Poetry in motion by new work dedicated to Calder Valley rail journey

Helen Mort
Helen Mort

A familiar train journey through the Upper Calder Valley has been immortalised in a new poem celebrating the North’s literary heritage

It is a route known to many thousands of rail passengers but now the journey between Manchester and Hebden Bridge may be seen in a new light as a result of Yorkshire poet’s latest project.

Helen Mort from Sheffield has created a new poem, there & back, which has verses about each of the stops along the route, including Walsden, Todmorden and Hebden Bridge, after she was commissioned to write it by the Manchester Literary Festival in partnership with train operator Northern.

The poem’s first reading took place last week on a special ‘Poetry Train’ between Manchester and Hebden Bridge and it is now on display at Manchester Victoria Station.

As part of the event, guests were taken on a literary tour of Hebden Bridge, home and an inspiration to several literary figures including Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

Relevant verses from the poem will also be on display at all the ten stations on the route in the coming weeks.

Mort told BBC Radio 4: “I was exploring a journey I wasn’t really familiar with and I wanted to capture that sense of encountering places for the first time in passing. But in the process I realised one of the stops was Mills Hill which is where my family are from and my granddad used to live. It also became a way of thinking about how journeys assume significance as well.”

She says her poem was written as a love note from the train to the landscape. Mort is far from the first poet to use rail journeys as a springboard for work, with WH Auden’s Night Mail and Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings among the most famous examples.

Mort says the unique nature of rail journeys appeals to writers. “It seems to suit thinking, reading and writing really well. They are in poems but they also provoke them.

“There is something about the time you get on a trains that I think is special. No one can expect you to be elsewhere, you are in transit. That can be a really beautiful thing; it is that limbo time where you can’t be made to do anything else.”

Cathy Bolton from Manchester Literature Festival says: “Now in its 13th year, MLF brings the world’s leading authors to Manchester, providing an opportunity for people to meet their literary heroes and discover new ones. With many of our guests travelling to events by rail we are delighted to be working with Northern on this exciting project, celebrating the landscapes of Manchester and the Calder Valley which have inspired an array of world renowned writers from Elizabeth Gaskell and Anthony Burgess to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and continue to shape some of our most promising writers of today.

“Both Northern and MLF are very inspired by the landscape of the North and we wanted to commission a poet that would capture this in an original and compelling way. Helen writes beautifully about a place, and for this commission she spent time traveling back and forth on the Manchester to Halifax route, climbing on and off the train, observing and recording the changing environment and landscape from Victoria, Todmorden and Hebden Bridge to the ‘sandpaper platform’ at Mills Hill.”

Northern’s Regional Director, Liam Sumpter said: “We’re delighted to have teamed up with Manchester Literature Festival to celebrate the rich literary heritage of the north. The partnership will see us working together to showcase the north and bring to life the work of talented writers from the region.”

The MLF sponsorship is part of Northern’s We Are Northern campaign which celebrates everything the north of England has to offer. The partnership has seen the creation of two illustrated literary trails from Manchester.