a ‘Ted Hughes’s Paper Round’- a performance trail between Mexborough and Old Denaby based on the route of the eleven years old Hughes’s paper round.
Ely says “there’s no doubt” that Hughes ties to Mexborough have been ignored.
“Jonathan Bate’s recent (2015) biography and the BBC documentary that came out at the same time both sadly perpetuate the myth that Hughes was formed in his natal town of Mytholmroyd in the upper Calder Valley before going up to Cambridge, meeting Sylvia Plath and embarking on his stellar literary career – completely ignoring Mexborough’s role in Hughes’s formation. In fact the Hughes family moved to Mexborough in 1938 when Hughes was only 8 years old and lived there until 1951, in which year they returned to the upper Calder Valley – and Ted went up to Cambridge”, he said.
The Mexborough countryside was a massive influence on the young poet.
“During his time at Mexborough Hughes would roam the countryside – particularly at Old Denaby and Crookhill – shooting and trapping animals and fishing, particularly for pike. This immersion in nature gave him the keen eye that informs his nature poems”, said Ely.
In Mexbrough, Hughes wrote his first poems and it is “where he resolved-at the age of 16, in 1946-to become a poet”, said Ely. Hughes by age 17 was known as ‘the poet’ by the staff and pupils of Mexborough Grammar School.
Mexborough Grammar School is now closed but during the main day of the festival-Saturday 25th June-it was base of the festival. At 1 pm on the Saturday, Pauline Mayne’s daughter-her mother taught Hughes English at school-presented on her mother’s influence.
“His time at Mexborough Grammar School and the influence of his charismatic English teachers Pauline Mayne and John Fisher in particular formed his artistic tastes, allowed him to develop into a nascent ‘man of letters’ and facilitated his entry to Pembroke College, Cambridge” said Ely.
A key highlight of the festival was a reading by Frieda Hughes at 6 pm on the Saturday. Freida is of course Hughes and Plath’s daughter, and an accomplished author and poet in her own right.
The festival tries to maintain as many direct or indirect Hughes links as possible. Other events included Hughes’s scholars (and poets) Greg Leadbetter, Vidyan Ravinthiran and Ed Reiss discussing Ted Hughes’s politics via a discussion of several of his poems, folk singer Mick Jenkinson performing an arrangements of ballads Hughes loved and used to sing as an undergraduate and the latest version of ‘Ted Hughes’s Paper Round’ is taking place.
Yet Ely says that “the Festival is a poetry and arts festival in the widest sense and we aim to bring to Mexborough top quality performers.”
Ian McMillan, Ian Clayton, Helen Mort all appeared at this year’s festival. “They are all ‘Yorkshire writers’ with national and international reputations.”
“Our festival is about honouring and commemorating the fact that the greatest English poet of the 20th century was formed in Mexborough, but it is not backward-looking or heritage based – its about liberating creativity, generating involvement and simply promoting fun, excitement and enjoyment today – in Hughes’s name”, said Ely.