There I was, bent over out of breath on the footpath to Heptonstall, the town of Hebden Bridge spread out beneath me like the blueprint of some medieval fairytale. Back in the train station, the map had highlighted my fated journey in blue—a mere twenty-minute walk. Foolishly, I had wished the distance was larger. I had set out that morning expecting a real pilgrimage, something life changing. I wanted to work for my results. It was as if I hadn’t already flown four thousand miles from home and taken a bus, tube, and train to get to Hebden Bridge station.
The internet is notorious for giving people unrealistic expectations, whether it be over “easy” dinner recipes or photoshopped models. I stood on the footpath, silently cursing the bloggers who made this experience seem larger-than-life and the map for failing to mention that the entire twenty-minute walk was straight up a very steep hill. Everytime a local bounded by, cheery-eyed and with a spring in the step, I had to hold my breath and try to hide how completely out of shape I was. More than once, I considered just turning around and walking back downhill, toward the station or a pub, but I made myself move forward.
In the United States, Elvis fans flock to Graceland to view the King’s estate. Shakespeareans from across the globe make the trek to Stratford-Upon-Avon to view the bard’s birthplace. Fans of Jim Morrison travel to Paris where they spill a little beer on the singer/songwriter’s grave. Celebrities and wordsmiths alike venture to Blarney Castle to kiss the Blarney Stone. Then there was me—four hours outside of London, making my way to an abandoned cemetery in the dead of winter. I was making a pilgrimage, albeit not a religious one, to pay homage to one of my literary heroes, a woman who changed my life in ways I cannot even articulate.
This concept of a secular or symbolic pilgrimage was fairly new to me. I knew about traditional religious pilgrimages—by definition, a journey undertaken for a religious motive. Traditional pilgrimages have their roots in many religions from Christianity and Judaism to Hinduism and Buddhism. Perhaps most commonly known to us today is the formal pilgrimage to Mecca made by Muslims; completing the pilgrimage is one of the five Pillars of Islam. Religious people use pilgrimages to reaffirm and solidify their faith. All of these things I learned from reading or history classes. As someone who has never been religious, the concept of pilgrimage had always seemed a little abstract, a little out of reach. I had only encountered pilgrimages secondhand until I stumbled across an account of symbolic pilgrimage that made the tradition instantly obtainable.
It was December in Arkansas, and I was scrolling through social media on my phone in an attempt to avoid familial interaction when I came across the photo Leala had posted on her social media. She was vacationing in England with her European boyfriend and visual documentation of their adventures had been popping up on my timeline all week. This particular travel update, however, really caught my eye. The location tag read “Heptonstall, England,” and the photograph depicted a rather run-down grave inscribed with the name “Sylvia Plath Hughes.” I knew instantly that I had to go. In a matter of weeks, I would be moving to London to study and knew I would likely never get another opportunity to visit the burial site of my most beloved writer. I started researching immediately, and what I found shaped my journey into the literary pilgrimage it was always meant to be.
My research uncovered tons of blog posts from people who had made the very journey I was planning to make. This is where I stumbled upon the term “pilgrimage.” Many of the bloggers talked about how emotional it was to make the trip and stand in front of the grave; they talked about the tears they shed and the almost-religious awe of the moment. One of the bloggers, a woman by the name of Cathy Bryant, wrote about bursting into tears at the grave because she knew Sylvia hated the cold; she remarks that when she left, she felt full of joy as well as sorrow. Another blogger wrote about seeing bees at the gravesite and feeling that they were a sign of some sort. Countless others posted their experiences online as well.
I was shocked to find that so many others had also felt that deep need to visit the graveyard in Heptonstall, to experience the grave themselves, and to give back to the woman, long gone, who had impacted their lives, even if they could only do so by leaving a small offering or speaking kind words over the hallowed ground. It was these blog posts, along with a list of the six best poetic pilgrimages, that really inspired me to investigate the concept of secular or symbolic pilgrimage and to do so while making my way to Heptonstall, taking on the role of a pilgrim myself.
