A week or so back the New Statesman published a recently-discovered poem by Ted Hughes about the night Sylvia Plath died.

There isn’t much pretty about the Hughes/Plath story. The case against him: he deserted her and their children for another woman; he subsequently left the other woman and their child; both women committed suicide; his son also committed suicide after his death. The case against her: she was self-absorbed, dangerous to know and attention-seeking. It’s reasonably well-known that Syliva suffered from depression and there’s a story she was (accidentally) given ECT without anaesthetic, although that may just be a fiction extracted from her only novel “The Bell Jar”. Who knows what demons haunted him? He certainly seemed to feel a confessional need, as the poem discovered was one of the series of “Birthday Letters” that he wrote about it but wouldn’t publish until the year of his death.

I wanted to discover and record the Cambridge connection, for it was in this city that they met.

Hughes had come up to Pembroke College in 1951 (the same year that Cambridge was awarded its ‘city’ status) to study English. He later dropped English in favour of Archaeology and Anthropology, and managed to graduate in 1954. During his student days, he had lodgings at a rectory with a landlady (Mrs. Helen R. Hitchcock) who was the widow of a curate at St Botolphs Church. This is the church at the bendy junction where Kings Parade meets Trumpington St and Silver St.  It’s near Fitzbillies Bun Shop, if you need to anchor your spatial memory through association with sticky Bath buns.

After graduation, he divided his time between London and Cambridge, working on a random assortment of jobs. He and others had a small poetry magazine called St Botolph’s Review and in February 1956 he met Sylvia Plath at a party to launch the magazine. She was at Newnham College on a Fulbright Scholarship in English. Some accounts say she went to the party intending to meet him, others say it was a chance meeting. Her diary records the meeting as a slightly bloodstained affair. Anyway, they met again in March and married in June of that year.

By November 1956, they were living in the ground floor flat at 55 Eltisley Avenue, Canbridge. This is near Grantchester Meadows and they would walk across the meadows to the Orchard tea rooms in Grantchester. He had a job teaching English and Drama at the Coleridge Secondary Modern School. It’s now the Coleridge Community College, located in the area between Hills Road and Mill Road.

By August of the following year, they had moved when she got a job teaching in Northampton, Massacheusetts. Their new address became 337 Elm Street. Probably the scene of many nightmares.

In their entwined sleep they exchanged arms and legs
In their dreams their brains took each other hostage

In the morning they wore each other’s face
(from “Lovesong”, 1967)

Ted Hughes died on 28th October 1998. He suffered a heart attack while undergoing treatment for colon cancer.