The Ted Hughes Project (South Yorkshire) was borne out of the connection between Mexborough and Poet Laureate Ted Hughes who lived locally as a child.
Putting Mexborough Back on the Map
The poet and academic Steve Ely was writing a book exploring the links between Hughes’ poetry and the area and Creative Producer Dominic Somers was looking for a way to get the local community engaged in poetry and creative writing. The pair knew from conversations with locals that there was a hidden literary culture – people in the community who said they ‘wrote a bit’. The Ted Hughes Project (South Yorkshire) was their brainchild as a mechanism to make things happen with support from the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership.
The project was highly successful and included:
- A now well-established annual Ted Hughes Project Festival in Mexborough that celebrates renowned poets whilst providing a platform for local talent
- Over 60 people have been shaping their own creative writing and exploring poetry at ‘Write on Mexborough!’ courses with the aim to balance expression and encouragement with high expectations. The course had the structure and aims of a university creative writing course model including peer and tutor feedback and masterclasses
- Producing ‘The Don and the Dearne’; one of four anthologies of participant’s work and arranged poetry readings in the town
- Local people exploring their literary heritage through the Ted Hughes’ Paper Round ; part walk, part talk and part poetry performance which follows the route of a young Ted’s paper round
- A printed Ted Hughes Heritage map in partnership with Mexborough Heritage Society
- Winning the Michael Marks award in 2018 for Illustration in a Poetry Pamphlet – illustrations by RP.
What next for Mexborough?
Over the last three decades Mexborough has shared the social and economic problems common amongst post-industrial towns. Part of the project was for it to be an interesting vehicle that could begin to challenge negative perceptions of Mexborough as a ‘forgotten town’.
To connect poetry with Mexborough felt like a radical idea. At first glance other places with an established reputation for poetry and literature such as York, Stratford-upon-Avon and Hay-on-Wye seemed to have little in common with this Dearne Valley town. Steve Ely also explained that ‘before the project there was nothing at all poetry-wise in Mexborough.’
However, to the project team, it felt like there was a good story that was untold. Ted Hughes’s upbringing is often glossed over and instead his study at Cambridge and work afterwards are a common focus for discussion.
Added to this is the strong connection between the Poet Laureate’s work and the Dearne Valley landscape. Bill Lawrence, volunteer, reflected that the Ted Hughes Project (South Yorkshire) has ‘emphasised that Mexborough has an undisclosed rich heritage’ and begun to change perceptions of the place. He adds that ‘We should all know about our history.’ Bill has also continued his involvement with local heritage, volunteering on a local Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership funded blue plaque project.
Building a Head of Steam
As the success of the Paper Round, the Festival and Write on Mexborough grew, Steve Ely describes the critical mass which he feels has embedded poetry into the community. Regular open mics began to connect groups with the festival and arts organisations. Steve observed
‘People would see something happening, wind their windows down and say, ‘Is this another bloody Ted Hughes thing?’ And [it was] all informal; not pretentious which helped people feel connected and the success of all the ventures.’
Jo Harris first stumbled across the ‘Write on Mexborough!’ on Facebook. She reflected that it, ‘sparked interest’ in creative writing; something she hadn’t thought about doing herself since school. She had moved out of the area and then back to nearby Swinton but didn’t get involved much with the town. Jo was surprised that something ‘a little bit different’ was taking place in Mexborough rather than larger cities like Sheffield. During the festival some of the group went to the local supermarket car park to read poetry through a megaphone and asked shopkeepers to stick up poetry in their shops. Jo said, ‘there had never been anything like that before.’
Jo described how she found the culmination of Write on Mexborough!, where participants read out their own work, as a very ‘supportive’ event and that her involvement in the project has given her an awareness of the local literary heritage and a better knowledge of what’s going on in her area. Jo has now taken her two sons (one the same age as Ted would have been on his paper round) on project events and stood where Hughes had been which shows how the programme appeals to a wide range of ages.
Words; powerful tools to help people flourish
Connectedness has been important to the project. Some participants have been people experiencing personal or mental health issues and the project has been a way of connecting with other local people. Many people have developed in their lives and careers.
One member of the Write on Mexborough! group was talented but unpublished and has led the group and the schools programme for the last 18 months. This member is now a community arts leader and has grown in confidence enormously.
Members of the group are now working with A Firm of Poets, a West Yorkshire writing collective. These were people who had been working in an isolated way; in their bedrooms and homes. The project has helped them to become connected.
Local resident Dan Ryder was an audience member, volunteered and then become Vice Chair and temporary Creative Producer. He has been particularly involved in establishing the Wild West Press imprint for the Ted Hughes Project (South Yorkshire); another innovation of the project. After moving back to South Yorkshire from Melbourne, Australia, Dan wasn’t expecting there to be much opportunity to pursue his poetic writing, but the project provided the perfect avenue for creative development.
Stephen Ely has also seen changes to his life as a result of the project. He is now working at Huddersfield University lecturing in creative writing and is Director of a Ted Hughes Network Steve observed:
‘The Huddersfield University role might have happened anyway but the Ted Hughes Network is definitely a result of the Ted Hughes Project South Yorkshire .’
Quotes from some of the people involved
Dan Ryder, volunteer and latterly Vice Chair and temporary Creative Producer of THPSY:
‘I came along to the Ted Hughes Project as an audience member. I had been living in Melbourne (Australia) and moved back – I remember seeing it from Melbourne on Facebook and thinking, “What’s this? Ted Hughes has got a connection to the area I’m from!” I then attended the festival in 2015.’
Jo Harris, Volunteer and Secretary of THPSY
‘I went to Mexborough School so it [THPSY] felt like a lovely connection. I went to TH meetings and felt a bit like a fish out of water, I volunteered a bit of my time in the second festival and am now secretary.
It [THPSY] has helped me see things in a different light – I know much more about the heritage. Nothing else would have got me involved.’
About the festivals:
‘It is an interesting mix – we’ve had renowned poet from Philadelphia … combined with amazing young poets from in and around Doncaster. People think it’s a bit bonkers but appreciate the quirkiness.’
Bill Lawrence, Volunteer, Author and Vice Chair of Mexborough & District Heritage Society
‘The town itself, Mexborough, had a reputation after coal mines closed down as a town which had social issues – ‘the forgotten town’. Steve Ely’s book altered that – the interest in Mexborough was revived – something that was almost forgotten really. It emphasised that Mexborough has a rich heritage and the Heritage group has started a blue plaque trail with other local people e.g. Donald Watson founder of vegan society. Undisclosed Mexborough came out as a result of the THPSY.’
‘I always enjoyed the paper round – every year. It’s a social thing to do the walk and start at the paper shop. Canal walks have opened up my eyes to the nature’