Finally, I was at the top of the hill. The ruins of the old church jutted into the sky, a clear marker that I was in the right place. All I had to do was follow the path toward the dilapidated stone building; I passed through an iron gate and emerged into the graveyard insanely optimistic. Stepping through the gate was a bit like stepping back in time. The tombstones were haphazardly placed and overgrown with grass and weeds and vines, so much so that it was difficult to read the engravings. I didn’t mind so much, at least not at first, because of how breathtaking a scene it was—so quiet and beautiful, not something I expected to walk into in the twenty-first century.
I wandered around reading headstones for nearly twenty minutes, looping back on myself, growing colder and more frustrated by the second. It wasn’t until my third trip around the graveyard that I was struck by the thought that I had come all this way, and I wasn’t even in the right place. My annoyance peaked. I had assumed it would be easy; all the blogs had made it seem so easy. I realized at once how much of a contradiction I was; I wanted a real, difficult, life changing pilgrimage, but a part of me had also expected a giant neon arrow. I suppose what I really wanted was the illusion of a real, difficult, life changing pilgrimage.
Almost out of nowhere, there appeared an archway that led to a street, and across that street, another archway that opened into a newer and much more well-kempt graveyard. My anxiety quickly dissipated, my previous dilemma evaporating, as I passed under the stone arches. I passed a construction worker who burst out in a rendition of “I like to boogie on a Saturday night,” and upon my emergence into the newer graveyard, I was accosted by a Boxer who immediately made herself familiar with me, nearly knocking me over. Everything I had read, along with my previous conceptions of pilgrimage as a highly religious practice, led me to believe that my journey would be quiet and solitary, but clearly that isn’t exactly how it went. My pilgrimage was not so much the harrowing experience that I had anticipated but much more mundane and friendly, and I was pleased by that, if a little disappointed.
The Boxer and her owner left the graveyard as I was entering, and the further I walked, the more distant the T. Rex remix seemed. By the time I spotted the grave, it felt a bit like I was the only person in the whole town. I approached meekly and stood at the foot of the grave, half celebratory, half in awe. I had come all that way, and it was there; I was there.
Sylvia Plath Hughes
Even amidst the fierce flames
the golden lotus can be planted
I sat down by the grave and tried to think of something to say. It felt weird talking to someone who wasn’t there, hadn’t been there for fifty-five years. I didn’t think Sylvia was watching me from above, listening to what I had to say; I wasn’t that kind of religious. I thought about her journals, and I decided I had to say something.
“I am here, and I understand and love you.”
My voice was a low mumble. I felt silly and awkward and even a bit embarrassed. I tried again:
“I can’t tell you what your work has meant to me.”
It still didn’t feel quite right, my voice in that quiet English graveyard. I took out my notebook—I have always been better at writing than speaking—but I couldn’t write either. At once, I felt overcome with emotion and oddly numb. Perhaps it was disbelief. Perhaps it was grief. I took a few pictures to document the moment. I admired the gravestone and the phrase engraved on it. I took in the offerings that other pilgrims had left behind—tulips, pens, lipstick, seashells, shiny rocks, and pocket change. I dug out a pretty pen I had brought with me and shoved it into the nearly-frozen ground. Then I stood at the foot of the grave again and took it all in. The stone was discolored and aged. Someone—or more likely many people—had tried to scratch out the last name “Hughes” as was evidenced by the many shallow gashes in the stone around the name. Despite all of this, the grave was aesthetically pleasing. Cluttered and worn, but pretty.
The wind blew tiny flower petals around my feet—white, like petals from the Bradford pear tree in my front yard at home. It could have been ash or snow. And then a tiny white fleck landed on my chapped lower lip and melted instantly, cold against my warm, live skin, and I realized that it was snowing. I looked around and saw that snow was falling quite heavily and that it stuck to the cold, hard ground. The sun was still beaming down on me, and at least half of the sky remained a crisp, clear blue. But it was snowing, and it was magical and beautiful, and it felt like was just for me; for Sylvia and me.
I finally had words to say; very simple words, words that we use so much they become habitual and devoid of meaning, but two words so packed with everything I could not say that they began chipping away at my teeth trying to get out. This time when I spoke, my voice was loud and clear and steady.
“Thank you. Thank you.”
I left the graveyard then, in the cold, with the snow coming down all around me. I’d spent about half an hour at the grave, much less time than I’d budgeted, but I had seen what I came to see, said what I needed to say, and I felt whole, complete, and accomplished, more so than I had expected. I felt good, and not at all sad, not the way the bloggers I had read about felt.
