The Ted Hughes Poetry Trail at Stover Country Park

By Tim Halpin:

I sat on a rustic bench – a sawn section of trunk mounted onto two stumps – beside The Warm and the Cold, point two on the Poetry Trail. Twenty metres behind me was my car. I could have heard it ticking as it cooled down, but the sound was drowned out by wave after wave of cars on the A382, just the other side of the car park. Equally incessant was the birdsong. A robin sat halfway up a young oak growing beside The Young and the Cold, furiously exchanging trembling phrases with another robin in the trees shading the car park. The South West of England was blanketed by a warm trough of air in a stable high pressure system whose centre covered the whole of the Bay of Biscay. It was a warm Spring day, and Ted Hughes’ similes seemed strangely out of place.

Moonlight freezes the shaggy world
Like a mammoth of ice.

Of course, they were out of place. The trail began at a giant book carved out of wood, engraved with a map of the park and a short introduction to Ted Hughes. The poems themselves had escaped from the book, to be written on granite tablets along the Poetry Trail. The Stover Country Park had done what I do, and taken the writing outdoors. But it seemed that they’d gone further than me, taking the poems so far out of their literary context that they do not even mention which poetry collection they are from. The idea was that the poems would add to the visitors’ enjoyment of the park. I was more interested in what the park does to the poems.

I’d taken a copy of Hughes’ 1967 Wodwo out of the library, and I planned to take it up onto Dartmoor, where the poet’s ashes are scattered, to read it there. I couldn’t help already comparing this place to the moor. The robin flew down from the tree and began to pick at some crumbs on the bench beside me. I’d got a handy printed version of the park map in my pocket to guide me round the Trail, and consulted it as the robin ate. He left when a trio of springer spaniels came blustering over to say hello, and so did I.

The next stop was to read A Cormorant by a bench overlooking the man-made lake. I’d never been much of a twitcher. There were ducks, mostly mallards but also some exotics. Some terns too, probably migratory. But no cormorants today. The noble cormorant of the poem seemed at odds with the ducks. The warm weather had kick-started the mallards’ mating season, one of the most violent and unpleasant of any animal’s. In the middle of the lake, three drakes were pursuing one bedraggled female, taking it in turns to attempt to mount her, pinning her head underwater with their beaks. It’s not a comfortable sight to watch, especially when there are curious children around, which there were. Something about this spoils A Cormorant for me. Hughes’ fish bird, dissolving as it dives. The lake had a feint smell of drains lingering over it, and the branches of trees that had fallen in were coated with putty-coloured algae and silt.

No.6, Roe-deer, sat beside a picturesque little bridge that was built, its inscription told me, in 1877. I’m sure roe deer do sometimes visit that spot, between broadleaf and evergreen woodlands,but not to be blinded by headlights, as Hughes’ are, though I could still hear the road’s drone. A puppy, Trevor, was called away from me. The owner gave me a nod and a smile of apology. It was a struggle to read myself into the Roe-deer’s lonely snowcovered dawn scene, where ‘the curtain had blown aside for a moment/And there where the trees were no longer trees, nor the road a road’ where ‘the deer had come for me.’ I couldn’t help but wish I was reading this at home, from a book, with less interruptions.

From here the trail left the main path and followed the stream into the conifer plantation. And immediately, with no struggle, I was in another world. Under the dark trees the noise of the road seemed to come from far away. The woods felt almost subterranean. Here I found The Thought Fox, abstract and particular. The poem turned the world to images. The stream, the solitary oak growing amidst the conifers, the catkins bursting on the overhanging hazels. The poem seemed to overpower the context, and could reshape the world in its own images.

Pike was by a stretch of what was once a canal that carried granite from the Dartmoor quarries to the port at Teignmouth. Now it was a shallow, narrow pond. A pair of mallards sat roosting on a half-submerged branch, head under wing, but one eye watching. A more exotic duck swam back and forth, passing and repassing me, diving every half minute or so, as if begging for a crust but proving that he was capable of fending for himself. Once he came up with a silver fish in his bill. I sat on the bench and ate my own cheese and pickle sandwiches, and read. Before I’d read half the poem I was worrying for the ducks. I imagined them as a pike would see them, hanging like ripe fruit. I imagined the pike, as malevolent as ‘the grin it was born with’.

Further along the Trail wardens and rangers were clearing and burning scrub and rhododendrons near a sign explaining how heathland has to be managed to prevent it reverting to woodland. Other signs told the history of the park, and the family that once owned it. The poetry trail curled all this into pages, spine and cover of a new anthology of Ted Hughes’ poetry. The poems hadn’t really been set free, scattered around the park. They were typeset in stone. The new anthology could probably have done with better editing at times, but the landscape has been resculptured here so often that the idea of adding a textual layer to it is not totally absurd. The Iron Man and The Lake both work magic, turning a pylon into a giant, searching for the sea, whilst the lake becomes a secretive animal, that:

Snuffles at my feet for what I might drop or kick up,
Sucks and slobbers the stones, snorts through its lips. (4-5)

The poetry trail may have failed to bring the poems closer to the roe-deer’s otherworld, but these easier poems couldn’t fail to change the way I saw the park.

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the lovesick Orlando hangs his poetry in the forest of Arden, saying ‘These trees shall be my books,/And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character’ (3.ii.5-6). He’s a fool for it, for the wildwood doesn’t speak in any language, and trying to read it leads to near disaster. But Stover Country Park was as far from Arden as printed paper is from a tree. At its best, these semi-natural trees, half-tame birds, artificial lake and exotic wildfowl were the gilded cover and title page, like the giant wooden book back by the car park. The poetry hadn’t escaped the book at all, just been reissued in a new edition.

Words & Pictures: Tim Halpin

This article originally appeared on Read by the River, and we are extremely grateful to Tim for the permission to re-publish it here.

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