Mill ponds, poetry and pike as deep as England: an extract from our new Book of the Month – Benjamin Myers’ Under the Rock: The Poetry of a Place – published later this month by Elliott & Thompson.
It is June, the month that Pablo Neruda describes as trembling like a butterfly, and the Yorkshire valley is in wild bloom. Whispering fields wave hello, and the river banks are lost beneath blankets of barbed nettles and balsam.
The cottage sits down a narrow lane in an ancient hamlet. It is a stout weaver’s cottage, built from study rain-blackened stone in 1640, as old as any building in America. The water is supplied by a spring up the hill.
When one of the removal men stops to roll a cigarette I ask him about the silted pond down the lane.
“That’s Stubb Dam, is that,” he says, gesturing towards the hawthorn-lined lane that appears to disappear into a tunnel. “We’d swim in it as kids, and you could fish it too. Plenty of different fish down there. Some nice trout at one point, and giant pike that had been down there years. A lovely place. But then some feller bought the land and fenced it off. Put up barbed wire and ‘Private: No Entry’ signs, and what have you. So obviously we weren’t having that.”
He pauses and slowly exhales smoke,, bull-like through his nostrils.
“So what happened?” I ask.
“Me and some of the boys loaded an old digger with a sack of something nasty and rolled it down the hill and into the pond. Poisoned it.”
“Aye, chemicals. The fish were floating belly-up by the morning. Here, I bet you think we’re a right bunch of hillbillies.”
As he says this his phone vibrates. The ring-tone is ‘Duelling Banjos’. The theme from Deliverance.
Once settled I find myself down at the Stubb Dam each morning, casting a fishing line baited with sweetcorn into the slightly sorrowful murky circle.
Every ten minutes or so a train rattles past my back, transporting valley folk to work in Leeds and Manchester. I see their faces only fleetingly. The sense of freedom and privilege I feel is almost overwhelming. What luck. A new chapter is beginning.
If the pond was poisoned then it has recovered now, for the water is busy with perch and roach. Several times I glimpse the long ridged spine of something far bigger, a muscular tail-flick thrashing at my peripherals. It is surely the ancient pike that poet Ted Hughes described as being “of submarine delicacy and horror”, a creature that Hughes famously described “as deep as England”.
In the 1870s Stubb Dam provided a head of water to drive wheels that powered lathes in a nearby wood-turning business. Old photographs show a neat, stone-lined basin with clusters of people reclining in the neat grass, and children cat play. It looks like a desirable destination; an upland oasis. A sunken Arcadia in the West Riding interior.
Today it is a place defined by absence, neglect and decay. The dam itself has collapsed so that one end of the pond drains away into a slow-flowing outlet clogged by snagged branches, silt and rocks. Around it I find dumped beer cans, broken bottles, railway sleepers and unlabelled oil drums that I would not care to open.
Nevertheless the place is wildly, gloriously alive. In fact, nature is winning here. The landscape is erasing man’s mistakes and reclaiming the space back once again from its industrial past.
Stubb Dam pond is where Ted Hughes learned to swim. In his book Ted & I, older brother Gerald describes the warm summer days spent here between 1927-1938 and records their sister Olwyn’s recollection of the nascent poet’s first dip: “I was sitting with Mam and Ted was paddling at the edge of the dam – he couldn’t swim then – when suddenly he was in quite deep water. Mam tore down to get him out, but he was swimming away happily, doggy-paddle style – his first ever swim.”
Gerald also writes of an incident at this pond in 1937, when Ted was six. The family were enjoying a picnic when their father William Hughes dived headfirst into the water and straight into an abandoned bicycle. He surfaced to discover that he had torn his chest and arms on the jagged metal and was bleeding from his injuries.
Here too is where Hughes perhaps encountered his first pike, and where a lifelong fascination with the fish that represented to him the essence of life force itself was awakened.
“Pike had become fixed at some very active, deep level in my imaginative life,” he revealed in an interview for an American angling magazine. “This recurrent dream was always an image of how I was feeling about life. When I was feeling good, I’d have dreams full of giant pike that were perhaps also leopards… They’d become symbols of deep, vital life… very bad time might produce a nightmare dream of the lake lined with concrete, and empty.”
Hughes went on to describe how the day before his marriage to poet Sylvia Plath he dreamt of hooking such a pike from a tremendous depth.
The closest I come however is lifting out the palm-sized perch and roach. I am terrible angler and the thought of harming even the smallest bottom feeders will become so great that I will soon hang up my tackle. But for now, each morning on the water, I enter a sort of becalmed trance that only now, nearly a decade later, have I begun to identify was a process of decompression. I was not learning to fish at all. I was learning to breathe and to think, to master the art of patience and to broaden my horizon.
And I was surely lucky, for during those summer mornings the pond was as still as a mirror, though as AE Houseman wrote: “June suns, you cannot store them / To warm the winter’s cold.”
The tragedy of summer is that it never lasts.
Under The Rock by Benjamin Myers (hardback, 256 pages, Elliott & Thompson) is published on 17 May. Pre-order your copy here.