As I was leaving the graveyard, I met a black cat. Someone more superstitious than me would have taken it as a bad omen and turned the other way, but I recognized it as an emblem of peace and friendliness. About ten yards apart, the cat and I paused to eye each other. I didn’t want to frighten it, but as I took a step forward, the cat bounded toward me. We met halfway, on the sidewalk in front of the ruined church, and I sat down. The cat, sleek and beautiful, rubbed against me and climbed into my lap. The snow fell around us, sticking to her fur, little white crystals on a midnight background like stars. The cat was so warm and so familiar that for a moment I wandered if she was Sylvia reincarnated—finally able to walk alone at night, to go west, to sleep in an empty field.
After a while, the cat trotted off, and I continued on my way, darting into various cafes and shops to escape the damp cold. What I couldn’t escape were my thoughts: of the graveyard and the cat I had encountered, of Sylvia Plath’s life and her life’s work, and of the ways in which those works had impacted me and who knows how many others. There is no easy or pretty way to say this, but when I was fifteen, I had wanted to kill myself. I struggled with anxiety and depression, and I felt so alone. It was then that I discovered The Bell Jar and realized that I was not, and did not have to be, alone.
It was summer the first time I read The Bell Jar—the summer after my freshmen year of high school to be exact. I was weaving my way between the shelves of a bookshop, running my fingers across the spines of the books when I came to a stop and pulled out a book at random. It was Sylvia Plath. I had read one of her poems in class a few years before and didn’t hate it. With nothing to lose, I bought the book and took it home with me, never one to leave a bookstore empty handed. I crawled under the mattress on my bed and started reading; I remember that the weight of the mattress on top of me made me feel less anxious and after venturing to the bookstore, I needed all the comfort I could get. It was the first time I had left the house in days; I hadn’t been eating, I hadn’t been sleeping, and I rarely managed to drag myself out of bed.
I started reading, and I didn’t stop until I had finished the book. I don’t remember if I cried or if I was too empty to cry. I only remember a soft feeling of hope blossoming in my chest. I felt like I was Esther, and if she had survived, then maybe I could to. I bought every book Sylvia Plath had ever written. I poured over her journals, amazed at how someone who had lived and died before I was even born could speak to my soul so honestly and completely.
Every July since that fated summer, I reread The Bell Jar. When I feel alone, I read through Sylvia’s journals and letters. When I feel overwhelmed or caked in the negativity of the world, I sink myself in a hot bath, per Sylvia’s advice; the kinks wear out and few things remain unsolved after a hot bath. Sylvia’s work has been such a large part of my life for such a long time, and it felt hugely relieving in a way to pay my respects to her. Sylvia was hardly the Messiah and I was no Christian, but she had saved me.
Things hadn’t gone the way I had imagined they would; I didn’t have some sort of religious awakening as I passed the decrepit church, and I didn’t dissolve into tears at the foot of Sylvia’s grave. But something about the pilgrimage did feel sacred, in that new age spiritual-but-not-religious vein. All over the world, there are sites—cultural, historical, political, personal, even fictional sites—that attract waves of visitors with various backgrounds and varying motives but all with the same purpose in mind: to pay homage to some person, place, or thing that had an impact on their lives. After my experience at Sylvia’s grave, I understand that phenomenon, and the decision to call these people “pilgrims.”
I applied the term to myself; I was a pilgrim. I had traveled thousands of miles from home to reach this prophetic site; I had braved foreign lands, adverse weather conditions, and one hell of a hike to complete my pilgrimage. To others, I might have looked crazy—a small and meek American girl traveling on her own in the English Moors to pay her respects to a woman she had no familial ties to, who had died years before her conception. But I left Heptonstall feeling fulfilled and joyful; I had completed my mission. As I departed from Hebden Bridge station, I noticed an almost airy lightness in my soul. If I didn’t know better, I’d say I almost felt religious.
Shelbey Winningham is a senior Creative Writing major at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas where she lives with her cat. An Arkansas native, Shelbey has always harbored a love for reading and writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Underground, Arkana, the Hendrix Aonian, and Bending Genres.